The Memetics of the Abortion Debate

Sandhill cranes, outside of Othello, WA — a true example of wildlife abundance

I’ve been putting off writing about the abortion debate, recently re-fired up by the premature release of a drafted decision from Justice Samuel Alito, and apparently very politically timed as Democrats’ November prospects. It’s not clear to me that anything can turn around the disaster that the Democrats have created with regards to their electoral chances. But if there is one thing, it’s this issue. So, clever political theater, or honest concerns, you get to decide.

I want to state at the start of this that I am very much supportive of the outcome of Roe v. Wade, and women’s ability to control their reproductive futures. At the same time, I also look at a lot of this debate as a huge spin in decentralizing a country that has obviously gotten too big for the two primary factors that make countries and their identities. Those are actual population of that country, as well as the personal/empathetic development level of that country. I’ve said this in other posts — but the reality is that a given country, with a given diversity of people, requires a certain amount of information, with a certain amount of robust complexity, in order to function. That information comes in the form of national identity, shared history, and a whole laundry list of other items. Feel free to add anything in a friendly fashion in the comments.

But the root of all that is how a given society, on average, allows relational formation — whether relationships are externally defined and titular, or independently generated by the individual, and data-driven. This one dichotomy drives the thought process of nations, and I’ve argued that is the core element, statistically distributed of course, of how a country processes information. I’ve been pretty alone out here advocating for this (it is life in The Matrix, and most folks don’t realize we’re even in The Matrix) but I’ve gotten some strong support in Joe Henrich’s latest book, The WEIRDest people in the World. Joe is the chair of anthropology at Harvard, so if you’re in the first, externally defined relational camp, you can read/listen to his book, if your brain is having a hard time accepting the arguments made on this blog. For a scholarly book, it’s actually a great ‘car listen’ as well.

COVID served as a particularly opportunistic moment in history for the Externally Defined Relational folks to get a jump on the other v-Memes. I’ve written about this extensively as well, and as is the typical case with what is truly a Memetic War, that the particular side took advantage of it, and are still, even at this late date in the pandemic, going full bore against the more profound empathetic development forces. Relational disruption, and social distancing, be it with masks, vaccine mandates and passports, or arrows on the grocery store floor, are stock in trade, and trust me on this one — at this late date, are being wielded only by those remaining with either social phobias, or psychopaths. It is weaponized empathy — connection for me, but not for thee — that has allowed all this. Feel sorry for grandma, but not for kids shut out of school. Nor especially for folks with special needs. But I digress.

It hardly needs to be stated, but in the standard dichotomy of Left and Right, the Left favors COVID restrictions, which inherently violate bodily autonomy of an entire population, while the Right has waved the anti-abortion flag, and advocated forcible violation of bodily autonomy of women. Roe only concerned restrictions on abortion before 24 weeks of gestation, and was labeled a “right to privacy” — meaning that until 24 weeks, at least to me, it was within a woman’s purview that her pregnancy was only hers to know about. It really didn’t cover what I would consider (and others as well) a basic human right for a woman to control her body. FWIW, the government has never granted a true right to bodily autonomy ever (skip the ridiculous criminal arguments, please) to any citizen, and that’s problematic in and of itself. So Roe has been a weak decision, for a long time.

And Alito said that in his draft decision, which at this time we must remember is potentially apocryphal. Alito’s basic argument was “this is a weak decision, these folks have had a long time to pass a piece of legislation on a national level, and they haven’t, so let’s send it back to the states to decide, who seem more than happy to provide legislative definition.” Of course, what I just stated is somewhat simplistic, and those that really are into the complexity of the issue can dig down to find whatever devolution or sophistication they want. That’s not the point of this piece.

And so we see that further memetic devolution of a country too large to maintain nuance on one of the hot-button issues of our time.

One of the things I hope to provide with this piece is some perspective on the deep memetic “why” people will argue what they will argue, and while it may seem inconsistent, it actually is not. So now we need to talk a bit about information coherence and the why/how people generate worldviews.

The issue of abortion, because it is about the fundamental origin of human life, starts down in the bottom of the v-Meme stack — at the Survival v-Meme and Tribal v-Meme level. From a knowledge creation perspective, that means the decisions regarding whether to carry or abort a fetus are extremely visceral to the party involved. If you are a poor, young woman, you very well may be looking at a profound survival crisis if you have a child. You’re not really worrying about larger moral issues, or even issues of law. You either want the baby, or not. And in a culture that is profoundly hostile to young, single women having babies (look at the amount of child care at most universities that’s easily available for that demographic — not much) you’re going to likely want an abortion.

