A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads through imitation from brain to brain. You probably know memes as “funny images posted on social media” but that’s a hijacking of the phrase. It actually comes from a shortening of mimeme (ancient Greek for ‘imitated thing’).
The term meme was coined in 1976 by an evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene, as the cultural equivalent to a biological gene.
“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 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.” – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Units of genetic information are stored in DNA in our cells, and passed on through reproduction. Memes are units of cultural information stored in Neurons in the brain, and passed on through communication. Memes that get forgotten go extinct, and those that survive spread throughout the ‘noosphere’, the collective human consciousness.
What is a meme?
Not every idea is a meme. Most of our thoughts are fleeting, and are never spoken, written down or pantomimed for others to learn. Animals can learn through conditioning and reinforcement, but their behaviors are innate and biological. What sets us apart is our ability to learn new behaviors by imitation. We are so good at it – even babies can do it – we forget animals don’t learn this way (birds, bees and apes can, but mostly don’t). If it isn’t learned through imitation, it isn’t a meme.
Evolution of memes
Genetic evolution is a slow process occurring over millions of years. Memetic evolution can happen much faster. We dominated every ecosystem we encountered thanks to our ability to mimic behavior. Speech, drawing and writing all increased our copying capacity. The printing press, radio, television and internet have accelerated progress exponentially. Nurture is overtaking nature.
Our brains still work the same as they did 10,000 years ago: all human progress is from our memes. Memory is an imperfect data store, and words are a lossy transmitter, so memes get unevenly distributed across the population. The best memes constantly resurface in new forms, reinvented and remixed with obscure sources. Like genes, memes pick up random errors when copied, but they also can be altered intentionally through human creativity.
Viruses of the Mind
When we find a meme that gives us an evolutionary advantage, we actively remember them and pass them on. We tinker with the idea to try to make it better. If we realize a meme is putting us at a disadvantage, we intentionally try to forget it. Like biological or computer viruses, memes can be disadvantageous to their hosts and still thrive: ‘viruses of the mind’. They just need to be remembered long enough to agitate their hosts into spreading them to others.
Often memes travel in groups, memeplexes, that are mutually beneficial as a package but may contain a few bad apples. Memes that used to be beneficial, like religious avoidance of pork, may suddenly become disadvantageous, like during the Spanish Inquisition. Memes sometimes rise from the fringes of society to become the height of fashion.
The rise of social media make memes more measurable, and there is a war for our attention. Marketers and technologists spend billions of dollars finding the right combination of memes to release chemicals in our brains. We’re rewarded for valuable behavior with dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and endorphins. We have to ask ourselves: valuable to whom?
Memetics is being studied by the U.S. Military, following the effectiveness of memes in ISIS’s recruiting efforts and Russia’s use of meme warfare. Marketers use principles of Memetics without realizing it. Memetics isn’t quite a science, but as we spend more time plugged into virtual worlds, studying memes gets easier and more important. We need to learn how to protect ourselves from malicious memes and find techniques to ensure we remember beneficial ones.