"Just Do It"
"Holy Mary, Mother of God"
"All your base are belong to us!"
The words, symbols and phrases given above and down the right hand side of this node all have at least one thing in common - they are Memes. A relatively new application of Darwins law to popular culture, the study of Memes (Memetics) helps us understand why certain ideas, words and phrases are so popular, and what effect this can have on the evolution of the human race.
What is a Meme?
A Meme (pronounced Meem, as in dream), is generally defined as anything that can be transferred from one mind to another. Glenn Grant defines a meme as "A contagious information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the pattern." This means that the definition of a meme is extremely broad, and a meme can be anything from a catchy tune to a common phrase to a theory to a symbol to a dance. Although the use of the word meme is relatively new (see Etymology and Origins below), memes have been around since the dawn of man (and depending on how one defines meme, before that). Language is a meme, as is the use of fire, writing or agriculture.
Lesbians! Monkeys! Soy!
Etymology and Origins
The word meme is believed to have been coined in 1904 by Richard Semon
, who discussed a "mneme" as a cultural transmission of experiences in his book, "Die Mneme". However, the word and concept became far more widely known following the publication of Richard Dawkins book "The Selfish Gene". There are two possible etymological origins for the word; they are "mimneskesthai
", the Greek
word for "memory" or "mimeisthai
", the Greek word for "imitate". It is also worth noting, however, that in French
" means "same".
"In Soviet Russia..."
How Memes Work
As mentioned above, the theory of memes is derived from an application of Darwin's Theory of Evolution
to culture and ideas. When one views a meme as an ostensibly living entity, it becomes apparent that certain memes are symbiotic
in nature, in that they enhance the life of the person they "infect", and act as an evolutionary
enhancement. This is especially true of some very old memes, such as hygiene
. Because memes by definition can be imitated, they tend to spread via natural selection
. While this means that there is a strong correlation
between an enhancement of the hosts life and the survival of that meme, this is not necessarily the case; for an example, see Smoking is cool
. Because of the way that memes propogate based on certain conditions, it is not uncommon to view memes as basic lifeforms - they certainly do exhibit many of the characteristics required for life. Another example of the way in which memes imitate life can be found in "memetic drift", which is the term given to the way in which memes change as they move from person to person. This is of critical importance to people - without memetic drift, language would never have evolved beyond a few meaningful grunts.
Imitation is key in the propagation of memes, and because for the most part memes are beneficial or harmless, the ability to imitate well became a desirable genetic trait early in Man's development. This resulted in offspring who were even more capable at imitation, which lead to a more and more advanced memes being spread. Seen this way, it is easy to see how grunts could have become language, which in turn would have become writing, as early man developed and was able to take advantage of such memes, which in turn lead to more development.
This framework allows for further speculation - a culture, for example, can be viewed as a meta-organism, with the same evolutionary processes in place (although on a different scale). As cultures evolve, they adopt or discard certain traits either by choice or default, and these traits can affect the survival of that culture. For example, historians have discovered that some years prior to the fall of the Roman Empire, laws were changed to allow women to drink wine. However, the Romans used lead-lined amphorae, and as a result lead poisoning of a greater or lesser nature became very commonplace. This lead to a lower number of births, and a greater number of deformities in children, which in turn led to a reduced and weakened army, which is given as one of the reasons for the downfall of the Roman Empire.
"Show me the money!"
How Memes Spread
Memes spread by word or sight, but the likeliness of memes spreading is affected by a number of factors, including
- How they make their host feel - Memes that make one feel good (Don't Worry, Be Happy) tend to spread faster or last longer than ones that make people feel bad. Exceptions to this are some memes that inspire fear, such as a cautionary tale (Don't boil water in a microwave) or one of the biggest memes of all (Act like this or you will burn in hell).
- How they relate to their hosts lifestyle - Memes that have little or no relation to a hosts lifestyle are unlikely to be spread. A meme regarding the addition of water to acid would be useful to a chemist, but of little use to a chef.
- From a position of power - Memes are more likely to be spread from more powerful people. Powerful in this sense includes but is not limited to physical power, economic power or cultural power (as in America). It is worth noting that most new words tend to spread downwards from the rich and powerful - slang words (which most new words are) very seldom spread upwards from the lower classes.
It is also worth noting that although memes spread because they are useful, a change in environment can render them harmful without any change in the meme. For example, the Vikings had a religious ban on fish. This proved detrimental when the Vikings tried to colonise Greenland. Because their methods of agriculture (which were appropriate for the European climate) were so inappropriate for the Greenland climate, the Vikings livestock quickly overgrazed what land was available. When winter came, no food was available for the livestock, and the Vikings had to start eating their own livestock, which was in those days a measure of wealth (in other words, the Vikings were forced to eat their money). The colony did not survive, but archaeologists have discovered the chewed upon bones of very young calves at the site, indicating that in the end, the Vikings were forced to eat their promise of food in the spring. Yet despite the number of human and mammal bones at the site, very few fish bones have been found (between three and twenty-seven), indicating that to the end, the Vikings stayed true to their religious dictates forbidding them to eat fish.
Religion: Antivirus for Memes?
Although it is apparent that religion is one of the most popular and ancient memes, from a cultural point of view it is also (for the most part) a beneficial one, as it helps to stop or slow the spread of potentially dangerous memes. Most major religions, for example, forbid murder
, among other potentially society-endangering acts. Religion also serves as a particularly interesting type of meme to study, because it is so complex. Most religions, for example, espouse the virtue of propogating that religion, while at the same time actively encouraging censorship of competing religious memes. While this can be potentially limiting to a society (an entrenched social structure that actively resists change prevents progress and causes stagnation), it is also a useful anti-meme, in that many memes (especially including damaging memes) are less able to spread in such a society. However, as noted in the paragraph above, religious memes tend to lose their usefulness as the environment (social and physical) changes, and are especially vulnerable to progress when it does happen.
Coca-Cola used to contain cocaine
, by Neal Stephenson
"The Meme Machine"
, by Susan Blackmore
"The Selfish Gene"
, by Richard Dawkins
http://www.everything2.com/index.pl?node_id=12366 (This node)
http://www.drapplebaum.com/Fitness%20Rants/Rome,%20USA.htm (for info on the Romans)
http://www.thelavinagency.com/articles_covers/Diamond/newyorkerreview2005.pdf (for info on the Vikings)
Thanks to Swap for the name correction on Blackmore.
Thanks to Zoeb for the name correction on Dawkins.
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