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Memetic Revolution: Agency and Cultural Evolution in the Middle East and North Africa Protests of 2011

cr88's picture


 Memetic Revolution: Agency and Cultural Evolution in the Middle East and North Africa Protests of 2011

I must preface this essay with a disclaimer: I am not a political scientist. In fact, I would even go so far as to say I am generally so disinterested in politics that I probably wouldn’t even have followed the revolts sweeping the Arab world if I hadn’t been in Egypt with my family a mere two weeks before protests began in Tahrir Square. I remember walking through Tahrir Square on January 10th and thinking the area was a pleasant place to walk around and maybe shop for souvenirs, but little more. Seeing that square turned into the site of one of the most momentous revolutions in modern history had me glued to the New York Times and when their coverage of events failed to suffice, Al-Jazeera English, right up until the resignation of Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s autocratic and unpopular president. Egypt’s revolution, though unprecedented in its scale, was not entirely homegrown. Popular uprisings in Tunisia weeks earlier that lead to the ouster of Tunisia’s president inspired the movement for change in Egypt; the Egyptian revolution in turn inspired activists in fifteen other countries in North Africa and the Middle East.

As a real-world instance of a meme gone “viral” on a global scale, the revolutionary climate in the Arab world provides a fascinating and pertinent case study through which to examine the principles of Daniel Dennett’s theory of “memetic” inheritance. Dennett employs Richard Dawkins’ definition of a meme as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” (Dennett 344). Given the way in which the success of protests in Tunisia and Egypt led to a wave of imitative protests across so many countries in the region, it seems reasonable to think of these protests in “memetic” terms. Yet these protests themselves represent an evolutionary pressure acting upon another meme: that of the corrupt autocracies in power throughout most of the Middle East and North Africa. Dennett argues that individual memes, like genes, are subject to the forces of evolution and natural selection due to the variety of memes that exist, the ability of memes to propagate themselves by “leaping from brain to brain”, and their “differential fitness”, which Dennett defines as their success in the “considerable competition…for entry into as many minds as possible” (Dennett, 343-49).

“Government” in the case of the protests in the Arab world is the overarching meme, and the varieties in competition for survival are its forms (democracy, autocracy, theocracy, etc.). At the core of the Arab revolutions is then a conflict between two mutually exclusive memes in competition for survival: autocracy, and, while perhaps not “democracy” loaded as that word is with culturally imperialistic associations, a form of government more responsive to the needs of its citizen. In terms of “differential fitness”, autocracy has clearly had its heyday in the countries of North Africa and the Middle East, a “golden age” artificially prolonged by the use of police state tactics of intimidation and violent repression. The meme of a representative and accountable government has taken root in the minds of the Arab world’s citizens, and much like “It Takes Two to Tango” in Dennett’s mind, this meme isn’t going anywhere soon.

Yet the emergence and proliferation of calls for democratization in the Arab countries of North Africa and the Middle East also problematize Dennett’s application of theories of biological evolution to the evolution of culture. “Meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genic evolution,” argues Dennett via Dawkins, “but a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural selection quite exactly” (Dennett, 345). Given what Dennett calls “Darwin’s dangerous idea”, namely the notion that evolution takes place “via a mindless, mechanical–algorithmic–process” and that “all the fruits of evolution can be explained as the products of an algorithmic process”, Dennett’s analogizing of memes to genes suggests that cultural evolution is an equally arbitrary process (Dennett, 60). However, the spread of recent protests in the Middle East and North Africa suggest otherwise. This case study in memetics refutes Dennett’s equation of memes with genes through demonstrating that cultural evolution is not an algorithmic, mindless progression but rather a process in which human agency, far from being dispensable, plays an integral role. 

The success and endurance of protests across the Middle East and North Africa calling for a more democratic government has been entirely predicated upon the protesters’ intrinsic motivation. When the United States invaded Iraq and Afghanistan in order to externally impose democratic rule, they were viewed with extreme suspicion and hostility. While these invasions were admittedly motivated by more than mere altruism, the United States did manage to topple autocratic governments in both countries. However, the fact that their assistance had not been requested by the citizens of either nation led many individuals in both countries to dissociate themselves from the United States’ mission. Extremist groups were able to capitalize on these sentiments, denouncing democracy as a “foreign” concept incompatible with their nations and people and recruiting Iraqis and Afghanis with this jingoistic rhetoric to take up arms against the United States and its supporters. Ironically, the United States’ attempts to impose the meme of democracy in Iraq and Afghanistan engendered strong anti-democratic sentiments in both of these countries. 

