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The Concept of Modern "Meme"

A “meme” is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the “meme”. A “meme” acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard “memes” as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. Proponents theorize that “memes” are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. “Memes” do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a “memes” reproductive success. “Memes” spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts. “Memes” that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and mutate. “Memes” that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts. A field of study called memetics arose in the 1990s to explore the concepts and transmission of memes in terms of an evolutionary model.

Criticism from a variety of fronts has challenged the notion that academic study can examine memes empirically. However, developments in neuroimaging may make empirical study possible. Some commentators in the social sciences question the idea that one can meaningfully categorize culture in terms of discrete units, and are especially critical of the biological nature of the theory’s underpinnings. Others have argued that this use of the term is the result of a misunderstanding of the original proposal. The word “meme” is a neologism coined by Richard Dawkins. It originated from Dawkins’ 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”. Dawkins’s own position is somewhat ambiguous: he welcomed N. K. Humphrey’s suggestion that “memes” should be considered as living structures, not just metaphorically and proposed to regard memes as “physically residing in the brain”. Later, he argued that his original intentions, presumably before his approval of Humphrey’s opinion, had been simpler. At the New Directors’ Showcase 2013 in Cannes, Dawkins’ opinion on memetics was deliberately ambiguous.

Etymology

The word meme is a shortening of mime coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in “The Selfish Gene” as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catchphrases, fashion, and the technology of building arches. Kenneth Pike coined the related terms emic and etic, generalizing the linguistic idea of phoneme, morpheme, grapheme, lexeme, and tagmeme, characterizing them as insider view and outside view of behaviour and extending the concept into a tagmemic theory of human behaviour

Origins

The word “meme” originated with Richard Dawkins’ 1976 book “The Selfish Gene”. Dawkins cites as inspiration the work of geneticist L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, anthropologist F. T. Cloak and ethologist J. M. Cullen. Dawkins wrote that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission—in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution. Although Dawkins invented the term ‘meme’ and developed meme theory, the possibility that ideas were subject to the same pressures of evolution as were biological attributes was discussed in Darwin’s time.

T. H. Huxley claimed that ‘The struggle for existence holds as much in the intellectual as in the physical world. A theory is a species of thinking, and its right to exist is coextensive with its power of resisting extinction by its rivals.’Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesized that one could view many cultural entities as replicators, and pointed to melodies, fashions and learned skills as examples. “Memes” generally replicate through exposure to humans, who have evolved as efficient copiers of information and behavior. Because humans do not always copy memes perfectly, and because they may refine, combine or otherwise modify them with other memes to create new memes, they can change over time. Dawkins likened the process by which memes survive and change through the evolution of culture to the natural selection of genes in biological evolution.

In contrast, the concept of genetics gained concrete evidence with the discovery of the biological functions of DNA. “Meme” transmission requires a physical medium, such as photons, sound waves, touch, taste, or smell because “memes” can be transmitted only through the senses. Dawkins noted that in a society with culture a person need not have descendants to remain influential in the actions of individuals thousands of years after their death. But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea…it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G.C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The “meme”-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong. Although Dawkins invented the term meme, he has not claimed that the idea was entirely novel, and there have been other expressions for similar ideas in the past. In 1904, Richard Semon published “Die Meme” .

The term “meme” was also used in Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Life of the White Ant, with some parallels to Dawkins’s concept. The reuse of the neural space hosting a certain “meme’s” copy to host different memes is the greatest threat to that “meme’s” copy. A “meme” which increases the longevity of its hosts will generally survive longer. On the contrary, a meme which shortens the longevity of its hosts will tend to disappear faster. However, as hosts are mortal, retention is not sufficient to perpetuate a meme in the long term; memes also need transmission. Life-forms can transmit information both vertically and horizontally . “Memes” can replicate vertically or horizontally within a single biological generation. They may also lie dormant for long periods of time. “Memes” reproduce by copying from a nervous system to another one, either by communication or imitation. Imitation often involves the copying of an observed behavior of another individual. Communication may be direct or indirect, where “memes” transmit from one individual to another through a copy recorded in an inanimate source, such as a book or a musical score.

