What is a Meme?
The Memetic theory
Memetic theory posits that all of the human thoughts, ideas, cultures, and creations are like biological organisms in certain ways. Specifically, ideas ‘replicate’ when they are transmitted from one person to another, such as when a parent teaches their child how to tie shoes or a person reads about a new concept in an online article. Variations of an idea are created by the human mind through the communication and thought process, for example, when someone figures out a new way of tying their shoes that’s easier or quicker. Finally, ideas undergo a sort of ‘natural selection’ from the environment they exist in, that is, the brains of people. Successful ideas – that is, ideas that get transmitted to a lot of people – continue to survive and replicate. Other ideas are not so fortunate; people stop believing them or fail to communicate them to others or come up with another idea that (for whatever reason) more people believe. People once thought that the Sun went around the Earth; a fairly reasonable thing to think, given that it moves across the sky every day in a predictable pattern. Close observation and better information has since made it more reasonable for an informed person to number among his beliefs, ‘the Earth revolves around the Sun’ and the closely related idea ‘the Earth rotates on its axis once every day, making the sun appear to move through the sky’. Very few people now believe the opposite; the ‘Earth-orbits-Sun’ meme is fitter for ‘survival’ than the ‘Sun-orbits-Earth’ meme. Thus, human ideas and beliefs can in a very real sense be said to ‘evolve’ in much the same way that biological life evolves.
Meme is the term used to denote a piece of information, idea, belief, or thought as a self-replicating entity. It was deliberately chosen by Dawkins both to rhyme with ‘gene’ and to have further symbolic significance, being derived from the Greek word ‘mimos’ or mimic (possible reasons for its evolutionary vigorousness). Precisely what a meme denotes is a bit difficult to define, unlike the term ‘gene’ which defines a measurable physical entity. It is certainly not possible at this stage to physically isolate memes in the brain where they presumably are in some way physically encoded. In common usage, the term ‘meme’ can be used to refer to practically any idea or manifestation of human thought. The idea of memes is itself, as has often been ironically pointed out, a meme. Memetic theorists specifically use ‘meme’ to speak of a small, perhaps even theoretically reducible ‘unit’ of thought, and ‘memeplex’ (derived from ‘genoplex’, for a collection of genes working together) for more complicated ideas like Christianity or how to tie a shoe. Of course, precisely how developed – or how simple and basic – a concept must be to qualify as a meme in this sense is quite debatable. Is the vowel sound ‘uh’ a meme? What about a simple word like ‘run’ (which reflects innumerable connotations like the action of running, why are you running, is it a command or a description or a disembodied concept, etc.) What about the most basic meaning of ‘run’, the act of running? On the other hand, an idea as complicated as Christianity can be reduced to a very simple ‘meme’, that is, ‘Jesus Christ was God made flesh’. Most other parts of Christianity memeplex care ultimately an implication of this idea. Memetic theorists are understandably cautious about labeling anyone ‘thing’ or another to be a meme.
Another distinction is that the memes are the information in the brain itself, or sometimes information recorded in writing or other forms of ‘durable’ communication media, in the same way, the genes of an organism is distinguished from the organism itself (as biologists say, the ‘genotype’ is distinct from the ‘phenotype’). ‘Extended Phenotype’ is a term sometimes used to refer to the products of memes; that is, the things they do to help themselves get replicated, such as human words or actions, technological objects, and all the rest of human culture.
‘Wait for a second,’ you’re probably thinking. ‘My head isn’t a breeding ground for some kind of information virus! I’m a thinking human being; my words and actions and beliefs are dictated by me!’ Well, not necessarily. This is one reason why the mimetic theory opens up a huge can of worms. The same way Dawkins looked at the behavior of living organisms (including humans) in terms of their selfish genes’ probability of surviving and replicating, memetic theory shows us our own behavior – indeed, our very thoughts and minds – from a disturbing and disconcerting new ‘point of view’ – that of thoughts themselves. Not that memes are supposed to themselves be conscious agents, any more than genes are. You don’t even have to think of them as malevolently controlling you, dancing you around like a puppet (in fact I’d prefer you didn’t sense it will inhibit the transmission of the memes I’m replicating with the conscious intention of furthering their spread). But of course, our thoughts *do* control our behavior – who could argue with that? The ideas you like to talk about (especially the ones you’re passionate about) are more likely to spread; ideas that a lot of people are passionate about spreading have an excellent chance of spreading further, so in a way the successful ideas are the ones that ‘make’ people want passionately to talk about them. Ideas that help humans to stay alive – like running away from dangerous tigers – have a good chance of being picked up by other humans, who also see the value of running away from the tiger. Less survival-oriented ideas, like letting a dangerous tiger out of its cage, tend to die with the originator; therefore the memes which ‘make’ us run away from tigers are the ones that survive and replicate, whereas the ‘play with the funny tiger’ approach has a limited life span.
