The Evolutionary Aspect of Leadership

A Case Study on Malcolm X and his Legacy.

Alex Levy
Alex Levy
Nov 9, 2020 · 5 min read

Leaders shape history. They act upon a desired outcome and can transform reality as we know it so it incorporates their visions. Some do it by waging wars, others do it through a speech; many gather thousands to follow them, few keep close circles. This essay will explore the underlying evolutionary force, named meme, that influences leaders and how leaders can impact the propagation of a meme. It will be sustained by ideas from Richard Dawkins and literature derived from his writings. Additionally, the essay will consider Malcolm X and his influence in the Black Liberation Movement meme.

Photo by Kay on Unsplash

The word meme has gained a negative connotation. Mainly due to an ever-divided political sphere and the exponential growth of the internet. When one hears the word meme, it is instantly associated with a politician or a funny image. This is undesirable because the importance of this concept fades away, and it carries with it valuable lessons. Memes have to be considered as humanity’s legacy, mainly derived through culture. (Dawkins, Richard. 1999)

Culture is essentially unique to humans. Humanity manifests cultural evolution in language, for example. Any given language shows that there is change in it, being progressive. This happens in genetic evolution as well. Richard Dawkins tries to overcome the focus on genes as the sole basis of evolution and speaks of a new primordial pool of replicators: culture. (Dawkins, Richard. 1999)

The new transmission unit is the meme. Some examples are tones, ideas, fashion styles, etc. It is based on imitation from brain to brain; they live in the psychological realm from reality. When the conditions appear for a new replicator to make copies of itself, the new ones will tend to dominate the old ones, constantly evolving.

The natural selection among them will be set by criteria such as longevity, potency, flexibility, and ability to propagate to many individuals. It could be considered that memes are the true legacy of genetics (i.e. offspring) (Dawkins, Richard. 1999).

Ideas are the legacy of humanity. They are so strong that their offspring can endure for ages. The most profound aspect of memes is that they have to be carried by humans. This is similar to natural selection: a species will adapt itself to the environment, therefore, this can be extrapolated to ideas: they will adapt to the environment and the best will stay.

Humans have to be good at propagating memes, and the best doing so are called leaders. Malcolm X could be regarded as a true expert in propagating memes.

As mentioned before, a key element for a successful replication of a meme is flexibility. This, too, can be the case for the human who carries the meme within his mind. Once, Malcolm X said:

“Despite my firm convictions, I have always been a man who tries to face facts, and to accept the reality of life as new experience and new knowledge unfolds. I have always kept an open mind, a flexibility that must go hand in hand with every form of the intelligent search for truth.” (Hayes, Bernie. 2014).

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Paradoxically, a meme has to be rigid enough to have longevity, yet it must be open to evolve. It is fair to say that there was a feedback loop between the ideals of Malcolm X and his own personality. His firm beliefs could only go as far as other people wanted to adopt them. “By any means necessary” (Woodard, Komozi. 2019) was something Malcolm used to say a lot, and it appealed to a whole segment of the population.

Thus, the evolutionary cost of carrying a new meme lowered, increasing the benefits of adopting it. In other words, if Malcolm X had not been a leader — and one with excellent verbal and written skills — the Black Liberation movement perhaps would’ve had to wait a little longer. The following quote by Komozi Woodward perfectly illustrates how Malcolm X knew that for a meme to succeed, many had to adopt it:

“In his last year, Malcolm X was attempting to fashion a political and ideological mixture suitable for Black liberation in the U.S. Stressing the need for African Americans to develop their own revolutionary ideology and organization, Malcolm X urged them to search for philosophical, economic and political approaches rooted in the African Personality. If Black people wanted to be free, they could not be guided by the thinking of their former slave masters: the logic of the oppressor is different from the logic of the oppressed.” (Woodward, Komozi. 2019)

Memes are a powerful concept. Richard Dawkins articulated the notion of how ideas evolve and propagate in a way that explained a lot about why some ideas come into being and why others don’t. This essay examined how there is a closer relationship than thought before between leaders and successful spread of memes.

Malcolm X is the perfect example of someone who combined his own personality with a meme, being rigid enough to persuade others about his vision and sufficiently flexible to adapt to a new environment so the meme within his mind could circulate around the population efficiently.

Malcolm X’s legacy will stay in history for the foreseeable future. This only happened because his meme had permanence, potency, flexibility and had the ability to propagate to many individuals. It is important for a better future for all to have such leaders in society. They are at the forefront of building the foundations of movements that can drastically improve communities and are the very first individuals who assume the cost of creating, replenishing or transforming a meme.

If leaders such as Malcolm X wouldn’t do this, then there would be no market for ideas, and all would circulate with no refinement. After these individuals enhance the memes, then they can easily spread around the community.

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