M E M E T I C S - an exploration into the concept of ideas
This page has this word in it's title - meme - and I am set out to explain
what it is about.
Let's begin a little earlier in history.
Most of you will at least have heard of a man named Charles Darwin,
and you have probably also heard that he came up
with a theory about the evolution of lifeforms on our planet.
Don't worry, I'm not going to write about him, but I will write a little more
about the idea of evolution.
Darwin's theory was discussed for a long time, and one of the contributions
came from a man named Richard Dawkins. He set out to explain evolution as the
result of the reproduction of genes throughout lifeforms.
Dawkins' theory starts with the assumed monocellular organisms which were the
first primitive forms of composite life that evolved on our planet.
Those were the first self-replicating units of life. To make his long
story - described in his book "The Selfish Gene" - short: Over the billions
of years the self replicating units - the genes - diversified, they formed
composites - chromosomes - which would result in more complex adaptive
monocellular organisms. The templates stored in the synergeticly composed
replicating-unit chromosomes would eventually result in the instructions to
diversify cell reproduction in such a way, that a multicellular colony would
be the result. The only inherent function of the building blocks within these
colony organisms was to ensure their further replication.
In Dawkins' theory, evolution is an extension of biological self-replicating
units assembling themselves into composites to make sure their replication
can go on.
Now, that was only the start of what I intend to write about here.
In the end of his book, at the point where authors usually start to round up
and draw some conclusion or put forward a perspective, Dawkins ventures to say:
What if something like genes - a self-replicating unit - does not only exist
in the biological sphere, but also in the abstract sphere of the consciousness?
He called his little thought experiment the meme (pronounce MEEm).
This word is a shortening (modeled on gene) of mimeme, which is an artificial
derivative from the ancient Greek word mimma - something imitated - which in turn
comes from mimeisthai, to imitate.
That's where Dawkins leaves off and has the reader pondering the thought
One of those readers - Susan Blackmore - thought that this idea was
particularly interesting, and so she composed her own thoughts into a book
called "The Meme Machine". I guess the title is a result of the fact that
scientists often have to sell knowledge like it was a hollywood movie and
thus the editors slap a catchy title on it. It's not as bad a book as it's
stupidly placative title suggests. In fact it's pretty much an interesting and
thrilling read. So let's come to the point: Memes.
Those are - like genes - replicating units, however their medium is not some
primal soup or even this planet's highly evolved ecosystem, but the brain.
Memes are the smallest self-replicating building blocks of methods concepts
Like there are genes which result in some cell replication to produce skin
cells which protect the outsides of our bodies from the elements, there are
memes which replicate throughout human minds because they provide certain
abilities to the carrier-conscious which makes these memes more likely to be
passed on. Let's consider a classical example of a meme: primitive tool use.
Once humans had realized that certain ways of bashing stones together resulted
in an artifact which could be used to cut or scrape, they would become more
successful in their lives. Certain methods of gathering plants or working wood
or hunting were accessible only to those who had the memetic concept of
bashing stones together in a certain way. Since they were more
successful in assuring their own survival, they also spread the meme to other
minds capable of sustaining it. At this point the level of purely biological
evolution is extended by another level of conceptual mimetic evolution.
Memes spread through minds like genes spread around through living beings, and
the more a meme contributes to the prosperity of a carrier, the more likely
it is to spread to others which will imitate the mimetic structure through
observation, learning and practice. However, the collective consciousness
throughout which the memes spread is not perfected by any systematic designer
just like the ecological environment of this planet isn't.
Thus memes can spread regardless of whether they are ultimately harmful, or
not doing much at all, as long as they find a carrier. Todays world, full of
humans and networked with many channels of information dissemination, is a
fertile breeding ground for memes just like the multiplicity of a rainforest
ecosystem is a perfect breeding ground for genes.
Biological evolution indiscriminately works to result in algae which will
spread to suck all oxygen out of water, rendering whole lakes completely dead,
or in humans which have the capability to destroy the habitat of many
lifeforms, including their own.
Likewise memetic evolution may produce such memetic constructs as faschism
which might spread like wildfire but eventually lead to a self-destructive
cataclysm after which only small mutated versions of it exist in remote
pockets of the human collective consciousness ...
Much like dinosaurs once ruled but all that's left now are some species of
lizards and turtles.
Memetic reproduction does not care about whether it is "good" or "bad",
"right" or "wrong", if it gets imitated and spread, the meme will do so,
regardless of the consequences. The meme is not something conscious, it is
just a working self-replicating system. If the consequences eventually prove
fatal to the meme itself, then it will vanish. For example, consider a meme
which has died out: The flat earth theory. For a long time this meme spread
easily throughout minds because of it's apparent intuitive truth when
subjected to the reality check of immediate human perception.
The meme of a spherical earth was only a small endangered species in those
times which could only survive under laboratory conditions, so to speak.
Together with other memes, like mathematics and certain philosophical concepts,
it formed a composite that would eventually result in a new experience, however, when
subjected to the reality check of being able to sail around the planet and
end up where you started.
The flat earth theory - which had served well to tell humans about their
place in the world and was thus replicated among them - suddenly was made
useless by the change in "living conditions" for this meme.
Sailing around the world once was the cataclysm that wiped out this dinosaur.
So, memes spread if they can, no matter what, because there is no grand design
behind it ... yet.
Now that I have told you a little about the concept of memes you might come to
the realization that I am thereby actively spreading one.
This is the point where it gets interesting.
If you know about memes then you can influence them directly, and create new
ones even. It happens every day: A new catchy tune (which actually uses harmony
structures mimeticly replicated throughout centuries), a new slogan for a
product, a new political idea, a new religious sect, all based on very old
memes which replicated and recomposed with others to form new memetic
If the aspiring memeticist identifies the right memes, they can be fashioned
into new memetic life. The practice of memetic engineering is called by many
names nowadays: Neuro-Linguistic Programming, Spin Doctoring, Indoctrination,
Marketing Psychology and more. In the end they are all just methods to generate, modify
and spread memes. Of course, just like there's really no way to tell what a
geneticly engineered lifeform may do to it's environment (there's no telling
with naturally evolved ones either - mind you), you can never know what your
memes will do to the collective conscious environment.
Jesus Christ - for example - had some pretty strong memes cooked up, but he
seemingly wasn't the type to intend them to inspire people into countless
acts of cruelty and destruction, if the account of his life and work is to be considered even remotly true.
If you want, you can see Jesus as a very daring memetic engineer who took many memes of
established Israelite belief and wove them into a new memetic construct.
His memetic chimera was to inspire peace and understanding, but something went wrong when it was
exposed to memes from other systems like Roman imperialism or the warlike nature of
various European peoples of the time.
The practice of memetic engineering is apparently haphazard at best and highly
dangerous at worst.
Does that mean we should stop with it?
Certainly not! I'd say.
Remember the example with the flat earth? Well the memetic construct of a
spherical earth was an engineered one that was weak and almost incapable of
survival for a long time, but then in the end it prospered and lead to an
expansion of reality.
As with any other powerful and potentially destructive thing, we should use the insights we gain
wisely and with caution. Eventually we will run into problems and we will have to accept high risks, but
, do you want to live with the dinosaurs on a flat earth?
This article was originally published in the Woningnjet Magazine