Monday, September 7, 2009

The Nation Meme and the Evolution of Society

(1) David Brin’s discussion of memes reminded me of a Hegelian-like Zeitgeist -- a “society-spirit,” or a deus ex machina -- and I think Brin’s (and Dawkins’) meme and Hegel’s Zeitgeist are one and the same. In short summary, Brin outlines his four societal memes, or “ideas that live and ideas that spread;” they are Paranoia, Machismo, The East, and the Dogma of Otherness. But we’ve all read Brin’s article, so instead of summarizing it to death I’d like to move my discussion to another related topic and conclude with a few queries that I find in need of reconsideration.

(2) McNeill’s “Polyethnicity” briefly considered the evolution and development of society, which one could reasonably assume goes like this: the political unit grows from nomadic clan/troop/family to city-state and on to nation; the economic unit grows from petty domestic industry to monopolies and cartels (Abu-Lughod); and the division of labor, the demographic make-up of the polity, the multiplication of professions and trades, moves from homogeneity to heterogeneity (McNeill and Konieczny’s lecture). It is this move from homogeneity to heterogeneity that is the essence of McNeill’s idea of Polyethincity, as well as (a general) principle, albeit teleological, of evolution (see Spencer).

(3) However, if we accept the principles of Polyethnicity and societal evolution, it follows that we will inevitably end up with a system for rating societies based on their progress in achieving and promoting a heterogeneous and polyethnic culture. For example, we can easily purport that Plato’s Republic (the proposed nation-state) would perform terribly in our ratings because it is a closed society, expels poets(!), and is un-democratic. Just as easily we can dismiss nationalistic states like the ones McNeill noted in his lecture, as characteristic of the Machismo, East, and Paranoia memes.

Another example where we step into empirical hot water is when we look at the evolution of governmental systems. When we compare the world’s nations, it can reasonably be seen that the most highly developed nations are those that are representative-democracies, or at least those with capitalist† economic systems (it usually follows that rep.-dems. have capitalist† systems).* So, are we to come away from this information with objective knowledge that, objectively, the best national systems are those that are capitalist and democratic? Will the societal Zeitgeist and nation-meme eventually turn all nations into democracies and capitalist economies?

I think that this rhetorical (but, importantly, hypothetical) question is analogous to the debate on whether or not we can rate societies, as it seems Brin does when progressing his idea of the meme: Dogma of Otherness; as well as McNeill’s seemingly argument that polyethinc societies are de facto better. Is it all relative?, or can we reasonably rate societies? Is it the goal of sociology to empirically rate?, or to empirically discover?

* I used this data: Index of Economic Freedom (Heritage 2009), and quickly concluded that the higher on the list of 179 countries, the more democratic the country (North Korea, for instance, is ranked 179). See also note †.
† Keynesian might be a better replacement for the word “capitalist.”

- Stefan Larson

1 comment:

  1. Excellent first post, Stefan. Thank you for starting our blogging adventure,