Meme is indeed an interesting and apt subject to include in a dictionary of the history of ideas, for it is nothing less than a meta-concept for describing the transmission of knowledge among persons and cultures. Memetics—the study of memes—is, briefly stated, evolutionary theory applied to ideas. The word itself was coined by the British biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene as a neologism derived from mimeme (that which is imitated) and gene. However, Dawkins's insight was presaged by William S. Burroughs's observation that "language is a virus from outer space" and by the work of thinkers ranging from the dadaists to Jacques Derrida, who, in seeking to transcend language and textuality, recognized the role that language and ideas play in controlling human behavior. In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, however, memetics has drawn its strongest supporters from the rather more literally minded camp of computer scientists and devotees of Internet culture—not only because the memetic model of human intelligence is similar to the programming of a computer but because memes are a useful metaphor for describing certain phenomena that occur in the online world.
Cultures, Dawkins observed, evolve much as organisms do, and he conceptualized memes as ideas that guide human behavior just as a snippet of genetic code can guide instinctual mating or dominance behaviors. Much like genes, memes arise in response to a new stressor in the environment and evolve in response to changing conditions:
all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.… I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged.… It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture. (Dawkins, pp. 191–192)
A meme can be a concrete technology, such as a technique for making a stone spearhead, or an entirely abstract idea, such as "kingship" or "jihad." Examples of memes range from methods of making pottery and building arches to songs and stories, to tastes in clothing and fashion, to even more sophisticated behaviors, such as manufacturing hydrogen bombs, which require a "meme complex" or group of mutually reinforcing memes—in this case, the concepts of metalworking, atomic theory, and explosives.
As the result of natural selection, some memes become rare or are altogether eliminated from the "meme pool," the collective sum of a society's knowledge; they can also be overwritten by an invading group's memes. For instance, few twenty-first-century Native Americans know techniques that were indispensable to their pre-Columbian ancestors, such as flint-knapping or making a fire with the bow-and-drill method. Some memes (such as "cooking") survive because they are generally useful; others (such as "sports cars") trigger hardwired evolutionary imperatives, such as "food" or "sex" or "danger"; still others use more insidious means to ensure their own survival. For instance, chain letters, though intrinsically useless, have managed to be successfully passed on for decades because they contain instructions for their own reproduction and because they successfully exploit the human desire to get something for nothing, while evangelical religions (to give another example of a self-perpetuating meme) emphasize the virtues of proselytizing.
These latter cases serve to illustrate an important point of Dawkins's conceptualization, namely, the parasitic quality of memes. Lacking any physical way of reproducing themselves, memes survive and grow by imitation or by transmission from mind to mind. The transmission may occur through the observation and copying of a certain behavior or technique; it may occur as a craft is taught to an apprentice or as a farmer shows his or her son how to shear sheep; or it may be verbal, as by a professor's lecturing or assigning reading to her or his students. The participants need not speak the same language, as was the case with American GIs learning judo in occupied Japan. The transmission may be by force, such as the spread of the meme complexes of Islam and Christianity by conquest; or it can be by trade and indirect influence, such as the spread of classical Greek and Chinese ideas and motifs through the ancient Mediterranean and East Asia, respectively. Certain ideas are more easily imitated, or more contagious, than others; these are the memes that tend to be selected for survival, irrespective of the benefits to the individual they infect; in fact certain memes (such as celibacy or kamikaze missions) may be detrimental to the host's genetic survival but are nonetheless highly successful at reproducing themselves. Thus a viral contagion is a more apt metaphor to describe the meme than is sexual reproduction—a comparison Dawkins also used to describe the genetic code itself. To extend the metaphor, one is "infected" by an idea as a cell is by a pathogen, and one is compelled to carry the idea to others so that it may reproduce itself. Much like a computer virus, information begets information.
