Meme’s the Word


The scientific revolution spawned by The Origin of Species is now morphing in ways Charles Darwin himself might not have expected, as the principles of adaptation and natural selection are manifesting themselves in fields far removed from biology. Most notably, when applied to human thought, culture, and institutions, the theory of evolution becomes the discipline of memetics. A meme is a concept adept at replicating itself within human brains and influencing human behavior. Memes, like genes, can combine with each other to create informational superstructures. Systems of memes take on a life of their own, controlling and influencing the behavior of millions; preserving themselves at all costs; and competing for cranial dominance with other memes and meme-systems.

With the memetic model, humans can finally begin crafting cogent explanations of global culture and making predictions of how culture will evolve in the coming century. Memetics can explain why blatantly false ideas can garner enough votes to win an election. It can provide a reason behind horrible cultural practices, such as honor killings of wives and sisters by the Taliban, wherein the memes are preserving themselves at the expense of their human hosts. It can demonstrate how the presence of Jesus within the mind can be an effective therapy for treating alcoholism and addiction, and how that presence can also inspire people to burn others alive for the memes they carry.

The study of memetics also changes the way we think about thinking. All revolutions and paradigm shifts evoke fear and derision, of course, and the resistance from all sides to meme theory demonstrates its potential power. The emerging discipline of memetics will take the humanities and the social sciences by storm, with the potential to be the killer-app of the 21st century.

To date, meme definition inspires heated debate. Some relate them to mind viruses, ideas that spread from person to person like the flu. Originalists keep to biologist Richard Dawkins’ first definition, that they are units of culture similar to genes. This distinction, as may already be apparent to some, is wholly arbitrary. Genes form the building blocks of viruses. In fact, viruses are the simplest imaginable carrier for genetic information, so basic there is still debate as to whether they are actually living creatures.

Genes, by themselves, cannot do anything. They are nothing more than carriers of information. When they come together, however, they begin to act on their environment. In the case of viruses, they insert themselves into an existing cell and hijack the cell’s machinery to make more copies of themselves. In the case of human beings, they provide the recipe for the entire body, as well as the basic instincts to feed the body, protect the body, and of course to copy the genes to another body.

The core notion here is replication. Genes that are good at making copies of themselves become widespread–those that aren’t eventually disappear. New genes are formed when two partners trade and combine their genetic information, or when a copying error arises that happens to be useful. Contrary to popular belief, mutation is not the driving force behind evolution; that honor belongs to sex, which makes a new mixture of genes every time it is successful.

Occupy Wyeth

Occupy Wyeth

The aforementioned metaphor is, of course, one of many interpretations of the meme. To the layman, a meme is a well-known photograph accompanied by a semi-original and maybe-clever caption. To many biologists and neuroscientists, a meme is nothing more than an unfortunate metaphor, a neologism coined by Dawkins back in ‘76 that got picked up and blown far out of proportion. To an anthropologist or an historian, a meme is yet another invasion by materialists and scientific reductionists into the hallowed ground of art and culture.

When Dawkins invented (or discovered) the meme, he intended it to be a metaphor for how genes behave and express themselves in the natural world. The study of genetics forms the foundation of modern evolutionary biology, allowing scientists to trace the history of life on Earth back to the very beginning. Giving a concrete basis to Darwin’s theory of adaptation and natural selection, genetics has tremendous power to explain life as we know it and to make predictions about future discoveries. The theory of evolution has never been wrong, though it has been mistreated and abused by supporters as well as detractors, and it continues to provoke marvelous insights and discoveries.

Yet, as the foundation of the New Atheism, the science of genetics has prompted some to leap to the conclusion that all aspects of human life, including music, literature, politics, and media, can be explained by physical phenomena. Genetics, and its influence on the environment, creates individual personalities and collective societies. Neuroscientist Sam Harris picked up this ball and ran with it, attempting to refute the notion of free will and apply a strictly biological basis to ethics and morality. These men and the logical positivists, should they even acknowledge meme theory, tend to reject it out of hand as being unempirical and unnecessary as an explanatory tool. Memes do not exist, they say, as they are non-physical. Only various measurable brain states exist, which respond to arbitrary squiggles on paper or images with arbitrary symbolic content.

