If you’ve spent any length of time on the Internet recently, you’ve probably come across an image or video which people claim is a meme. This take the form of a socially awkward penguin, a stupid dance craze, good old Grumpy Cat, and goodness knows what else. However this is only one very small part of what memetics is actually all about.
The word meme and its “true” definition was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, long before LOLcats and Rickrolls were dreamt up. The central focus of the book is that Darwinian selection [see note 1 for a refresher] really takes place at gene-level, rather than for the benefit of the organism or group. In summary: Genes are the true replicators, not the organisms which carry them.
Many people got their knickers in a twist about the word “selfish” in the title. However, as Dawkins explains time and again, genes don’t “want” to replicate any more than a ball “wants” to roll down a hill – both just obey their nature and the external constraints placed upon them. Consciousness or free will has nothing to do with it.
Beyond genes, there are other examples of replicators, and these are also under the influence of Darwinian selection. They certainly don’t have to be organic. Think of computer viruses – those which replicate fast, frequently and can evade anti-virus software are more likely to stay in the system for longer. These lines of code have no will of their own, yet survival of the fittest still applies.
What about ideas? Ideas can be conceived of, copied, mutated and spread – do they count as replicators? In a later chapter of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins wanted to compare transmission of ideas and cultural information between people with transmission of genetic information between generations. But first he needed a word to describe the core unit of replication – a cultural gene.
For a number of reasons, he settled on “meme” to be pronounced meem (not memm, mee-mee or mey-mey). A meme is a replicator just like a gene or computer virus – one which manifests itself inside our brains and in our culture. They exist because humans are natural imitators; no animal can copy like we can. Exactly when in our evolution we gained this capacity is under debate, but once it did start cropping up, the evolutionary benefits were profound:
Don’t have the sharpest spear in the tribe? Don’t know that sweet spot needed to take down an antelope? Don’t want to try every mushroom to know which won’t kill you? If you have the power of imitation, who needs trial and error?! Ladies will love it! You’ll have loads more kids than those who had to figure it all out for themselves, and your brats will also be better imitators. So get copying, and pass on your genes and memes today!
So a meme is something, any idea or concept at all, which is passed from person to person. It could manifest itself in our world as a catchphrase, an opinion, a word association, a song, a recipe, a superstition – anything which can be received and transmitted between brains.
Because genes and memes inhabit the same organism, it’s tempting to think they will always work together. But this view replies on the old assumption of the organism as the centre of Darwinian replication, rather than the replicator itself. Sometimes our memes work well together with our genes and sometimes they don’t, because they are independent replicators. Neither should we fall into the trap of believing that either of them is there for “our” benefit.
Since the original definition in the 70s, the idea of a meme has shifted in many people’s minds by a process of memetic drift, somewhat narrowing it down to series of images and gifs shared on the Internet. However, there’s much more to meme theory than this, and I’ll be discussing more about the strengths, predictions and flaws of meme theory another time.
Genes and memes are analogous only up to a point, but their selfish replication has formed and shaped not only our bodies and minds, but our culture and society as well.
Note1 will take two forms – a fabricated example and a textbook-style generalisation. Take your pick.
Note1a: Natural / Darwinian selection goes like this: In a population of Zogs there will be some Zogs better suited to the Abyssal Troughs of Yek than other Zogs. More Zogs are produced each year than can possibly survive, so they must compete for nooks, methane and their staple diet, the Buttery Tribb. The randy Zogs that are best suited for life in the Abyssal Troughs of Yek will probably have more baby Zogs, and these offspring are more likely to be well-suited to life in the Troughs. Those too large for the safe nooks or too whimsical to evade the Pernicious Beast of Rawst or simply never feel ready for a relationship will simply die before passing on their genes. Hence over time, Zogs tend to become more specialised and better at surviving in the Abyssal Troughs of Yek.
Note1b: Natural or Darwinian selection. In any population there will be variation between individuals. There will also be more individuals than resources, so there will be competition. The organisms which are most suited, or “fit”, for their environment and have the ability and drive to produce more offspring will have the most offspring, and these offspring are more likely to be well-suited to their environment and reproduce well. Hence over time, species tend to become more specialised and better at surviving in their environment.