Monday, May 19, 2008

The Mighty Meme

Alrighty, then! As promised, the painfully overdue introduction to memes is finally here! I'm largely extracting from material from Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine, so if, after reading this, you're interested in a closer look at memetic evolution, I totally recommend Blackmore's book.

The term 'meme' was first coined by Dawkins in The Selfish Gene in 1976. At the time it was a very convenient concept in giving insight into the evolution of human culture, though I doubt very much that Dawkins quite anticipated how far the meme would be taken. Since then, the meme has proven to be a powerful tool in understanding the human mind and the development of human culture as we know it. The meme reaches into every aspect of human life and in later posts maybe I'll tell you why I personally believe the meme to be the future of the human race.

For the moment, we'll keep our feet firmly on the ground and restrict this post to answering the very simple question: What is a meme?

When Dawkins first used it, he defined the meme broadly to refer to "any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator". In saying this he was drawing parallels between the meme as a carrier of cultural information and the gene as a carrier of genetic information. This comparison isn't quite accurate, but is very useful since the contrast between the gene and the meme gives us a firmer grip on both. So, here's the basics...

The basic unit of the meme cannot be defined. Bell-bottoms can be considered a meme. So can clamshell phones, wearing a baseball cap backwards, the twirling your pen through your fingers and, horror of horrors, the theme song of Planet Unicorn. For convenience, we can term a group of related, mutually supporting memes a memeplex. For instance, a particular language can be considered a memeplex, as can a particular culture's marriage and burial rites, and of course, religion.

Genes can only transmit vertically, memes don't care. Memes are transmitted through imitation. For example, if I saw you wearing a shirt I thought was cool, I could go get myself a shirt just like it. I could buy one, make one, beat you over the head with something heavy and steal yours... Thus the meme of the cool shirt has propagated from one person to another. It doesn't matter who you are, or whether you're related to me, speak the same language or whatever, if the meme is deemed by others capable of copying it to be worth copying, then it will be copied. By contrast, there's only one way to propagate genes (outside of artificial insemination) and that's good, honest pornography, followed by genetic material passing from parent to child, i.e. vertically.

Like genes, memes survive by fidelity, fecundity and longevity. Just like genes, those are the three magic words that determine the success of a gene. As such, when we view ideas from the perspective of memes, we have to keep these three words in mind. As an example, we can take evolution vs. creationism. Evolution requires the understanding of such things as DNA, natural selection and a little about the interaction between organisms and their environments, just to grasp the very basics. Creationism, by contrast, just requires you to believe that God wills it, and that's that. So, guess which idea is easier to propagate. Creationism has a massive advantage in fecundity and this contrast highlights the fecundity that faith has over understanding. Faith can be copied faster, therefore it is more widespread. There's an important lesson here: Just because an idea is popular, it doesn't mean it's true. It's quicker and easier to just follow the crowd, but always bear in mind the question: What if the crowd is wrong?

And that's the quick and easy guide to memespotting. Simple, yes? The real fun comes when we take memes and genes in parallel and look at the development of the human animal. But that's something for another time.

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