On the other flank, the literati and critical theorists will likely believe memetics is too scientific. It attempts to take biological principles, namely adaptation and natural selection, and apply them to intangibles like fine art and poetry. By providing a theoretic origin for religion and spirituality, as well as such varied subcultures as the steampunks and the trekkies, memetics diminishes and undervalues the emotional resonance of such ideals. Like the scientists, the memeticists try to take all the joy and mystery out of culture, reducing the je ne sais quoi of creative genius to a mathematical formula. Culture, the cognoscenti maintain, does not evolve. To claim otherwise is thinly veiled social Darwinism, and implies superiority and objective values which clearly do not exist.

A word on social Darwinism: this distasteful hypothesis failed not because it attempted to apply Darwinism to culture, but because it attempted to apply culture to Darwinism. In doing so, the hypothesis turned actual evolution on its head, misinterpreting and malforming the theory to suit colonialist and imperialist values. In nature, there truly is no “superior” species. Whether a tiger is better than an orchid, or an amoeba, is purely a matter of aesthetic preference. Every creature fills a niche and serves a purpose, and the true beauty of nature is in its diversity.

When the Victorian Englishmen used social Darwinism as proof of their cultural superiority, they misunderstood the fact that unchecked growth, endless resource consumption, and the destruction of other cultural “species” represents the superiority of the bubonic plague. In fact, history has shown that insular aristocracies tend towards inbreeding and decadence, with even the least impressive specimens guaranteed survival and comfort, while the tough selection pressures experienced by the lower classes ensure they will remain fit and become stronger. This, of course, is the antithesis of social Darwinism, which is precisely the point.

The meme analogy applies the model of evolution through adaptation and naturalblue sky aliens selection to the world of information. A tune, such as the song “Blue Skies” (smiling at me, nothing but bluuuueee skiiiiees, do I see), is very effective at making copies of itself in the human brain. If you know it, you’ll probably be humming it for the rest of the day. One can debate whether a song is one meme or an “informational organism” comprised of a collection of memes, a memetic code if you will. Given the number of words and the different melodies throughout, the virus analogy is probably the best. Several memes (the blues scale, the descriptions of nature) come together to create a conceptual creature that evokes emotions and sensations when heard by a human ear. It makes a copy of itself, and later on the human carrier reproduces that copy. Thus, originally created by Irving Berlin, the song is spread by Bing Crosby, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, and Data the android.

The memetic model is itself a meme. Once it gets into your head, you will start looking at things you read, hear, and watch differently. You will start thinking about the implications of the hypothesis. If these notions behave like genes, they must evolve, right? Thus, blues and jazz give birth to rock and roll, evolving into punk and metal, and prompting the physical evolution of musical instruments and technology. Yet, if these things evolve, they must become more complex, right? Suddenly, entire subcultures emerge around various collections of memes. It becomes possible to predict what music humans listen to by what they are wearing and how they style their hair and makeup.

Outside of the music world, some collections of memes become so complex they can no longer be explained by the virus analogy. They behave as a cohesive unit, with specialized parts and a core of information that supersedes any individual human who is a participant. Thus, the founders and original workers of Coca-Cola can all die, yet the secret formula lives on, surrounded by an apparatus for taking in and processing resources, interacting with other entities, and reproducing itself and its visual imagery across the globe. What, then, is Coca-Cola? A virus? A bacteria? A person?

The applications of the memetic model are legion. Given the obvious connections between biological evolution and competitive free-market economics, memetics and memetic-systems may provide a superior explanation for how companies succeed and fail, out-compete their rivals, and influence their customers’ behavior through their products and their marketing methods. Within the discipline of anthropology, memetics may finally lay to rest the shade of evolutionism and social Darwinism by providing an explanation for cultural evolution and adaptation that is not founded in white western ethnocentrism. Counter-intelligence, which relies in part on word-frequency analysis to predict acts of insurgency and terrorism, could benefit tremendously with a working model of the epidemiology of extremist ideas.

With the expansion of the Internet and light-speed transmission of ideas, symbolism and thought are undergoing mutation at an unprecedented scale. The model of memetics will allow researchers to get ahead of this trend and finally come to grips with 21st century global society and all of its potential. Meme theory represents the next step in the intellectual and metaphysical revolution Darwin sparked two and a half centuries ago.

Richard Dawkins