Your surroundings determine who you are and how you behave so much that the term “individual” is vague.

While it is true that each of us is born with natural predispositions, and that a large part of who we are is the result of our socio-economic position, our professional background or our diet, all these influences are intertwined with the network of people who come in and out of our daily life.

Or as Harvard University professor and social media expert Nicholas A. Christakis provocatively suggests in his book Connected: Your happiness depends more on who your friends and friends of your friends are than on money than you have in your pocket.

Redwoods and memes

The way your behavior is screened by the behavior of those around you has some parallels with the existence of the sequoia, the tallest tree in the world (and also the largest creature in nature). The growth of Sequoia sempervivens is conditioned by the seed, yes, and also by countless environmental factors. It is also important that no logger cuts redwood when it is only a young stem or the soil is deep and rich in nutrients.

But the immense height of the redwood will ultimately depend on a much more determining factor: the height of the surrounding redwoods. Sequoias reach such a height because, among all, they compete for sunlight, essential for photosynthesis. Like in some sort of arms race, they all depend on the sun to survive, so if a nearby redwood grows, it monopolizes the light and condemns the rest of the redwoods to shade.

This forces all the sequoias to be at the same height as the one who decided to grow a little more than the others. And so on, until reaching a kind of ceiling imposed by the law of gravity: at a certain point, the water absorbed by the roots can no longer rise higher to nourish the branches.

In his visionary 1978 essay Micromotives and Macrobehavior, Nobel Laureate in Economics Thomas C. Schelling summed up the invisible web that connects all of our decisions and opinions and even our wishes and fears:

People influence other people and adapt to other individuals. What people do affects what other people do. How people do what they want to do depends on what other people are doing. How you drive will depend on how others drive; where you park your car will depend on where others park. Your vocabulary and pronunciation will depend on the vocabulary and accent of others. Whether you marry someone will depend on who you are dealing with, who you marry and who you are already married to. If your problem is that there is too much traffic, you are part of the problem. If you join a crowd because you like crowds, you make the crowd bigger. If you take your child out of school because of their classmates, you will take out a student who is their classmate. If you raise your voice to be heard, you will increase the noise others make by raising their voice to be heard above everyone else. When you cut your hair, you very subtly change how other people feel about the length of people’s hair.

The definition of “meme” was coined by zoologist, ethologist, evolutionary theorist, and popularizer of science Richard Dawkins in the closing pages of his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. We could then argue that all individuals are in fact spider webs woven from memes. In such a case, ideas of how to govern ourselves as individuals are doomed to failure if we forget the importance of the environment and, above all, our relationships with others.

You can explore this topic further in this interview on the book Cultivate Your Memory:

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