The Selfish Meme
Even memes like "celibacy" and "kamikaze mission," while detrimental for their individual hosts, may nonetheless be beneficial for the meme pool at large. As Matt Ridley so eloquently explains in his 1996 book The Origins of Virtue, magnanimous social behavior is nonetheless often guided by the self-interest of all involved. Like ants, human beings seem to have evolved to be genetically hardwired to cooperate. Successful memes can build on this tendency. For instance, few animals, including humans, are munificent to those outside their immediate group or tribe, but the "patriotism" meme, by giving us a way to conceptualize an entire nation as an extended tribe, is one way of explaining the phenomenon of the growth of nation-states—or "imagined communities," as Benedict Anderson put it in his 1983 book of the same title. Thus even memes that are detrimental to the individual can confer an evolutionary advantage; to build on the example of patriotism, groups with memes that promote extensive cooperation (such as Caesar's Roman legions) will tend to outcompete groups who do not (such as the tribes of Gaul). Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and proper to die for one's country).
One of the most philosophically depressing implications of memetic theory is that it is our memes, not human genius and creativity, that are the guiding force in history. Just as Dawkins reduced biological organisms to a vehicle for the self-perpetuation of genetic material, so it is with memes. Our various behaviors, from building cathedrals to writing novels, can be viewed as nothing more than our memes attempting to survive and grow. "Memes might come to be viewed explicitly as the primary actors in the drama of human history, exerting an iron-fisted control precisely analogous to that of Richard Dawkins's 'selfish genes' in the pageant of biological evolution," as James Gardner put it in his article "Memetic Engineering" in the May 1996 issue of Wired magazine. Such an idea is tremendously troubling for notions of free will. Gardner continued:
A meme-focused vision of culture and consciousness acknowledges forthrightly that memes are not mere random effluvia of the human experience but powerful control mechanisms that impose a largely invisible deep structure on a wide range of complex phenomena—language, scientific thinking, political behavior, productive work, religion, philosophical discourse, even history itself.
To add to the confusion, the modern world has seen an unprecedented multiplication and proliferation of memes, with mass media being the preeminent transmission vector. Some of these memes are devised with rational ends, such as advertising consumer products; others are devised solely as play; others are "junk" memes. Hula hoops, the Burma Shave billboards of the 1950s, the slogan "There's always room for Jell-O," the synthesizer intro to the 1984 song "Jump" by Van Halen, or the three-note "by Men-nen" jingle, while of no use to those they infect, are excellent examples. The Internet in particular is a virtual memetic petri dish, with examples such as the nonsensical phrase "all your base are belong to us" (from a badly translated 1988 Japanese video game called Zero Wing) spontaneously arising on message boards in 2000, spreading from mind to mind via the ether and then dissipating, not unlike a particularly virulent disease burning its way through the population.
Thus the idea of memetic engineering consists not only in choosing which memes to be influenced by but also in counterpropaganda and countersloganeering designed to purge from the meme pool those ideas deemed deleterious to society at large. The essential component in memetic engineering is faith in human reason to discern the most advantageous memes. Dawkins himself expressed a secular humanist optimism when he wrote, "We, alone on Earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" (p. 201). (Of course, from another perspective, this could be seen as just another Darwinian struggle, with the meme for "secular humanism" trying to crush its competitor for mindshare, the meme for "theocracy.")
One example of the deployment of this idea is the activist Andrew Boyd's Billionaires for Bush (or Gore) campaign, which used the ironic, parodical image of the superwealthy taking to the streets in support of their candidates in order to "piggyback" on mainstream media coverage of the 2000 U.S. presidential election and thus call attention to social issues neglected by the candidates. The idea of memetic engineering was both popularized and taken to its logical end by the 1992 science fiction novel Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Though the actual word meme never occurs in the book, the plot makes clear reference to Dawkins's work. The title, for instance, refers to a key element in the book's plot, a literal "mind virus" modeled after a computer virus that is capable of destroying a user's mind through merely being seen on a computer screen. The resolution involves a clay tablet from ancient Mesopotamia, on which are recorded syllables in an ancestral ur-language (reminiscent of ideas of the "deep structure" of language popularized by Noam Chomsky and others) that can program human beings, like robots, into performing tasks for those who know how to wield the power. Snow Crash is frequently cited in meme circles as an example of the power of memes taken to the nth degree.
