Mutations in the mind

Netwerk van wegen,

Prior to the corona crisis, philosopher Jos de Mul travelled to Bali, Hong Kong and Sydney, among other places. Meanwhile, the Covid-19 virus was spreading rapidly. But, he discovered, the worst viruses are in our heads.

In a recently published essay in De Groene Amsterdammer, Jos de Mul describes his travels, taking place against a backdrop of a worldwide, all-pervasive virus, which during the course of the trip also comes closer and closer to De Mul. During his travels, De Mul reads many philosophical works, while writing a book that he hopes to submit to his publisher this summer. Unexpectedly, this philosophical backdrop to his journey appears to be able to interpret this new coronavirus as a social phenomenon. 

Viruses of the mind' - jumping from brain to brain
On 14 January, De Mul writes a chapter on "genes and minds". "In nature", De Mul states, "biomolecules form the elements of a 'living database', which are recombined into genes". Genes, in turn, are "the carriers of the hereditary characteristics of millions of different biological species on earth", according to De Mul. Analogous to this phenomenon, Richard Dawkins has introduced the concept of "memes", which, according to him, are the "genes" of human culture. Examples of such memes, according to Dawkins, include "melodies", "ideas" and "the fashion for dressing". 

The philosopher Daniel Dennett sees "words and other memes" as "viruses of the mind", jumping from brain to brain," explains De Mul. What is important here is that these memes - like genes - exhibit copying behaviour. After all, ideas are not tangible, and they spread from person to person. "Just as genes reproduce biological information, memes reproduce cultural information," says de Mul. 

Jos de Mul
Bob Bronshoff

Virals on the Internet

In addition to biological genes and mental memes, the writer Susan Blackmore has proposed the term memes: "self-replicating technical artefacts", paraphrases De Mul. One might think, for example, of computer viruses that reproduce themselves. Or virals on social media that spread at breakneck speed. 

On 3 February, De Mul meets Peter Otto (University of Melbourne) to discuss a joint project. The two discuss the (bio)technical sublime: "In the romantic philosophy of nature and art, the sublime is linked to the immensity and supremacy of nature," says De Mul. "My thesis is that the experience of the sublime in modern culture has shifted from nature to technology. It is true that we are the creators of technology, but in our culture it has become an uncontrollable power", continues De Mul. According to him, nature and technology are intimately entwined nowadays. He sees an example of this in the so-called 'bioprinters', which have now been designed by the US Armed Forced Institute in Washington, with which 'any deadly virus' can be printed. 

Small copying errors

On 17 January, De Mul learns for the first time through the Dutch media that a new virus has broken out in China. Viruses, he wrote that day, are "microscopically small pieces of hereditary material" that reproduce and "constantly exchange genetic material". "Due to mutations (small copy errors)", he states, "variations occur with each reproduction, with the most successful having the greatest chance of further multiplication. They form an explosive genetic database". 

On 16 March, De Mul read an article by the philosopher Slavoj Žižek. It then turns out that "small copying mistakes" can have major consequences, even in memes. Žižek points to the "unregulated free market economy" and "narrow-minded nationalism" as the cause of the corona crisis. De Mul agrees: "He certainly has a point there. The genes of the corona virus are real, but the memes, the mental viruses of the free market economy and nationalism that connect to it, are at least as deadly."

Then, as the coronavirus spreads, De Mul has to return to the Netherlands in a hurry. On 22 April, already more than a month at home, he watches the Netflix documentary Pandemics. "It convincingly shows that no matter how successful the medical fight against infectious diseases may have been over the past hundred years, pandemics will become the 'new normal' if the social and economic conditions that caused the viral storm over our planet are not also addressed," says De Mul. Apparently, we can only combat negative genes if we also tackle the negative memes. This does require a change in mentality. Or as De Mul describes it: "It would be nice if the current pandemic would cause some useful mutations in our minds as well."

More information

Read the full essay in the Groene Amsterdammer (magazine, Dutch).

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