Adam McNamara has suggested that memes can be thereby classified as either internal or external “memes” Social contagions such as fads, hysteria, copycat crime, and copycat suicide exemplify “memes” seen as the contagious imitation of ideas. Observers distinguish the contagious imitation of “memes” from instinctively contagious phenomena such as yawning and laughing, which they consider innate behaviors.

Aaron Lynch described seven general patterns of “meme” transmission, or “thought contagion”:

– Quantity of parenthood: an idea that influences the number of children one has. Children respond particularly receptively to the ideas of their parents, and thus ideas that directly or indirectly encourage a higher birthrate will replicate themselves at a higher rate than those that discourage higher birthrates.

– Efficiency of parenthood: an idea that increases the proportion of children who will adopt ideas of their parents. Cultural separatism exemplifies one practice in which one can expect a higher rate of “meme”-replication—because the “meme” for separation creates a barrier from exposure to competing ideas.

– Proselytic: ideas generally passed to others beyond one’s own children. Ideas that encourage the proselytism of a “meme”, as seen in many religious or political movements, can replicate “memes” horizontally through a given generation, spreading more rapidly than parent-to-child “meme”-transmissions do.

– Preservational: ideas that influence those that hold them to continue to hold them for a long time. Ideas that encourage longevity in their hosts, or leave their hosts particularly resistant to abandoning or replacing these ideas, enhance the preservability of “memes” and afford protection from the competition or proselytism of other “memes”.

– Adversative: ideas that influence those that hold them to attack or sabotage competing ideas and/or those that hold them. Adversative replication can give an advantage in “meme” transmission when the “meme” itself encourages aggression against other “”memes.

– Cognitive: ideas perceived as cogent by most in the population who encounter them. Cognitively transmitted “memes” depend heavily on a cluster of other ideas and cognitive traits already widely held in the population, and thus usually spread more passively than other forms of “meme” transmission. “Memes” spread in cognitive transmission do not count as self-replicating.

– Motivational: ideas that people adopt because they perceive some self-interest in adopting them. Strictly speaking, motivationally transmitted “memes” do not self-propagate, but this mode of transmission often occurs in association with memes self-replicated in the efficiency parental, proselytic and preservational modes.

“Memes” as discrete units Dawkins initially defined meme as a noun that “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”. The “meme” as a unit provides a convenient means of discussing “a piece of thought copied from person to person”, regardless of whether that thought contains others inside it, or forms part of a larger meme. A “meme” could consist of a single word, or a “meme” could consist of the entire speech in which that word first occurred. This forms an analogy to the idea of a gene as a single unit of self-replicating information found on the self-replicating chromosome.While the identification of “memes” as “units” conveys their nature to replicate as discrete, indivisible entities, it does not imply that thoughts somehow become quantized or that “atomic” ideas exist that cannot be dissected into smaller pieces. A “meme” has no given size. Susan Blackmore writes that melodies from Beethoven’s symphonies are commonly used to illustrate the difficulty involved in delimiting memes as discrete units. She notes that while the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony form a “meme” widely replicated as an independent unit, one can regard the entire symphony as a single “meme” as well.

Evolutionary influences on memes Dawkins noted the three conditions that must exist for evolution to occur:

– variation, or the introduction of new change to existing elements;

– heredity or replication, or the capacity to create copies of elements;

– differential “fitness”, or the opportunity for one element to be more or less suited to the environment than another.

Dawkins emphasizes that the process of evolution naturally occurs whenever these conditions co-exist, and that evolution does not apply only to organic elements such as genes. He regards “memes” as also having the properties necessary for evolution, and thus sees “meme” evolution as not simply analogous to genetic evolution, but as a real phenomenon subject to the laws of natural selection. Dawkins noted that as various ideas pass from one generation to the next, they may either enhance or detract from the survival of the people who obtain those ideas, or influence the survival of the ideas themselves. For example, a certain culture may develop unique designs and methods of tool-making that give it a competitive advantage over another culture. Each tool-design thus acts somewhat similarly to a biological gene in that some populations have it and others do not, and the “meme’s” function directly affects the presence of the design in future generations. In keeping with the thesis that in evolution one can regard organisms simply as suitable “hosts” for reproducing genes, Dawkins argues that one can view people as “hosts” for replicating memes. Consequently, a successful “meme” may or may not need to provide any benefit to its host.