Criticism of Memetic Theory
Despite the cult popularity of the idea, memetic theory is hardly discussed in recent texts on evolutionary psychology and linguistics. The prevailing consensus seems to be that the meme is a nice metaphor but one that has perhaps been taken too far. Memes, after all, are hard to define, quantify, and measure; their very existence is somewhat nebulous, inferable but not scientifically verifiable.
Some have also assailed memes not only as bad science but as reactionary politics. The complexity of human development is overly reduced into nonmaterialist, quasi-mystical, pseudo-scientific terms, which in turn are only a new Kabbalah, a recasting of age-old ideas of angels and demons and magic words that can control reality. Many also question the memetics community's frequent, almost reflexive, assaults on religion, which they characterize as nothing more than preprogrammed, irrational memetic replication. Moreover the idea of human behavior as nothing but the programming of snippets of information is troubling to many—and not only those who still maintain a belief in free will. To hold with a radical memetic view of human behavior is to ignore the factors of economics, environment, and politics in history. As such, memetics is a fascinating and promising protoscience but further research and experimentation is needed before it can become a full-fledged discipline in its own right.
See also Computer Science ; Genetics ; Ideas, History of .
Aunger, Robert. The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think. New York: Free Press, 2002.
Boyd, Andrew. "Truth Is a Virus: Meme Warfare and the Billionaires for Bush (or Gore)." In The Cultural Resistance Reader, edited by Stephen Duncombe. New York: Verso, 2002.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New ed. Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1989. Originally published in 1976.
Gardner, James. "Memetic Engineering." Wired 4.05 (May 1996). Available at http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/4.05/memetic.htm.
Journal of Memetics. Available at http://jom-emit.cfpm.org/.
Ridley, Matt. The Origins of Virtue. New York: Penguin Books, 1996.
Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. New York: Bantam, 1992.
On this view our minds and culture are designed by the competition between memes, just as the biological world has been designed by natural selection acting on genes. Familiar memes include words, phrases, and stories; TV and radio programmes; chess, bridge, and computer games; famous symphonies and mindless jingles; the habits of driving on the left (or the right), eating with a knife and fork, wearing clothes, and shaking hands. These are all different kinds of information that have successfully been copied from person to person. Without them we would not be fully human.
The idea of memes is highly controversial. Critics argue that memes have not been proved to exist, cannot be identified with any chemical or physical structure as genes can, cannot be divided into meaningful units, provide no better understanding of culture than existing theories, and undermine the important notions of free will and personal responsibility. Proponents respond that memes obviously exist, since humans imitate widely and memes are simply defined as whatever they imitate. Also, the demand for a physical basis is premature. The structure of DNA was not discovered until a century after Darwin, so we may be in the equivalent of the pre-DNA phase in the new science of memetics. The question of units is tricky for genes too, and we can study memes by using whatever unit is replicated in any given situation — which may be anything from a few notes to an entire symphony, or a few words to a whole story.
More important is whether memetics really can provide new insights into human behaviour or culture. One example is Dawkins's idea of religions as viruses of the mind. A biological virus is a small package of information that uses someone else's copying machinery for its own replication. An equivalent in memes might be a chain letter or e-mail virus. For example, you might receive an e-mail message that says ‘A deadly virus called “Happy Birthday” is circulating by e-mail. IBM and Microsoft warn that it is powerful and untreatable. It will destroy all the information in your computer. Pass this warning on to all your friends immediately’. This little piece of information is a complete lie but by using threats (to your computer), promises (you can help your friends), and an instruction to pass it on, it thrives. Religions, argues Dawkins, have a similar structure. They use threats (hell, damnation, and horrible punishments), promises (heaven, salvation, and God's love), and instructions to pass them on (teach your children, read the texts, pray, and sing in public). Moreover, they use other tricks to protect themselves from scepticism. A child who asks why she can't see God is told to have faith, not doubt.
