September 12, 2006
2:03 PM


"Any theory deserves to be given its best shot..."
—Richard Dawkins


Reading over an interview I did with Samantha Power for the film Uganda Rising, and her Pulitzer prize winning history of American policy with regard to genocide, "A Problem From Hell," and then looking into a few thoughts from philosopher Ken Wilber on the subject, I keep coming back to the same thought:

Is it possible that an individual who acts in a genocidal fashion has a disease?

The definition of a disease is "...a condition that results in medically significant symptoms in a human."

Genocide exhibits multiple disease symptoms that at least in terms of mental illness could be categorized as clinical: temporary psychopathology, a collapse of compassion (and a loss of what is known as humanity), a systematic expression of brutal violence (often accompanied by a joyful "fever"), obsessive compulsive disorder, and a drastic reversal of one's nature under normal conditions.

Roméo Dallaire writes: "Methodically and with much bravado and laughter, the [civilian] militia moved from bench to bench [in the church], hacking with machetes...No one was spared. A pregnant woman was disemboweled and her fetus severed. Women suffered horrible mutilation...Children begged for their lives and received the same treatment as their parents. There was no mercy, no hesitation, no compassion (pg 280)."

From an African Rights report on Rwanda (1995): "They participated in massacres and in the murder of their neighbours as well as strangers. They joined the crowds that surrounded churches, hospitals and other places of refuge, wielding machetes, nail-studded clubs and spears. They excelled as "cheerleaders" of the genocide, singing and ululating the killers into action..."

The question, then, of course, is how does one get the disease, and is it possible that this disease is spread between people by a transmissible "agent?"

As 'science fiction' as this sounds, it is historically interesting that cholera and the bubonic plague, for example, were "diagnosed" for centuries before bacteria and germ theory began to be understood in the late 1800s—in other words, long before the transmissible "agent" (or even a belief in that agent) was discovered.


Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins construed in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, the idea of the meme: "a unit of cultural transmission" that leaps "brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation (p 192)." According to Dawkins, this replication and copying of non-genetic information is passed on from generation to generation and person to person via the brain/memory.

From the Journal of Memetics: "Examples of memes are ideas, technologies, theories, songs, fashions, and traditions. This covers all forms of beliefs, values and behaviors that are normally taken over from others rather than discovered independently...Because of natural selection, fitter memes will be more successful in being communicated, "infecting" a larger number of individuals and/or surviving for a longer time within the population."

The standard meme is thought to be the cultural counterpart of the human gene.

Assuming memes exist, could there be bad memes, or even infected memes? Could there be in the makeup of certain memes or emotions, "spiritual" viruses or "mind" bacteria that create clinical pathologies? Could they temporarily alter brain chemistry?

And is it possible the transmission of this type of agent could be undetectable within or even outside the scientific realm as it is presently practiced?

If not, what actually is it during genocide that creates the symptoms of such extreme psychosis, which is often described as a fever, exhilarating—or as "taking over" the population?

In the words of Gitera Rwamuhuzi, who took part in the killing: "It was as if we were taken over ...Beginning with me, I don't think I was normal. You wouldn't be normal if you start butchering people for no reason. We had been attacked by the devil. Even when I dream my body changes in a way I cannot explain. These people were my neighbours." 1

The rapid spread of virulent memes (or ideas) evident in genocide (which results in psychologically clinical symptoms) is comparable to the mass spread of a communicable disease in that at some point both may be designated epidemic.

Epidemic, by definition, is "an outbreak of a disease that spreads more quickly and more extensively among a group of people than would normally be expected."

Of course, much more than bad memes alone are required for the madness of genocide to be unleashed.


The spread of, say, the plague, influenza, cholera or tuberculosis is hastened by certain external conditions—a lack of sanitation and medical treatment, for example.

Certain external conditions also increase the likelihood of genocide.

Samantha Power put it this way: "If you went across the globe in March of 1994, you'd probably see close to a dozen countries that met many of the kind of prerequisites for genocide, including Rwanda—a history of ethnic polarization, no access to free media where the people are getting manipulated sources, massive arms shipments—many countries would have met that criteria. I mean, not 191 UN member states, but again, probably a dozen countries, and they didn't turn genocidal.

