As organisms we like to think we’re the ‘thing that evolves’, but it’s genes that are the main character in the story. Organisms are just vehicles for carrying around and protecting genes, formed when mutually beneficial to do so. Of course genes aren’t really making alliances. Winning combinations of genes survive long enough to reproduce, and bad matches go extinct from the gene pool. The same thing occurs with memes: we like to think we’re the ones who have ideas, but it’s often more useful assumption that it’s the ideas that have us. Yes we can shape our reality with the ideas we come up with, but the vast majority of us are consumers of ideas not creators. We are more or less selective with where we ingest information from, but often social dynamics such as what group of friends we have, where we live and work, or what our religion is, dictate our information diet.
Some memes are more memorable than others, so are more likely to be remembered and passed on. Other memes that are more viral (higher fecundity) will spread quickly across the host population. Just like in genetics, the strength of selection pressure will in some part determine the rate of mutation. If we have too little mutation, the mechanism of evolution via natural selection can’t work to improve fitness. This is especially important in times of great volatility. Whereas memes that change too much will waste resources exploring new avenues, instead of exploiting existing pathways that are working. An important distinction is between copying the product (Lamarckian) and copying the instructions (Weissmanian). Biological evolution has proven phenotypes can’t change their genotypes – i.e. a giraffe that strains its neck can’t pass on longer necks to its offspring – but in memetics it is possible: for example you can learn how to play a song on the piano by ear, or by reading the musical notes.
Isolating individual memes to study them doesn’t make a lot of sense however, and is a mistake many Memeticists consistently make. Memes don’t exist in isolation: they’re only meaningful based on the past experiences and culture of their hosts, and who transmitted them. Ideas are more likely to be received and believed if it’s a celebrity or person of status that shares them. This was Girard’s insight in Mimetics: the person doing the sharing matters often more than the individual meme being shared. Also memes that don’t manage to attach themselves to something a person already has in their brains – i.e. a word in a foreign language – are highly likely to be rejected. In Memetics, vehicles for memes to band together are called ‘memeplexes’: groups of mutually beneficial memes. Beethoven’s fifth symphony and the famous first 4 notes. Wagons and their wheels. Obama and the phrase “yes we can”. None of these memes would be remembered or shared alone: they’d go extinct from the meme pool. Yet they thrive as part of a larger memeplex structure. These memes don’t actually coordinate, but viewed over a long enough time scale it’s a helpful analogy to imagine them working together to survive.
One winning strategy for memes is to get encoded into a religion: these organizations rarely change their minds, and will continue to preserve no longer relevant traditions year after year. For example many religions don’t eat pork, but since the advent of refrigerators we no longer suffer the same risks of illness those laws were enacted to prevent. Crucifixion as a punishment ended in the 4th Century AD, but as a meme it survives as part of the Christianity memeplex to this day, when we see Jesus on the Cross. The cross is a powerful and flexible symbol – the greatest logo of all time – helping to spread the wider basket of memes it’s a part of. The Holy Trinity. Original Sin. “Turn the other cheek”. Taken together they form one of the most successful memeplexes of all time.
Memes live in our brains, so being memorable is important. However since the inventing of the printing press and computer, memes no longer have to rely entirely on being memorable to persist. As Dawkins pointed out, memes “can propagate themselves from brain to brain, from brain to book, from book to brain, from brain to computer, from computer to computer”. Successful memeplexes like the Christian faith were among the first actively preserved in books – back when that was a considerable expense – ensuring their longevity and copying fidelity. It’s harder to make malicious changes when reading from text versus reciting a story from memory.
Humans are more likely to remember useful information, so being useful can help, but it can also pay to be annoying. Many pop songs spread virally not because of their artistry, but because they have a catchy beat. Other times the memes are actively harmful, like a virus. From the memes’ point of view it doesn’t matter: anything that improves their chances of persisting over time will be exploited. So long as the host can remember the meme for long enough to pass it on, it’ll continue to thrive. As happens in biology with genes, memes that used to be useful, can turn neutral or even harmful, like an appendix. When this happens usually there are efforts by the host to expel toxic memes by actively forgetting them. Memes and memeplexes don’t exist independent of humans and our institutions: there are usually groups with a vested interest in preserving them. So any good memeplex that has lasted over time has been curated by a person or institution with a process for removing a metaphorical appendix before it bursts.
How big is a meme?
Sylvain Magne: information vs codes
Sylvain Magne: What is a meme?
The Meme Machine, Blackmore
The Selfish Gene, Dawkins
“Good composers borrow, Great ones steal!”