That happens across the board. I was just reading a piece in MedPage Today that said 1 in 6 female medical students had gotten an abortion. That is stunning, and tells you the extent of Survival v-Meme thinking about abortion. You know having a baby will certainly end your pursuit of a medical degree. Wild.

Tribal v-Meme concerns are up next — deep mythic structures that reside in all of our brains, and are based on cultural values and familial and religious beliefs. None of these things are to-the-point rational, grounded in immediate circumstance. They are long-time, multiple perspective-aggregated, with deep buried roots that translate into simplified narratives for people to use and guide their thinking. And so the expectation that one has a particular myth (abortion is bad and should be banned) should somehow be coherent with another myth (vaccination for COVID is good, and in support of the larger population) is a foolish one. The brain at the Tribal level just doesn’t work like that. It doesn’t NEED to resolve that conflict any more than it needs to resolve a myth to eat beef, but not shrimp. And because it’s rooted so deeply in folks’ limbic system, if that’s where their point of convergence is located, well, good luck. It’s down on the Old God level. And those Old Gods are hardly easy to dislodge.

Moving up to the next two v-Meme levels — Authority and Legalism — there is also no change in response to discordance. A couple of points are in order, though. Authority at a larger social level cares not one whit for any sense of bodily autonomy someone might claim. What that means is either Authority ignores the pregnancy, its consequences, or its termination, or that Authority believes that the social system under its control is threatened with losing its homeostasis. Though resistance to abortion has no race, or particular color, the reality is that regardless of all that, nor popular opinion, poor, white and evangelical people in this country feel profoundly threatened. They feel profoundly threatened for reasons that the Left refuses to even give a basic head nod to, which of course feeds back into the way they view the world. Social systems thrive on homeostasis, and it’s not hard to see the collapse of the middle class in this country would make many in that demographic group come out on the abortion issue.

Once again, no higher coherence in principles is needed. Worse, the knowledge structures available to even discuss this are fundamentally dichotomous in nature. “Abortion is wrong” or “abortion is a sin.” It’s either/or. And lest the liberal Lefties reading this feel some smug satisfaction of sticking to poor white people, the debate on the Left not surprisingly occupies that same knowledge structure. All you have to do is see the various protests where people are saying, prematurely, that Alito’s opinion “bans” abortion in any case, are falling victim to the same dichotomous thinking meta-structure that their opposition is embracing. It’s absolutely nuts to watch, once you realize you’re in The Matrix. Alito asked for a devolution of authority to a smaller sub-population that he deemed more representative. I’ll discuss the Death of Geography a little more below.

It’s really only once we pop above the Trust Boundary, into the Performance v-Meme and Communitarian v-Meme, that the knowledge structures even permit any nuance in discussion. Should an individual have a certain HUMAN right (as opposed to a civil right) to control their outcomes? This argument does get made, but not often, in the cacophony of voices on the abortion issue. And even one click up, in the Communitarian v-Meme, where we look at multiple voices and perspectives for nuance due to all the things that happen in a population (such as severe birth defects, or anencephalic fetuses) we finally have the more complex knowledge structures available to have a more complex discussion, with fractal optimization for a variety of circumstances. But there are simply not enough people evolved at that level to even carry the discussion. And so inevitably, we get a variety of situations, seen monolithically from the lower v-Memes (remember — you can only process information at the level that you’ve evolved to — meaning you’re looking over your head attempting to understand a more complex problem.) It’s just wrong or right.

What that does is turn very individual, low probability events into ‘Partial Birth Abortion’ or other dichotomous situations. The individual tragedy simply doesn’t matter in the larger aggregate. It’s like taking a complex bimodal probability distribution, and saying it’s represented by one number that’s an average. Large scale empathetic connection would yield the relational networks, and number of experiences so people might have given examples, and replacement stories for people to hold on to. But in case you’re wondering why there’s such a rapid dismissal of exceptions, even for rape or incest, which do have the potential to be rooted deep in Tribal v-Meme reaction, well here you go.

It’s not until we get into the Second Tier — where the conscious mind starts to dominate, that we even have the ability to have the profound consequential thinking on a societal/global level, to have the debate. The Global Systemic v-Meme (Yellow) says we ought to be able to arrange all these lower level knowledge structures in a way that preserves individual rights, as well as some right of a developed fetus to life (remember that Roe only covers the issue up to 24 weeks) . But now we’re really into sinking virality of any knowledge structures to propagate and elevate the debate. I’ve seen all sorts of guesses for how many Yellow v-Meme operators are out there, and they’re all in the 1-2% of the population. Good luck with spreading those ideas.

And then, at the top — Global Holistic/Turquoise — it’s not even worth discussing. Less than 1% of the population is going to have a true Guiding Principles perspective on all this, that incorporates all the inherent trade-offs (including for the planet), that might give a truly optimized range of social attractors.

