Wednesday, September 06, 2006


The "meme" is a term coined by Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. Dawkins observed that ideas are subject to the same manner of evolutionary patterns as genes, undergoing diffusion, mutation, and extinction based upon their fitness in the surrounding environment. Ideas replicate when shared between people and undergo alterations due to mistaken and purposeful misreadings. Memes include any meaningful pattern of information, from ideologies, to clothing styles, to one-liners. A meme then can be considered a unit of cultural inheritance communicated from person to person like a virus. When you find yourself humming the tune of a popular new song, you are engaging in the transmission of a meme.

Merely by observing nature, Dawkins notes in The Blind Watchmaker, it becomes evident that genes are information carriers. Watching a willow tree raining down seeds upon the earth is enough to recognize that it is spreading instructions. "It's raining tree-growing, fluff-spreading algorithms. That's not a metaphor, it's the plain truth. It couldn't be any plainer if it were raining floppy discs." Memes operate in a similar fashion and are propogated continuously through our information technologies. Our radios, telephones, TVs and personal computers are wired to shower its users with memes.

In Great Mambo Chicken and the Transhuman Condition by Ed Regis, Dawkins' colleague N.K. Humphrey notes that memes are truly alive in that they are the expression of human thought. "When you plant a fertile idea in my mind you literally parasitize my brian, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And that isn't just a way of talking--the meme for, say, 'belief in life after death' is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over."

While the idea of a belief structure parasitizing the brain may seem utterly dehumanizing, our ability to recognize when and how certain memes influence our actions ultimately gives us greater agency over our behavior. The modern drive for individuality is indeed problematized by the fact that upon reflection all of our ideas come second-hand. This is not to say that some memes are not more derivative and cliched than others. Merely, originality becomes a matter of reorganizing traditional ideas into new patterns that hold up under scrutiny. Seen in this light, the development of human ideas can be understood as an evolving landscape of competing memes.

Eric Drexler writes in Engines of Creation, "At best, chain letters, spurious rumors, fashionable lunacies, and other mental parasites harm people by wasting their time. At worst, they implant deadly misconceptions. These meme systems exploit human ignorance and vulnerability. Spreading them is like having a cold and sneezing on a friend." Authoritarian governments are known to enforce the cultivation of memes that are harmful to the individual when they benefit the interest of the state. In that sense, authoritarian memes prove exceedingly effective in monopolizing its host’s mental efforts, shutting out any new, conflicting mode of thought. "Memes that seal the mind against new ideas protect themselves in a suspiciously self-serving way," Drexler writes. "While protecting valuable traditions from clumsy editing, they may also shield parasitic claptrap from the test of truth. In times of swift change they can make minds dangerously rigid." Obviously, as the only species endowed with a rational intellect, we have a certain responsibility to be mindful of the memes we spread and what ends they serve.


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