And of course, the memes that are good at spreading are not necessarily the ‘truest’ ones or the ones with the most intrinsic ‘value’ to humanity. Selective pressure favors memes that help humans to live long and prosper; but there are plenty of highly successful memes, such as for instance Nazism, which act parasitically in manipulating human thoughts, emotions, or drives. There are a lot of properties that make a meme ripe for spreading. One is being verifiable with reference to events observable by the human senses (ie. the ‘sky-is-blue’ meme is more likely to survive than the ‘sky-is-plaid’ meme). Another is being ‘catchy’, like an advertising jingle or a saying that rhymes, something with a pattern that catches in your mind. Or the property of making anyone who believes extremely resistant to believing contradictory ideas (a quality which fundamentalist religious creeds have in common with scientific rationalism). Some memes can be downright destructive, corrosive, and contrary to the values that even the people who spread them claim to hold.
Presumably, we’d all be better off if we could undergo some sort of ‘mental hygiene’ or ‘memetic surgery’ to get rid of these parasitic memes and keep them out. And how, exactly, do we tell a parasite meme from a benign or even healthy one? A good start would be, eliminate the memes which drive people to harm themselves or others – but then what about the ‘run into the fire to save the baby’ meme? And then there’s the question of how exactly we exterminate these memes we have determined to be bad for our mental health. History shows that burning books and killing or torturing believers is a bad way to start. Not only is it a horribly evil thing to do (and as such, probably one of the memes we should discourage the transmission of); it’s also ineffective, as it only inspires those who hold them to fight back and spread their memes with even more intense fervor. There’s education as a means of installing ‘mental defenses’ against unwanted ideas and rational argument (or emotional appeal) as a means of deliberately overcoming them in others – but strong parasitic memes also employ these same defenses, rendering them difficult to dislodge. For instance, many of the memes that have been core to our thought process and world view throughout our lives are resistant to the idea of memes. Even trying to see the world from the meme’s eye view can cause severe cognitive dissonance, making it hard for us to even think about it regardless of how true it might or might not be (and tempting us to dismiss the whole notion out of hand).
And there’s an even more frightening (or awe-inspiring) question – if biological life evolved thought and consciousness, can memes somehow become ‘conscious’ as well? In some ways, large and complicated memeplexes like religions or civilizations could be seen as an organism, which reacts to the environment and protects its own survival. Is there some kind of meta-conscious process going on in the behavior of our memes? The immense global memeplex known as the internet has already spawned its own simple replicator known as a computer virus, a pure information code that propagates through computer data processors at the speed of light, faster than any human thought. We defend our computers from viruses, but doesn’t that just mean that the fittest are the ones which will survive? Is yet another form of evolution ‘piggybacking’ on the products of our memes in the same way that memes piggyback on the product of our genes, our human brains? And how far, how fast, can this process of meta-evolution go before it leaves us, humans, behind?
Enough worms in that can yet?
Memetic theory (once you let it through your mental defenses) is a revolutionary idea, one that could well do for ‘soft sciences’ like psychology, sociology, anthropology, and history what Darwinian evolution did for biology (that is, lead it in exciting new directions while making it intensely more controversial). The memetic theory explains why bad or evil ideas flourish, why human knowledge expands and cultures grow more complex. It helps immensely to understand the evolution of human brains and traits like language and self-reflection. It may even shed light on the deepest workings of humans though (think of the mind itself as a grand ecosystem of memes, with only the fittest being selected for word or action.) On the other hand, memetic theory has yet to show a lot of success at making concrete predictions that can be experimentally tested. As such, it may be destined to remain nothing but an interesting way of seeing the world. One thing is sure, though; whether you instinctively reject it or take it deeply to heart, the meme of the meme is on its way to being very successful, and not in danger of becoming extinct anytime soon.