So what happens is the force on the entire system for Roe is really around what Alito did. I’m not saying that Alito was particularly wise in what he did. He’s been famous for being a conservative justice since the day he took the bench. But the emergent forces on his profoundly Legalistic perspective are toward devolution of authority. And emergence will out — because that dude is low empathy (is any group of people more bubbled up than SCOTUS justices? Did you hear the nonsense out of Sotomayor’s and Breyer’s mouths regarding vaccine mandates? ) in a bubble of diamond. I think there may be some grounding validity that is going on in all their thinking — reviewing the consequences of a given decision, and the trauma that will likely ensue in a nation that really doesn’t need any more division right now. But the Legalistic v-Meme they occupy only allows very limited consequentiality — in their case, it’s “We do this, and the states will then get to do that, and it’s not our responsibility because we executed our duties ethically. It’s not our problem if people riot in the streets.” But they’re not stupid people either.

Meanwhile, the devolutionary Left is having a first-class fit, and will throw everything against the wall, every slur and insult, in the public sphere. The Republicans, outside of most of the coastal states (there are exceptions) have neglected both the needs and the voices of the entire flyover states in this country. It’s not like the champions who have emerged in those states are true champions of the health and wellbeing in their populations either. Please. But the Ds have made it far easier for the nihilists in the Republican party to seize control. When you devolve people through the combination of poverty, and arbitrary government programs, you create vast potential for entire populations to operate down in pure Mythical/Tribal thinking.

We can see the signals of this in the plethora of conspiracy theories propagated across the heartland. The idea that all those conspiracy theories are necessarily wrong, either, is another flaw of the Left. When you lose your job, and the property in your possession in your hometown is worthless, moving to a richer state is extremely difficult, if not impossible. One of the pieces of advice I give my own students, who will go on to become successful engineers, is to think geographically where you want to settle. It is easy to go down from a rich area to a poor one. But making the reverse trip will be difficult.

The other thing that fuels all this is something that I’ve written about extensively — the Death of Geography. What that means is that people in given states, and economic zones in the country, now, through the Internet, have memetic access to the best and finest propaganda across the United States. Much is made about Russian or even Chinese bots spreading disinformation. I’ve always looked at this as ridiculous. We have plenty of homegrown seeds, as well as fertile ground. And as we continue to neglect the economic prosperity of most of our country, all we’re doing is seeding the wind. And the more you stoke Survival v-Meme fears, coupled with powerful moral myths regarding being anti-abortion, you should expect people to want more babies. Intrinsically, people understand that population is power. You’re really having to battle Agent Smith in this scenario to convince anyone otherwise.

And here is the other problem — it maintains the myth that somehow even states are monolithically representative in their beliefs. Southern states are conservative, northern states are liberal. Considering the electoral differences in most of these states, such geographic labeling does not capture the true opinion diversity that rests side-by-side in geography, but is clearly delineated through the memetics. That leaves a whole lot of people in any Red or Blue state unhappy with whatever decision comes out. They can find their tribe online. And they do.

As with all our problems, including the one regarding abortion, the answer is a development of empathy in our society. But we’re not even close to having a discussion around what really is causing us to think the way we do. This blog post may go viral, and get read a couple thousand times. But that’s it. And all that lecturing I gave above about virality above applies to my work as well.

I’ll close with why I feel the way I do. It’s not a long argument. Who gets hurt by abortion laws that don’t respect women’s bodily autonomy? Poor people. Rich daughters will have nothing to worry about — they will receive abortions because their parents will insure they do. And I honestly think that some of this will be ameliorated from the situation 50 years ago, when Roe was originally decided. New abortion pills like mifepristone are now available that were not in the ’70s, and these are easily mail-ordered, just like Viagra. If you’re stuck in a state where abortion is unavailable, due to the tremendous demand for abortion, you can get one mailed to you. And a quick look at the stats on abortion show that most indeed happen in the first trimester. I’m just not receptive to the argument that life begins at conception. If that’s true, then whole lines of birth control would have to be banned. I leave it to the reader to understand the hormonal changes that birth control promotes, that prevents attachment of the zygote to the uterine wall.

But we can’t evolve as a society until we realize that on our little Spaceship here, everyone has to come along. And that is what is so heartbreaking about all of this.

4 thoughts on “The Memetics of the Abortion Debate

  1. “If you’re stuck in a state where abortion is unavailable, due to the tremendous demand for abortion, you can get one mailed to you.” … that might very well change in the near future too.


      1. McConnell already teasing on a federal ban, so much for leaving it to the states. It would be darkly ironic if such a ban were successfully instituted against the backdrop of the opposition party’s failure to do more than hold the issue hostage for nearly half of a century.


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