You know, as a species, humans are pretty weird. We’re narcissists. We don’t really like people who are different than us (probably because of the narcissism thing). We’re, like, really bad at not wrecking the planet (I mean, we have Mars, so idk what the big issue is…). Taking all of this into account, perhaps our biggest fault is how freaking paranoid we are. As soon as we became cognizant of our existence–which, due to the narcissism, was probably when some cavemen caught sight of himself in a stream as he speared and ate fish Gollum-style and thought, “This buffalo hide really brings out the green in my eyes”–we’ve been concerned with our demise. We’ve been predicting the end of the world on and off for the better part of 6,000 years. Due to the cyclical nature of humans panicking that the end doth approacheth, predicting the end of the world is probably one of the oldest memes in existence.
As Richard Dawkins explains in his introduction to Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, a meme refers to “an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, especially imitation.” He goes on to recount a meme that he experienced and imitated: the art of Chinese paper folding, also known as Oragami. Dawkins’ father learned the art at school as a kid; he grew up and taught his son who then promptly took the knowledge back to school and shared it with his friends. Via a similar pattern, the apocalypse meme spreads.
Humans settle into their existence for a couple years, start doing awesome stuff, invent a few machines, cure a couple diseases, stop oppressing some sub-cultures, and then people get paranoid. They think humanity has pretty much done all it needs to do and will end shortly. The fear spreads and paralyzes people (not necessarily everyone but it definitely snares a notable portion) for a little while, but then the assumed world-ending date comes and goes, and people settle down once again. This cycle has occurred numerous times, and a neat article put together by those nerds at the Smithsonian magazine does a good job of listing the major incidents.
This meme does, in fact, exist outside of the realm of ideas, and, throughout history, it has moved people to take real action to avoid being caught unaware. In addition to existing in the physical realm, this meme also belongs to a religiously based memeplex. Love it or hate it, it’s almost impossible to deny that religion moves people to do some crazy things (cough, the Crusades, cough). Selling all your belongs and driving around the nation warning people of the impending doomsday is just one of them. I do wonder how our constant Hollywood imitations of these fears affects our ability to deal with them reasonably. While I don’t think anyone is taking movies like “2012” or “The Day After Tomorrow” too seriously, I do think they cause us to step back and consider what we would do should a wall of water crash into New York City or a major portion of California break off into the ocean.
Really, though, I doubt we have anything major to fear. Oh, except for Yellowstone. Turns out that place is a crazy super volcano. According to CNN and some fancy geologists they spoke to, the next time it erupts–the eruptions historically happen every 800,000 years or so, and, lucky us, we’re about due for one–the blast will wipe Yellowstone off the map. Then, and this is the really awesome part, “clouds of gas and rock would burn everything in its path with temperatures reaching to hundreds of degrees Celsius. Ashfall would cover the western United States and also enter the jet stream with the potential to cripple air transportation and threaten the world’s food supply.” Also, 87,000 people would die almost immediately. Just things to think about–I don’t want to cause a doomsday panic or anything…