Susan Blackmore distinguishes the difference between the two modes of inheritance in the evolution of “memes”, characterizing the Darwinian mode as “copying the instructions” and the Lamarckian as “copying the product.” Theistic memes discussed include the “prohibition of aberrant sexual practices such as incest, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, castration, and religious prostitution”, which may have increased vertical transmission of the parent religious memeplex. Similar “memes” are thereby included in the majority of religious memeplexes, and harden over time; they become an “inviolable canon” or set of dogmas, eventually finding their way into secular law. This could also be referred to as the propagation of a taboo.

Memetics

The discipline of memetics, which dates from the mid-1980s, provides an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer based on the concept of the “meme”. Memeticists have proposed that just as memes function analogously to genes, memetics functions analogously to genetics. Memetics attempts to apply conventional scientific methods to explain existing patterns and transmission of cultural ideas. Principal criticisms of memetics include the claim that memetics ignores established advances in other fields of cultural study, such as sociology, cultural anthropology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology. Questions remain whether or not the meme concept counts as a validly disprovable scientific theory. This view regards memetics as a theory in its infancy: a protoscience to proponents, or a pseudoscience to some detractors.

Criticism of meme theory

An objection to the study of the evolution of memes in genetic terms involves a perceived gap in the gene/meme analogy: the cumulative evolution of genes depends on biological selection-pressures neither too great nor too small in relation to mutation-rates. There seems no reason to think that the same balance will exist in the selection pressures on “memes”.

Luis Benitez-Bribiesca M.D., a critic of memetics, calls the theory a “pseudoscientific dogma” and “a dangerous idea that poses a threat to the serious study of consciousness and cultural evolution”. As a factual criticism, Benitez-Bribiesca points to the lack of a “code script” for “memes”, and to the excessive instability of the “meme” mutation mechanism, which would lead to a low replication accuracy and a high mutation rate, rendering the evolutionary process chaotic.British political philosopher John Gray has characterized Dawkins’ memetic theory of religion as “nonsense” and “not even a theory… the latest in a succession of ill-judged Darwinian metaphors”, comparable to Intelligent Design in its value as a science.

Another critique comes from semiotic theorists such as Deacon and Kull. This view regards the concept of “meme” as a primitivized concept of “sign”. The “meme” is thus described in memetics as a sign lacking a triadic nature. Semioticians can regard a “meme” as a “degenerate” sign, which includes only its ability of being copied. Accordingly, in the broadest sense, the objects of copying are memes, whereas the objects of translation and interpretation are signs. Fracchia and Lewontin regard memetics as reductionist and inadequate. Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr disapproved of Dawkins’ gene-based view and usage of the term “meme”, asserting it to be an “unnecessary synonym” for “concept”, reasoning that concepts are not restricted to an individual or a generation, may persist for long periods of time, and may evolve.

Applications

Opinions differ as to how best to apply the concept of memes within a “proper” disciplinary framework. One view sees memes as providing a useful philosophical perspective with which to examine cultural evolution. Proponents of this view argue that considering cultural developments from a “meme’s”-eye view—as if “memes” themselves respond to pressure to maximise their own replication and survival—can lead to useful insights and yield valuable predictions into how culture develops over time.

Others such as Bruce Edmonds and Robert Aunger have focused on the need to provide an empirical grounding for memetics to become a useful and respected scientific discipline. A third approach, described by Joseph Poulshock, as “radical memetics” seeks to place memes at the centre of a materialistic theory of mind and of personal identity. Prominent researchers in evolutionary psychology and anthropology, including Scott Atran, Dan Sperber, Pascal Boyer, John Tooby and others, argue the possibility of incompatibility between modularity of mind and memetics. In their view, minds structure certain communicable aspects of the ideas produced, and these communicable aspects generally trigger or elicit ideas in other minds through inference and not high-fidelity replication or imitation. Atran discusses communication involving religious beliefs as a case in point. In one set of experiments he asked religious people to write down on a piece of paper the meanings of the Ten Commandments. Despite the subjects’ own expectations of consensus, interpretations of the commandments showed wide ranges of variation, with little evidence of consensus.

