You Keep Using that Word…

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With the rise of Facebook, the word meme has crept, almost 40 years after it was coined, into our popular vernacular. Trouble is, most of what we see labeled “memes” are not, strictly speaking, deserving of the appellation. The following is my (probably ill-advised) attempt to throw a little light on the subject.

Background: The Meme Pool

The term “meme” was conceived by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Memes do not enter into his thesis until near the end, the lion’s share of the book being devoted to, as you might have deduced from the title, the intricacies and (metaphorically speaking) “intention,” of genetic transmission. Dawkins brings his theories about genetics to bear on human culture by introducing the concept of the meme.

Richard Dawkins

Richard Dawkins

Due to the complexity of the subject, it is worth quoting Dawkins at some length. So, beginning on page 192 (in my 1989 edition) of The Selfish Gene:

The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our planet. There may be others. If there are, provided certain other conditions are met, they will almost inevitably tend to become the basis for an evolutionary process. […] I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. […] 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. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation (his italics). […] I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene.’

A bit further on, Dawkins offers this definition of the term:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.

And Dawkins then gives us a sketch of how memes work:

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. […] If [a given] idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.

And finally, as if what he had already written wasn’t quite enough to be getting on with, he quotes his colleague, the Oxford psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, who both deepens and solidifies the idea:

[M]emes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, 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 this 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.

It is a rare thing indeed when fewer than 350 words manage to convey such a treasure trove of heady possibilities.

The “Meme” Meme

After its publication, The Selfish Gene went on to become one of the most important books on evolutionary theory ever written, but the “meme” meme didn’t immediately make a splash in the meme pool, especially in the larger pool of the general public. Over the years, other scientists and philosophers took up the idea of cultural replication, with varying degrees of success. Some of the better-known examples include:

Thinking Brain

Thinking Brain

Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett (1995); Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme by Richard Brodie (1995); The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore (2000); The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think by Robert Aunger (2010); and On the Origin of Tepees: The Evolution of Ideas (and Ourselves) by Jonnie Hughes (2012).

Each of these authors has expanded upon Dawkins’ idea. Some have done so with a great deal of unsupported hyperbole (Brodie). Others have added to the theory, deepening it and casting new light upon it (Dennett; Blackmore; Hughes). All have produced thought-provoking descriptions of how memetic transmission might operate within the community of minds.

But what none of them have done, and what even Richard Dawkins never did, is show how—physically, tangibly—memes function inside an individual brain.

Nuts, Bolts, Neurons and Memories

Questions abound.

How does a meme implant itself in a mind, and what are the neuro-chemical reactions and processes that give a meme “staying power” by locking it in our memory?

How does an individual mind differentiate between one meme and another? Are all memes useful? By what criteria do we tell?

How much time must elapse for a meme to become “solid”? Is a meme created yesterday truly a meme, or must it float around for a while until its utility is recognized? I suspect that time is vitally important, but it remains to be seen.

Neuron Cluster

Neuron Cluster

How do issues of complexity effect how a meme is defined, takes root, and propagates? For example, a “hinge” meme is fairly simple and straight-forward, whereas a “trickle-down economics” meme is multi-layered and vastly complex. Does this indicate the existence of “master” memes that are composed of many “component” memes? And if that is the case, where does it all stop?

The last 20 years has seen monumental growth in our knowledge of how the brain works. Yet, as any neuro-scientist will tell you, we still know next to nothing. Neuroscience is still in its infancy. Until we know a great deal more about how the brain assembles and stores memories, and about how memories are triggered and disseminated, the study of memetics is likely to remain a bit speculative.

You Keep Using that Word…

Social media is replete with memes. On Facebook alone we have pages called Memes, Quickmeme, Meme Center, Greatest Memes, The Best Memes Ever, and hundreds of others. Organizations regularly post memes as a method of quickly communicating with their online followers—Being Liberal, the NFL, I Fucking Love Science, etc. Sites like BuzzFeed, Pinterest, Memebase, and Tumblr all post lists of the best, worst, funniest, etc., memes.

But here’s the thing. I would say, conservatively speaking, that well over 80 percent of the “memes” we encounter each day on social media sites are nothing of the sort. They are too fleeting, I think. They haven’t been plunged into the meme pool and tested by its millions of minds.

But if they are not memes, then what are they?

They are pictures with clever captions. They are visual bon mot. They are photo-shopped bullet points.

And So…?

The meme is a powerful concept. As is the idea that we spread culture in a way similar to genetic transmission.

I find it bothersome that the “meme” meme has been appropriated by people who posess only a limited grasp of the subject, and that they have watered-down the idea into bland and (all too often) depthless soundbites. And I worry about how that might impact future investigations.

We’ll see.


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