Meme - A behavioural or cultural trait that is passed on by other than genetic means.
- Penguin English Dictionary
In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins, a noted zoologist and pro-evolutionary philosopher, searching for a parallel to Darwinian evolution, introduced the theory of memetics. The name is derived from the same root Greek word as 'memento' and is intended as a parallel of 'gene'.
The theory postulates that ideas behave in the collective consciousness of mankind in much the same way as genes behave in the gene-pool. So an idea - or meme - forms in the mind of an individual from other pre-existing ideas and, if deemed worthy, is passed on to other minds via speech, writing or demonstration. This is reproduction - there are now many copies of the meme. Each of these copies will be slightly different, due to the different interpretations of each individual and the other contents of each mind, so we have 'descent with modification'. These ideas then compete with each-other; the 'fittest' ideas are those that are passed on and come to be present in the minds of many individuals, at the cost of less-fit ideas, which are not communicated. Dawkins explains the idea in this way:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm 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
Dawkins regards bodies as 'reproduction machines' whose only purpose is to ensure the survival of genes. Just as genes do not reproduce in isolation, so memes often form into larger conglomerations that are passed on as a group. Religions are good examples of this; they generally consist of memes that are likely to be accepted - life after death, Divine justice, the importance of the individual in the cosmic scheme of things - reinforced by further memes to ensure the reproduction of the whole meme-set: exhortations to convert others1, spread the word and prevent alterations to the 'one true message'. 'Excess baggage' that can attach itself to these meme-sets will also be passed on, rather like redundant DNA2.
Other examples of meme-sets might be how to control a car, or write in GuideML. All these are collections of ideas that are passed around the collective human mind-space (or 'meme-pool'). Note that some of these are inherently useful (eg first aid) and others, such as the latest joke or fashion trend, are not. To meme theorists, usefulness, like truth, is merely another feature that may or may not improve a meme's fitness.
So Is It Just a Stick to Beat Religion With?
Dawkins has always been a vocal atheist3 and evolutionist, and it is hardly surprising that, coming from this source, the theory has been most readily adopted by others inclined to these views. Many of them feel that the theory eloquently expresses their views on organised religion.
Meme theory is also objectionable to the religiously-minded as it cites 'perceived truth' as a strong indicator of fitness - people tend to remember and repeat things that they believe to be true - but 'actual truth' as of negligible value. Indeed, because memes undergo descent with modification, they are inimical to the idea of a passed-on truth from God. And, of course, many object to the reduction of God to the same level as an urban myth or a piece of trivia4. Many regard the breaking down of centuries of religious tradition into memes and 'junk memes' as a somewhat cynical exercise.
However, meme theory goes beyond this. Although a science in its infancy - so much so that many would object to calling it a 'science' at all - it is slowly coming to the point where people are making basic predictions of what ideas are likely to be passed on. As with all sciences, the true test will be whether meme theory can make accurate predictions. Only then can it truly be called a science rather than an analogy. There is already at least one meme research group, based in the University of the West of England, although this too centres on a prominent rationalist: Susan Blackmore.
What Next for Memes?
Naturally, the idea of meme theory is itself a meme, and a successful one, having spread across the globe in 25 years. Now that it is posted on several Internet sites, including Meme Central and, of course, h2g2, its rate of spread is increased. Right now, the meme for 'memes' is embedded into your mind (unless you skipped the entry and jumped straight to the end) and the more you try to forget it, the better ensconced it will become.
Whatever the merits of meme theory, its spread over the last quarter-century shows that, by its own standards at least, meme theory has what it takes to be a success.