Thursday, September 19, 2013

What is a Meme?

Most people think memes are photos with clever captions but in reality the concept predates "Success Kid" and "Forever Alone" by a couple of decades.

The term "meme" was coined in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his book "The Selfish Gene."

My trusty friend Wikipedia defines a meme as
an idea, behaviour, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying ideas, symbols, or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.
 
So damn clever

The implications of meme theory can be a little bit disturbing.

As writer/documentarian Jonnie Hughes puts it:
If ideas are just like living things, then they are subject to Darwinian rules – inherently selfish entities, doing anything and everything they must to survive and propagate. And in this scenario, what are we? Little more than their hosts, their habitats? Vehicles to carry them from one parasitic generation to the next, coerced accomplices to their wild ambitions? If this idea has any substance at all, it will upset a lot of people.

Put succinctly: do human minds spawn ideas or do they simply carry and spread ideas onward? Do we have a choice in the matter or are we the unwitting hosts of selfish ideas?

I should think the answer, as is often case with binary questions, is both.

We birthed the first memes within our minds, as a reaction to various forms of stimuli; but once they came into existence, they took on lives of their own and became subject to the law of natural selection.

Some memes, reenforced by successful mutations, thrived and spread out while others turned out to be memetic dead-ends.

And as for the matter of choice, it seems clear that we can, under certain circumstances, choose to cast certain ideas or beliefs out of our minds. More often than not, however, we seem to be unaware of the memes we carry within ourselves.

If you want to find proof that mem theory is legitimate, you need only study the fossil record of human ideas.

Why don't we worship Zeus, Odin, or Ishtar anymore?

Why aren't modern nations governed by God-Kings?

What happened to the feudal system?

These questions may sound silly to modern humans, and rightfully so. We ride metallic tubes across the skies, communicate with each other via invisible signals, and beam the wealth of human knowledge across thin air to hand-held super-computers.

Armed with the scientific method, modern humans have laid waste to many long-held myths. We know that the Mesopotamian, Greek, Roman, and Nordic pantheons are fictional, the product of human curiosity and imagination. We know that kings are just regular people, not divine representatives. We know that the feudal system was little more than organized slavery set up by greedy aristocrats.

To us these memes are barely worth considering, but to someone living in the ancient world they were fact. Countless people lived and died according to the whims of these now-extinct memes.

Memes evolve with our understanding of the universe.

From polytheism to monotheism; from slavery to Emancipation; from despotism to modern democracy: trace our progress from pre-history onward and you'll see the forward march of memetics, punctuated here and there with a backward step (or three).

The role of memes in our ongoing evolution cannot be overstated: they drove our species from primitive ape to Pangean organism, gave rise to unimaginable technology, and caused the death of untold millions.

Whether good or bad, memes are no small matter.

Which brings us to our second question: why name my blog the "Meme Merchant?"

In my first post I tried to illustrate the importance of curiosity in finding peace and happiness. I likened it to a journey and I am all too familiar with the difficulty of those first steps. With so much information out there--so many selfish memes actively seeking to replicate--it isn't easy to find the kindling that will light your curiosity aflame.

This then, is my mandate.

To sift through the trash bins and galleries of human history; to scour the minds of great thinkers past and present; to explore unorthodox ideas; and to pass my findings on to you.

I'll focus on the memes that kick-started my curiosity, memes that offer practical advice, incite awe, or promote self-inquiry.

I won't shy away from memes exhibiting backward-thinking and irrationality, either. After all, even bad ideas have value, if only in teaching us what not to think!


Memes are all around us. They form the invisible glue that holds humanity together. No topic is taboo, no opinion or idea--no matter how irrational or emotionally-driven--is worthless.

Welcome to the Meme Merchant.

PS: For more on meme theory, here's a great TED Talk by Susan Blackmore. Sums it up very nicely.
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