There’s a horror story I’m writing (slowly), developing from the central conceit that the ‘monster’ (Vauung) is the war. It feeds upon escalation, zig-zagging between antagonists, to extinguish any inclinations towards peace. It’s part Apocalypse Now, part Blood Meridian (“War is God”), part other stuff … It’s not going to be finished for a while.
Scott Alexander has finished something truly excellent, which isn’t fiction (exactly), but clearly tunes into Vauung-signal:
Toxoplasma is a neat little parasite that is implicated in a couple of human diseases including schizophrenia. Its life cycle goes like this: it starts in a cat. The cat poops it out. The poop and the toxoplasma get in the water supply, where they are consumed by some other animal, often a rat. The toxoplasma morphs into a rat-compatible form and starts reproducing. Once it has strength in numbers, it hijacks the rat’s brain, convincing the rat to hang out conspicuously in areas where cats can eat it. After a cat eats the rat, the toxoplasma morphs back into its cat compatible form and reproduces some more. Finally, it gets pooped back out by the cat, completing the cycle.
What would it mean for a meme to have a life cycle as complicated as toxoplasma?
Consider the war on terror. It’s a truism that each time the United States bombs Pakistan or Afghanistan or somewhere, all we’re doing is radicalising the young people there and making more terrorists. Those terrorists then go on to kill Americans, which makes Americans get very angry and call for more bombing of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Taken as a meme, it is a single parasite with two hosts and two forms. In an Afghan host, it appears in a form called “jihad”, and hijacks its host into killing himself in order to spread it to its second, American host. In the American host it morphs in a form called “the war on terror”, and it hijacks the Americans into giving their own lives (and several bajillion of their tax dollars) to spread it back to its Afghan host in the form of bombs.
From the human point of view, jihad and the War on Terror are opposing forces. From the memetic point of view, they’re as complementary as caterpillars and butterflies. Instead of judging, we just note that somehow we accidentally created a replicator, and replicators are going to replicate until something makes them stop.
Replicators are also going to evolve. …
I’m assuming that “Instead of judging …” isn’t a deliberate Apocalypse Now (or Judge Holden) reference, but it works as one.
(Incidentally, ‘Vauung’ alphanomically numerizes to 140, the same as ‘language’. When Twitter came along I accepted its character limit as a soft suggestive tap to the base of the brain.)
ADDED: Linking this oldish thing, due to its obvious relevance. (No idea how it found its way to that website, btw.) … and while tagging stuff here, there’s this (naturally): Πόλεμος πάντων μὲν πατήρ ἐστι (“War is the father of all.”)