Memes are the cultural equivalence of biological genes. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene. The premise behind The Selfish Gene is that Darwinian natural selection acts at the level of genes; ultimately, it is genes that guide evolution by controlling the traits in bodies that contain the genes. In order for natural selection to work, there needs to be something like DNA and genes in which information is replicated. There also requires some copying errors so that small variations can occur from one generation to the next. Memes also fit that description. Memes are ideas that survive in human brains, and similar to genes they can be copied and passed on.
There are many different types of memes: for example, songs, hairstyles, phrases, beliefs, words and manners. In today’s world the word meme has become popular on the internet. Whenever we here that something has “gone viral,” it is often referred to as a meme. In most cases the meme is something trivial, such as a piece of music, a surprising story or a silly video. It spreads rapidly, but usually it will not last very long. However, other memes have a far greater impact on society, and become part of cultural evolution. Or you could say that the memes guide cultural evolution, much like “the selfish genes.”
The Meme Codes
Language may be the key ingredient that allows memes to spread. Like a DNA code, language is also coded information. It comes in the form of letters and words. Speech is one variation of language, which is surely copied, but written language is even more stable as a replicating code.
We can all recall numerous instances when an event is passed from one story-teller to another. In most cases the details in the story changes until we have conflicting accounts. The information is transferred from one individual brain to another, but memories are not perfect and the copies are not exact. However, written language can exchange hands without the story being altered. The stories still have to resonate in people’s brains and the interpretations will vary, but the fidelity of the written word is higher than the spoken word.
Music is another meme that has two routes of transition. 1) Tunes are passed on by hearing the sounds and attempting to duplicate them. If a tune sounds appealing there is a higher chance it will be copied. As time passes the tune will change a bit. 2) Music can also be written in sheet music using mostly symbols. Like written language, the written music will remain close to the original form. One piano player following a sheet music may sound slightly different from another player. But as the song is played by many piano players it will not change significantly.
Mathematics is a meme of numbers, symbols and diagrams. It is more accurately copied than language, because there is less ways it can be altered. 2 plus 2 will always equal 4. There is an order in mathematics that is self-correcting, although concepts evolve over time with new applications. Language, music and mathematics are coded information that are replicated and evolve in human brains.
Marching on Through the Generations
The idea of generations is different for memes than it is for genes. A different generation for a gene is an offspring, which will carry some of the same genes. For memes, there is a double meaning for a generation. A meme can be passed on from person to person in a single day, or survive for many years. For instance, I tell you an idea, and you share it with someone else. That’s 3 generations, from me to you to someone else. In this scenario the meme could evolve like microbes, where mutations can occur in a matter of days or weeks. The idea will spread quickly, but each person could add to it or leaves something out; these would be mutations of the original idea.
There are also memes that are handed down in the traditional sense of generations, that is, from a father to a son. These memes are long-lasting and could become cultural norms or traditions. For example, holidays are memes that have survived for many years. In many cases the original customs and purposes behind the holidays are lost or changed (at least by some people). Still the celebrations continue and millions of people observe the holidays. Do we know why the colors of Christmas are red and green, or why the Easter Bunny gives out eggs, or why children get candies at Halloween?
Memes Working Together
Similar to a single gene, a single meme has a minor impact. Genes are effective when they combine with other cooperative genes. Memes also combine with compatible memes and also compete with other memes for attention in human brains. One could think of different ideas as a meme pool, which people select (consciously or subconsciously). The memes that work well together will be more likely to be copied. A meme-complex could be copied because it benefits society, but it could also be copied because it aids the propagation of itself. It is not a guarantee that humans will make the best possible choices; there are equal reasons to believe that we will choose unwisely.
A sport is an example of a well-established meme-complex. The North American culture is fascinated with sports on a daily basis. Many play sports at local venues; many more watch sports at stadiums and on televisions. What memes could be working together? How about this list: (memes for running, throwing and catching), (memes for competing, winning and losing), (memes for watching, cheering and analyzing). Any stable and self-replicating cultural norm will consist of mutually beneficial memes.
Recorded human history is a story of culture. The ideas that populations believed in mass, whether real or imagined, has fueled the events of history. The most influential ideas (memes) have won out over other ideas. Not always because they were better ideas, but because they were more effective at spreading from brain to brain. Historian Yuval Harari writes in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:
… history’s choices are not made for the benefit of humans… There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures disappear.
The cultural enterprises that have dominated human life contain large numbers of memes. Such examples are: religion, war, agriculture, kingdoms, art, music, politics, nationalism and science. No one can tell if the history-making memes (or meme-complexes) took the best course of action for humanity. Some did and others did not. Nevertheless, they had the attributes to enter human brains and to be imitated. Our modern culture is formed by memes with the same qualities as the historical memes. That is, copying fidelity, with variation, and wide-spread selection from the meme pool.
References: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Canada: Signal Books, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, 2014).
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 30th anniversary edition, 2006).
Richard Dawkins | Memes | Oxford Union, Published on Feb. 26, 2014.
Susan Blackmore sobre memes e “temes” – TED Legendado, Published on Jul. 13, 2013.