"So by definition, you are going to have what you might call "false red flags" if you go down the checklist of genocidal indicators—and that's a good thing. We should be very pleased that a lot of those seriously screwed up places that are seriously vulnerable to ethnic showdown or meltdown, somehow stayed the hand of violence and of vengeance."

Further to this, Mahmood Mamdani reminds us the disease spreads in the worst possible conditions: "[I]t is historically interesting that most genocides have happened at the time of war and civil war." The externality of history is also deeply implicated.2


Internal conditions, though less obviously expressed, are also vital to the spread of genocide. American philosopher Ken Wilber mapped out some of these conditions in his integral philosophy—using a definition of meme different than Dawkins.

Wilber speaks of memes as "simply a basic stage of development that can be expressed in any activity...not rigid levels but flowing waves, with much overlap and interweaving, resulting in a meshwork or dynamic spiral of conscious unfolding (A Theory of Everything, pg 7-11).

The levels of consciousness (memes) are given names, from lowest to highest.

In the most simplistic terms, people at the consciousness of:

beige memes (archaic-instinctual) form survival bands;

purple memes (magical-animistic) form ethnic tribes;

red memes (power gods) form feudal empires;

blue memes (mythic order) form ancient nations;

orange memes (scientific achievement) form technology and corporate states;

green memes (the sensitive self) form communities based on values (pluralistic relativism);

These aforementioned levels are based in a spiral of complexity going from the gross to the more subtle: matter to body to mind. From here evolves "second-tier thinking" which is rare and the "leading-edge" of human consciousness evolution (soul to spirit).

After a few more levels of "transcending and including," this evolution of consciousness, in theory, reaches its apogee at a "non-dual reality" or "grand unification" of everything, leading, according to Wilber, to our true nature, liberation, enlightenment, at-one-ness.

Describing the "internal conditions," most fertile for genocide, Wilber says:

"...ethnic blood cleansing and mass homicide... [are] ...rational technologies used by prerational impulses—egocentric [beige meme] or ethnocentric [purple meme], selfish instead of universal care, tribalism instead of genuine universalism—and whether that be teutonic tribalism or corporate tribalism matters not one wit."

He continues elsewhere: "Auschwitz is not the product of reason; Auschwitz is the product of reason [rational technology, orange meme] hijacked by tribalism [purple meme]. Hijacked by the red and blue memes... catastrophically using the powerful products of reason to further their brutal agendas."

Writer Philip Gourevitch adds: "The logic [in Rwanda] was to kill everybody. Not to allow anybody to get away. Not to allow anybody to continue. And the logic, as Rwandans call it, the genocidal logic, was very much akin to that of an ideology very similar to that of Nazism vis-à-vis the Jews in Europe, which is: all of them must be gotten rid of to purify, in a sense, the people. There's a utopian element in genocide that's perplexing."


Genes are defined as "the basic unit capable of transmitting characteristics from one generation to the next. It consists of a specific sequence of DNA and RNA that occupies a fixed position (locus) on a chromosome."

Memes are considered the genes' cultural counterpart, but nobody knows what is inside a meme that actually causes change in thought or behaviour.

In the Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore advanced and elaborated on Dawkins' ideas (Dawkins wrote the preface to her book). She writes about the connection between ideas and memes:

"Instead of thinking of our ideas as our own creations, and as working for us, we have to think of them as autonomous selfish memes, working only to get themselves copied. We humans, because of our powers of imitation, have become just the physical "hosts" needed for the memes to get around. This is how the world looks from a "meme's eye view."

The philosophical implications of what Blackmore is saying, if true, are staggering. Basically, our ideas and beliefs (and thus what we do) are not our own.3

Although Dawkins is a devout atheist (as is Blackmore), this idea of "our ideas [not] being our own creations" has been outlined in Vedic (Hindu) scripture for millennia; in short, that we (humans) are not exactly the doers of our actions. In Chapter three, verse five, of the Bhagavad-Gita, Krishna says to Arjuna:

"All beings are forced to act helplessly according to the material qualities they have acquired...(and verse 33) Even persons of great knowledge...for everyone follows the nature they have acquired. That material propensity cannot be repressed."

