Like we meme it

"This is why we have obesity" - No, it's notIt’s safe to say that this blog is wordy, which is one of the more significant ways that it distances itself from social media; the quick memes and the sound bites are not really at home here. And this is largely because they’re far too simple to be of any use. Take this image here, lifted from The Meta Picture, a site that’s nothing but images with humor and occasionally ‘insightful’ messages.

Because, quite simply, it’s wrong. But that’s not enough, is it? We need to know how it’s wrong, and that takes a little time and effort. The causes of obesity are varied, and do not come down to the simple metric of, “cost per calorie,” or even calorie count overall. Both can be contributing factors, but are far from being the root cause. Aside from various medical issues that might alter the way the body manages intake and storage, there are the factors of availability of a balanced diet, physical activity, time to prepare meals, psychological aspects such as ‘comfort food,’ and even just the evolved trait of, “if it’s available and tastes good, eat it – you never know when the next meal is coming.”

Even more importantly, who cares? While we may see numbers of ‘obese’ people growing in the US (and the definition of this term is vague and not terribly useful,) there is hardly an ‘epidemic,’ as it is so often presented, but moreover isn’t really anyone’s fucking business, period. Ask anyone who complains about obesity, and they’ll be quick to tell you of the long-term effects on health, and especially the impact on our healthcare system, as if this is a serious factor in our economy or something. Shit, if we’re that worried about it, then we should eradicate alcohol entirely, as well as teen drivers. And for that matter, pregnancies – do you now how much of an impact those have on our healthcare costs? Yes, the “we all pay for those decisions” angle is nonsense, and hardly a rational approach.

Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of memes in The Selfish Gene, as an idea that propagated among our species, evolving and spreading according to the appeal that it had to us. Some memes have a greater fitness than others, and by ‘fitness’ we are not talking about any kind of ideal situation, but whatever worked best to continue to be spread. I won’t say that the above meme is an especially fit one, no word play intended at all, but I’ve seen it, and the attitude that it expresses, quite a few times over the past decade or more; it’s more than a passing idea, and possesses enough traits to be repeated, to gain attention from those who find that it expresses their thoughts so simply.

Yet this fitness doesn’t necessarily correlate with being a beneficial thing. For instance, many of the foods that we find taste the best are not considered the best for us. How could that possibly have evolved? Well, in the conditions that prevailed throughout the vast majority of our existence, the tastebuds that we developed did indicate foods with a better effect on us – but conditions have changed now. Moreover, evolution works with what springs up through random mutation, and while this can accomplish some amazing things, it doesn’t always produce an ideal situation; natural selection means the most effective among the options, not the most effective that could be produced or designed. Humans evolved with a lot of desires and behavioral prods, but not necessarily specific ones, so we can still get involved in drug addiction and extra-marital affairs despite them being less than ideal.

And that’s where this particular meme comes in, and an awful lot of other things too. Because let’s face it: we don’t like seeing fat people. That’s it – that’s the whole thing. We have a preference for several traits that indicate a good choice for mating to produce healthy offspring, to propagate our genes; we’re also specific about odor, and age, and plenty of other factors. That these have no effect on the vast majority of our activities makes no difference; evolution did not produce an off switch, because such a thing wouldn’t provide enough of a benefit even if it did spring up through genetic drift and mutation. But while this distaste over excessive weight isn’t really applicable to most of our lives, it still exists, and when we find a meme that reinforces these subconscious feelings, we’re more than happy to justify the spread of the idea with claims of being relevant, important, and rational. If we find someone else who links or forwards the same meme, we get a reinforced sense of relevance despite no relevance being demonstrated – “if someone else does it too, it’s not stupid,” right? And that in itself is another trait talking, our desire for social cohesion and “fitting in.”

There’s even more at work. If we find a way to make ourselves seem better than someone else, then we are satisfying the competitive instincts we have – without actually having to compete; once again, many of our instincts and desires are easy to fool without fulfilling their evolved purposes. Our culture places a lot of emphasis on “being fit,” so this must be important, right? Well, it’s slightly more important than having tattoos or smutphones, anyway, but nowhere near as important as being intelligent or empathetic. And finally, we like simple answers. Simple answers mean quick decisions, and avoiding the oh-so-exhausting process of thinking. It’s a shame that thinking doesn’t actually take a lot of effort, because then maybe at least a few people would tackle it just because it burns calories…

Yet, simple answers are just that: too simple, ignoring or dismissing the multitudes of factors that have a real bearing on any issue. The meme, the sound bite, the proverb or quote or catchphrase, are often far more superficial than any situation warrants – and of course, to rebut or correct them in a short and sweet manner means to commit the same mistake. Our wonderfully evolved minds have the ability to handle multiple facets of any situation, even if it means recognizing that there are no quick answers – but this ability is entirely subverted if we fall for simple emotional stroking instead. We should be immediately suspicious of quick answers and trivial solutions, at the least, willing to examine anything carefully to see if it’s plausible – and not at all averse to going into detail when we address it. We could use the exercise.