For most, a meme refers to those silly pictures on the internet that sarcastically or ironically mock (usually very serious) events going on in the world. For old people like myself, the images below could be said to define the memetic milieu of my teenage years
The “Me Gusta” meme (see an example below) of my youth truly represents what it meant to be a teenager during those nascent years of memetic development:
The absurdly high level of cringe is astounding. Modern memes may be different in content, but not so much in form. Naturally, they should of course only take the form of Pingu, the superior medium of delivery for all kinds of culturally relevant information:
But I digress. Back to our earlier question: what is a meme? In this post I’d like to do something I’ve wanted to do for a while: get people thinking about how these seemingly innocuous images represent far more than just a cheap laugh. What binds these images (and memes more generally) is a set of three claims that I will work through: each is a (1) carrier of cultural information, this information can be (2) replicated and (3) passed from one individual to another.
In The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins outlined a genetic approach to understanding cultural items. The main unit of analysis in genetic evolution is the gene, and in culture it is the meme. Dawkins claims that memes can be construed as having developmental features which are analogous to genetic development.
Genetic evolution is concerned with the transmission and change of genetic information over time (in the form of DNA transcription), from parents to offspring, and the rules that govern such transmissions. Memetic evolution, by contrast, is concerned with the non-genetic transmission of memetic (cultural) information, which nonetheless follow the same rules as genetic evolution by natural selection.
To my first claim, then, that memes are carriers of cultural information. The images at the beginning of this post are clear examples of memes in this sense, not because they made you laugh (or, more than likely, cringe), but because they allowed for the transmission of culturally salient information.
For these kinds of memes to “work” they must tap into a collective, shared pool of meaning and reproduce this meaning in a physical form. Importantly, some bit of culturally salient information must be brought to the surface. And all this can take the form of Pingu, god’s gift to memekind. In the case of the Pingu meme above, there is a clear left-wing political meaning, and the meme is successful based on whether or not enough people agree with the message or simply just spread it, even if they disagree (perhaps even because they disagree), therefore allowing it to reproduce.
This brings us to the next point. My second claim was that memes can be replicated. This will need to be cashed out a bit more, as it’s not just replication, but worthwhile replication. You don’t copy the assignment of the kid in your class who consistently gets 50%: you copy Karen who gets 90% without fail. Why? Because Karen’s work is worth copying, and you don’t want to waste your time with Eugene. In order for a meme to proliferate, it must be information that is worth copying.
In a sense what you’ve done by copying Karen’s work is allowed it to reproduce, all over your page and in your head. In this way, the meme has spread, virus-like, from Karen’s head into yours. This reproductive function means that these cultural traits are able to evolve independently of their thinking hosts’ (in this case Karen’s) wishes and can use their hosts as vectors in the service of their own survival (Dennett, 1991: 204).
Memes are thus the beneficiaries of their own reproduction, not their hosts (Dennett, 2003: 177). In a sense, then, Karen’s work, once you have copied it, takes on a life of its own: it is now no longer dependant on Karen or her mind in order to exist. Its existence is now predicated on its ability to reproduce itself in the minds of other thinkers (like if Eugene were to start copying your work, once again reproducing the “Karen meme”).
Another example is the belief in astrology, which asserts that the movement of distant celestial bodies can help us divine information about earthly affairs. Now, regardless of the truth of this clearly absurd belief, it has proven itself remarkably successful at reproducing. There are many people who accept judgments made based on the movements of these distant bodies as fact, despite the substantial lack of empirical evidence. It doesn’t matter that there is no physical way in which supermassive spheres of gas have causally discernible and direct effects on our psychology.
What matters, from this memetic perspective, is whether people believe that such effects are possible, and act in accordance with these beliefs, such as reading their horoscopes, talking about crystals, and indulging in various forms of vacuous self-help. Thus, belief in astrology persists, passing from one individual to another, regardless of its lack of verisimilitude. This then spreads the memes of production.
The proliferation of a meme is thus grounded in its fitness (or reproductive success), not in its accordance with a certain moral code or truth value (although these aspects can certainly play a role). Therefore, a meme’s “goals” may not align with those of its host, and so its successful proliferation is tethered to our psychological makeup, with its inherent biases (see Kahneman, 2011 for an overview: the tl;dr is that your brain is lazy). This is of course disappointing: one would hope that only the best ideas would spread, and that the world is in some sense meritocratic, rewarding the best ideas and eliminating the unworthy ones. Recent political events (or all political events?) suggest otherwise, however, and so this understanding of memetic development can help us better understand how horrible ideas still find themselves with surprising levels of cultural purchase.
Something that many might be worried about at this point is the Creeping Specter of Exculpation (in English: the threat of biological determinism) (Dennett, 1984). Biological determinism posits that we can ascribe universal behavioural traits to humans that are fully explained by our genes. On this understanding, differences between groups of people are simply the result of our genes, and no choice we make, whether collectively or individually, can change this. Any choice is simply a reflection of a genetic disposition or evolutionary pressure, and the best choices or actions are the ones that satisfy the requirements of natural selection and lead to increased fecundity (successful baby making) (Lewontin, 1982: 172). However, there are clear cases where the behaviour of human beings is able to resist this superficially reductionist biological account (Ridley, 2003).
Take the example of a supernormal stimulus: our insatiable appetite for sweet foods. From an evolutionary perspective this trait makes sense, as the relative scarcity of such foods in our past, combined with their immense nutritional value, allowed this evolutionary impulse to flourish. Modernity, however, places before us a plethora of sugary snacks that we would do better to avoid. For example, the Spar next to my house is now selling a box of 24 Easter egg mallows for R27.99. Any person who can resist this kind of temptation is not the product of evolution by natural selection on the planet Earth, but rather a Spartan-like god capable of making even leftists smile.
Importantly, however, some aliens are capable of this avoidance by rising above their genetic baggage and appreciating the long-term negative effects of their decisions. By doing this they are able to create beneficial habits of behaviour that are not fully dependant on their genes. And so our ability to resist refined sugar is not necessarily dependant on genetic factors, creating room for the defiance of the “selfish genes” of our ancestors (Dawkins, 1976: 215). The worry of biological determinism, therefore, is unwarranted.
Memes are the building blocks of cultural transmission. Understanding how and why this transmission occurs is important, as it can illuminate how beliefs might persist over time, despite their absurdity. These cultural carriers of information can be replicated and spread from one mind into another. With this understanding of memes we can better understand how and why societal change takes place and, significantly, why change for the better seems so elusive. This is because, as noted earlier, the spreading of memetic material is often more a function of fitness than it is of actual epistemic value. A memetic lens can help us better understand the laws which actively shape the various ways in which cultural information is transferred from one conscious skin-bag to the next.