According to the Indian Vedas, our genetic nature is acquired according to our memes—and according to Blackmore, the human brain is simply the host of these memes.


I would like to then ask what seems to me (or at least to my material propensity) the next logical question: if our body is hosting these memes, who or what is the meme hosting?

In other words, what inside the meme is so virulent that it makes large groups of people show severe clinical symptoms, in epidemic form, of mental illness? These symptoms include a seemingly deep reversal of personally held beliefs (i.e. love/protection for relatives) and the ability to kill without hesitation—to kill even with joy?

Again from African Rights, describing the killing in Rwanda: "Many educated women, including teachers, civil servants and nurses, made lists of people to be killed which they gave to the soldiers, militia and local government officials organising the pogroms. The people they exposed were not merely nameless refugees, but their own neighbours, friends, colleagues, and sometimes even their own relatives."

Should we as intellectuals, scientists and even writers, and as humans in general, at least consider the possibility that there is inside the meme some sort of "mind" virus or a "spiritual" bacteria that, in the case of genocide, eats away at a person's normal level of empathy or compassion?

"Many women refused to shelter the hunted and forced people out of their homes. Just as some men refused to host people their wives agreed to protect, many women hounded out victims hidden by their husbands. There is no evidence that women were more willing to give refuge to the hunted than men. Some mothers and grandmothers even refused to hide their own Tutsi children and grandchildren."


To suggest that a presently undetectable malevolent force can transmit across groups of people and cause madness is of course to be heckled as a religious nut or labeled anti-science.

But on the other hand, can science fully explain how a mathematical equation of external conditions combined with the clashing of tribal or ethnic differences—with no additional "agent"—can create collective clinical psychopathologies that rapidly turn a significant percentage of a population's grandmothers, priests, doctors, peasants, parents and children into bands of joyful, fevered, obsessive murderers?

Genocidosis, by definition, is deeply contagious.

If it is a form of hate, what is inside that hate, inside that emotion that is so virulent, so penetrating?

In sum, does the extensive and sudden onset of a contagious mental pathology that defines genocide justify this question of "agency"?

Even if the answer is a firm and necessary no, the point is we know almost nothing about how to prevent genocide (either from happening or once it's happening).

We don't know its causes, why we kill, what directs us, what consciousness is (if anything), what free will we actually have (if any), what a human being really is: how we got here, where we're going or, most relevantly, why this experience of individuality called life arose in the first place.

What does it take to accept mystery as the largest component of one's worldview, whether a scientist, a philosopher, a theologian or a writer?

Logic, ironically. Despite the claims of so many scientists (or fundamentalist theologians or political polemicists), it seems to me we know barely a flash of the deeper hows, whats and whys of existence.

Nonetheless, it is clear that "genocidosis" flourishes in both despair and the arrogance of fundamentalist disdain; in the denial of "other," of mystery as a humbling agent, of interdependency.

If so, then perhaps a counter-meme more beautiful flourishes, to quote Albert Einstein, "in a humble admiration of the illimitable superior intelligence who reveals himself in the slight details we are able to perceive with our frail and feeble minds..."

It may be sociologically and memetically interesting that theologians, politicians and scientists of great repute can all be fundamentally opposed to the aforementioned quote—presumably by what it doesn't demand: dogma.

(Okay, I confess, you got me: celebration, humility, compassion and reverence in the mystery of what we don't know is the actual point of this essay.)

In the words of Noam Chomsky: "We don't know anything much about human nature except that it's rich and complex and common to the entire species and determines everything we do. Beyond that, it's mostly speculation."


Lt Gen Roméo Dallaire is the only person I have ever interviewed who has been caught in the epicenter of a genocide. As the UN commander in Rwanda in 1994, he was literally abandoned by the outside world. This is how he described meeting with the leaders of those perpetrating the genocide—the génocidaires—in the midst of the genocide:

" ...when I actually met with the three leaders, for me, it was sort of a culminating point of all the possible expressions of evil that could be brought into one sort of room...It was as if the devil had entered the incredible geography of Rwanda, which is a paradise in itself. I mean the devil actually sort of personified. It was talking to me far more as a spirit than it was as an exchange between human beings."