The case of the 2011 revolts calling for more responsive government across the Arab world shows how vastly different the same meme’s “differential fitness” can be when its “hosts” feel they have chosen it for themselves. The notions of revolution and democracy were obviously not unknown to the Arab world prior to 2011; however, it took the example of one of their own to bring these concepts into the realm of action. Only after Tunisia’s ouster of former president Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali did protests began en masse across the Arab world. His departure after a month of protests upended the notion that democracy was foreign to or somehow incompatible with the countries of the Arab world. More importantly, it demonstrated that the citizens of an Arab country could successfully call for such change on their own behalf. That the Arab nations of the Middle East and North Africa caught on to the notion of democratic uprisings only after the example of one of their own suggests that this meme owes its successful self-propagation not to the “underlying mindlessness” of natural selection but to the cultural affinities and consequent solidarity between the nations of the Arab world. Collective agency thus played a critical role in the spread of these protests across the Middle East and North Africa. 

This sense of agency has not only allowed the meme of democratic revolutions to spread in the Arab World, but has also enabled these nascent movements to flourish. “One of the most powerful chants I heard in the square on Friday night was: ‘The people made the regime step down,’” writes journalist Thomas Friedman, from Cairo in the aftermath the ouster of Hosni Mubarak. This sense of empowerment and ownership has ensured that protesters see their efforts to build a new order through until the bitter end. Egyptians, unwilling to be complacent following Mubarak’s departure, forced the resignation of their unpopular prime minister just last week. Rebels in Libya continue to struggle against the tyrannical rule of Muammar al-Qaddafi, despite the fact that their president is prepared to fight his own people to the death. The revolutionaries’ new sense of agency has also led to a renewed sense of pride in their national identity. New York Times writer Jennifer Conlin recently described walking across the Qasr el-Nil bridge one year ago with “broken glass and cigarette butts” beneath her feet and compared it to walking across the bridge now, hung as it is with plastic wastebaskets and freshly painted thanks to the restorative efforts of the young revolutionaries. This sort of national pride is a direct result of the protesters’ newfound sense of agency, and will be crucial to the continued success of efforts to rebuild the government in those countries where protests have succeeded in regime change. 

The self-propagation of the democratic revolution meme throughout the Middle East and North Africa thus disproves Dennett’s theories that culture evolves in an algorithmic, mindless manner analogous to that of biological evolution. The call for democracy spread across the Arab world because of its nations’ close cultural ties; earlier attempts to impose democracy externally failed colossally. Whereas genetic evolution is shaped by essentially arbitrary forces, cultural evolution is shaped by the agency of the peoples who comprise that culture. A meme’s relationship to its host cannot be parasitic; it must be symbiotic or the meme will quickly die out. Dennett’s fatalistic few of cultural evolution as an arbitrary process leaves no room for the actors of the present to sow the seeds for a better future; if the memes that succeed are arbitrary, a culture has no room to learn from the mistakes of its past. The counterexample of the revolutions across the Arab world is emblematic of a far better future for humanity.

Works Cited

1. Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.
2. Friedman, Thomas L. "They Did It."  12 Feb. 2011. The New York Times. Web. 3 Mar. 2011. <>.
3. Conlin, Jennifer. "Tahrir Square, Egypt's Newest Tourist Draw." The New York Times. 25 Feb. 2011. Web. 11 Mar. 2011. <>.




Bethany Jane's picture

Some comments:

I think it is important to note that, according to Dennett, "mindedness" is in fact a product of an algorithmic process, which is anything but "arbitrary". The distinction between mindedness and mindlessness is to some extent illusory. The idea that motivation CAN be reduced to an algorithmic process does not imply that such a reduction would be simple or even useful.

Additionally, the differential fitness of a meme (or gene!) does not rely on the properties of the meme alone. The environment in which a meme is expressed (in this case, the minds of Egyptian citizens) determines, to a large degree, the fate of the meme. A simplified, genetic example of the effect of environment on differential fitness could be a hypothetical gene for white fur in rabbits. While highly adaptive as camouflage in snow, white fur would be incredibly maladaptive in a forest; the white fur gene would survive along with its carrier in a snowy environment, but the same gene would quickly disappear in darker environments.

In any case, thanks for making your paper available for us to read. I'm beginning a paper on a related topic, democratization as a meme, and your thoughts are helping me to verbalize my own thoughts. Keep it real
Democratic revolution as a meme, like the white fur gene, may have not changed significantly in the period of time from its conception to 2011. But the conditions of the hosts have indeed changed, and the weakening of the Egyptian autocracy has allowed a stronger, more adaptive meme to take its place.

Paul Grobstein's picture

mind in cultural and biological evolution?

 "This sense of agency has not only allowed the meme of democratic revolutions to spread in the Arab World"

Very intriguing challenge to the Dawkins/Dennett notion that cultural evolution is always a "mindless" process.  That a particular idea ("meme"?) is more appealing ("infectious") if experienced as coming "from the inside" rather than "from the outside" certainly suggests an involvement of some reflective ("mind like"? process).   It would be interesting to try and develop this idea more explicitly and generally, not only as a Dawkins/Dennett critique but also as a way of exploring further what is meant by "mind."  Note though that even if the argument holds well, it says that SOME cultural evolution may depend on mind, not that ALL does.  There can be both "mindless" and "minded" cultural evolution?  I wonder if one might make the same argument for biological evolution at later points in time?