This approach also explains something that is inexplicable in biological terms — the celibate priest. A true celibate cannot pass on his genes, but having no children means he can devote his time and resources to spreading more memes. So the meme for celibacy succeeds. Apart from religions, other viral memes include alternative therapies that don't work, new age fads and cults, and astrology, which is immensely popular even though most of its claims have been tested and found to be false.
Of course, not all memes are viruses. Indeed the vast majority are the foundation of our lives and cultures, including all of the arts and sports, transport and communications systems, political and monetary systems, and science. And note that science has a very different structure from religion. Both are ‘memeplexes’ (groups of memes that work together), and science certainly contains viral memes such as false theories and fraudulent claims, but the very basis of science is the method of testing all claims. This means that science eventually throws out ideas that prove useless or false.
language is another important example. Although humans appear to have an innate tendency to learn language, the words we use are learned by imitation (i.e. they are memes). Blackmore has argued that once early humans became capable of imitating sounds, memetic evolution drove the gradual improvement of language, and with it the restructuring of our brains to be especially good at learning language. In a similar way she argues that our big brains were driven by, and for, the memes. Any of our early ancestors who had slightly bigger brains and were therefore slightly better at imitation would have been at an advantage because they could pick up and use the latest memes — whether these were ways of hunting, cooking food, wearing clothes, or dancing and singing. These people would therefore have attracted more mates and had more offspring. Therefore, as the memes spread, so did genes for having big brains capable of spreading them, and (perhaps more importantly) of selecting which memes to copy and which to reject. If this is so, the whole of human evolution has been shaped by the successful memes of the past, and we are products of two sets of replicators, memes and genes, not just one.
There are several mysteries about human nature that might potentially yield to a memetic explanation. Humans are far more co-operative and altruistic than any other species. Indeed, in those cultures with the best communications and hence the most memes, many altruistic ideas thrive — such as pacifism, vegetarianism, charity work, recycling, the Green movement, and the caring professions. Many people put enormous efforts into helping others who are not their relatives (i.e. do not share their genes) and who are unlikely or unable to reciprocate in the future. In other words, these behaviours are hard to explain in biological terms. The memetic approach is to ask why these particular memes spread. Perhaps we spend more time with the most altruistic people and so their memes get more chances to spread, including their altruistic memes. These are testable ideas which might, in the future, allow memetics to be found useful or to be rejected.
Human consciousness is perhaps the greatest mystery of all. According to the American philosopher, Daniel Dennett, humans are a particular sort of ape infested with memes, and human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes. He argues that the brain builds multiple drafts of what is happening at any time, and one of these drafts is the story we tell ourselves about a self who is in charge. In other words the self is a kind of ‘benign user illusion’ of the human brain. Blackmore suggests it is not benign at all. In her view the self is the root of human suffering, yet it is a collection of memes that have come together for their own mutual protection and propagation. Ideas that become ‘my’ beliefs, or ‘my’ hopes or intentions, are at an advantage and survive. They then carry with them the idea of a self that not only has beliefs and opinions, but free will and consciousness. All this, argues Blackmore, is illusion. Our actions are the result of memes and genes competing to be copied in a complex environment, not of a self with free will. In this view human consciousness is distorted by the false idea of a self, and can be changed by practices like meditation, which undermine the idea.
This is where the moral objections of critics come to the fore. They argue that without a sense of self with free will and personal responsibility, we could not have effective legal systems and could not expect people to behave morally and co-operatively. Memetics clearly strikes at the heart of human nature. Yet if the theory of memes is right we cannot reject it on those grounds, and we may have to rethink many of our most precious ideas.
According to memetics that rethinking is urgent. Communications systems are rapidly expanding to spread more memes. Satellite systems, mobile telephones, and e-mail mean that everyone spreads more memes than ever before, even if this does not necessarily improve their lives and may burden them with information overload. The Internet is a vast playground for memes, many of which will propagate a round the world without any human having control over them or even noticing them. If we are to understand this rapid change, we may need a much better theory of memetics.
Blackmore, S. J. (1999). The meme machine. Oxford University Press, Oxford.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford. (New edition with additional material, 1989.)
Dennett, D. (1995). Darwin's dangerous idea. Penguin, London.