"And so it became as if I had all of a sudden gone to the source of this incredibly inhuman action that was going on, this genocide, and I was at the source of it. I was at this sort of ball of fire that was radiating all the energy of it and it was there and it was, to me, the devil."

"And, in meeting with them, shaking their hands and so on, as we started negotiations that I felt I had to do with them, there was this trance in which I entered, like a bubble, where I wasn't talking as a human being to other human beings anymore. It was like spirits talking to each other because their hands were cold but not at temperature cold...I wasn't looking at human beings there, I was looking at the incarnation of evil through some bodies. But the evil was actually talking to me..."

As Einstein once said: "We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used to create them."



Note: This essay is a universe beyond my intellectual abilities. COMMENTS desired.


(1) Taken Over By Satan (I hate when that happens—PM): BBC News: Friday, 2 April, 2004. The use of the word devil (or Satan), by Gitera Rwamuhuzi, who took part in the killing in Rwanda, is interesting.

On page 132 of Wilber's A Theory of Everything, he writes, "...a person at almost any stage of typical [meme] development (e.g., purple, red, blue, orange, green, yellow) can have an altered state of consciousness or a peak experience of any of the higher realms (psychic, subtle, causal, non-dual). The person then interprets these higher experiences in terms of the level at which the person presently resides."

In an interview from April 2004, on Atheism , on BBC, Richard Dawkins said:

" I mistrust the uses of words like 'evil' which suggest a kind of personification of them. I'm happy to use a word like 'evil' of a particular individual.

I'm happy to say that Adolf Hitler was evil, Adolf Hitler did evil things, but too many people once again, leap to the conclusion 'Oh there must be some kind of spirit of evil which entered into Hitler,' or 'There's a spirit of evil abroad.' That I think is unhelpful, putting it mildly."

"I am very suspicious—we keep coming back to this—of uses of words like 'spirit', which I'm happy to use as long as it doesn't suggest anything supernatural or ghostly. To say that something is explicable in terms of the brain, in terms of interactions between neurones, it really is vitally important to understand that that is not to reduce it.

It is actually a far more wonderful explanation than just to say 'Oh it's the human spirit.' And the human spirit explains nothing, you've said precisely nothing when you say it's the human spirit."

(2) Mahmood Mandami, in the introduction of his book, When Victims become Killers:

"To understand the logic of genocide, I argue, it is necessary to think through the political world that colonialism set into motion. This was the world of the settler and the native, a world organized around a binary preoccupation that was as compelling as it was confining.

It is in this context that Tutsi, a group with a privileged relationship to power before colonialism, got constructed as a privileged alien settler presence, first by the great nativist revolution of 1959, and then by Hutu Power propaganda after 1990."

(3) To give this theory its due, and it deserves much listening beyond my commentary, I quote the highly intelligent Stephen Pinker, in his humble treatise entitled How The Mind Works (pg 44-45) :

"The confusion between our goals and our genes' goals has spawned one muddle after another...People don't selfishly spread their genes; genes selfishly spread themselves. They do it by the way they build our brains. By making us enjoy life, health, sex, friends, and children, the genes buy a lottery ticket for representation in the next generation, with odds that were favorable in the environment in which we evolved. Our goals are subgoals of the ultimate goal of the genes, replicating themselves. But the two are different. As far as we are concerned, our goals, conscious or unconscious, are not about genes at all, but about health and lovers and children and friends."

Pinker adds, in discussing the abuse that has been thrown at exponents of behaviour genetics: "(Dawkins said of the genes, "They created us, body and mind"; the authors [of Not In Our Genes] have quoted it repeatedly as "They control us, body and mind.")

This is fascinating, of course, but begs many questions that a scientist can not even begin to answer (at least not yet). For example, "Why did genes arise?"

And even "How did genes arise?" There are many theories, but can they explain themselves without falling back onto spontaneous generation?—an idea that held significant sway until evidence of germ theory came along (see Louis Pasteur et al.).

All I can add to this is: God, life is amazing and wonderful—even if we are largely controlled by our genes. It means every decision is a big deal, which the Buddhists and Hindus have been saying for millenia (but, of course, that was just a lucky guess).

And, finally, who is the "I" in a battle of wits and temptations and compulsions with our genes' desires?



copyright 2006 Pete McCormack