In another experiment, subjects with autism and subjects without autism interpreted ideological and religious sayings . People with autism showed a significant tendency to closely paraphrase and repeat content from the original statement . Controls tended to infer a wider range of cultural meanings with little replicated content . Only the subjects with autism—who lack the degree of inferential capacity normally associated with aspects of theory of mind—came close to functioning as “meme machines”.

In his book The Robot’s Rebellion, Stanovich uses the memes and memeplex concepts to describe a program of cognitive reform that he refers to as a “rebellion”. Specifically, Stanovich argues that the use of memes as a descriptor for cultural units is beneficial because it serves to emphasize transmission and acquisition properties that parallel the study of epidemiology. These properties make salient the sometimes parasitic nature of acquired memes, and as a result individuals should be motivated to reflectively acquire memes using what he calls a “Neurathian bootstrap” process.

Religion

Although social scientists such as Max Weber sought to understand and explain religion in terms of a cultural attribute, Richard Dawkins called for a re-analysis of religion in terms of the evolution of self-replicating ideas apart from any resulting biological advantages they might bestow.He argued that the role of key replicator in cultural evolution belongs not to genes, but to memes replicating thought from person to person by means of imitation. These replicators respond to selective pressures that may or may not affect biological reproduction or survival. Reasoned that if evolution is accelerated in conditions of propagative difficulty, then we would expect to encounter variations of religious memes, established in general populations, addressed to scientific communities. Using a memetic approach, Robertson deconstructed two attempts to privilege religiously held spirituality in scientific discourse. Advantages of a memetic approach as compared to more traditional “modernization” and “supply side” theses in understanding the evolution and propagation of religion were explored.

Memetic explanations of racism

In Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology, Jack Balkin argued that memetic processes can explain many of the most familiar features of ideological thought. His theory of “cultural software” maintained that memes form narratives, social networks, metaphoric and metonymic models, and a variety of different mental structures. Balkin maintains that the same structures used to generate ideas about free speech or free markets also serve to generate racistic beliefs. To Balkin, whether “memes” become harmful or maladaptive depends on the environmental context in which they exist rather than in any special source or manner to their origination. Balkin describes racist beliefs as “fantasy” memes that become harmful or unjust “ideologies” when diverse peoples come together, as through trade or competition.

Architectural “memes”

In A Theory of Architecture, Nikos Salingaros speaks of memes as “freely propagating clusters of information” which can be beneficial or harmful. He contrasts memes to patterns and true knowledge, characterizing memes as “greatly simplified versions of patterns” and as “unreasoned matching to some visual or mnemonic prototype”. Taking reference to Dawkins, Salingaros emphasizes that they can be transmitted due to their own communicative properties, that “the simpler they are, the faster they can proliferate”, and that the most successful memes “come with a great psychological appeal”.Architectural memes, according to Salingaros, can have destructive power. “Images portrayed in architectural magazines representing buildings that could not possibly accommodate everyday uses become fixed in our memory, so we reproduce them unconsciously.” He lists various architectural memes that circulated since the 1920s and which, in his view, have led to contemporary architecture becoming quite decoupled from human needs. They lack connection and meaning, thereby preventing “the creation of true connections necessary to our understanding of the world”. He sees them as no different from antipatterns in software design – as solutions that are false but are re-utilized nonetheless.

Internet culture

An “Internet meme” is a concept that spreads rapidly from person to person via the Internet, largely through Internet-based E-mailing, blogs, forums, imageboards like 4chan, social networking sites like Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter, instant messaging, social news sites like Reddit, and video hosting services like YouTube and Twitch.tv.In 2013 Richard Dawkins characterized an Internet meme as one deliberately altered by human creativity, distinguished from Dawkins’s original idea involving mutation by random change and a form of Darwinian selection.

“Meme” maps

One technique of “meme” mapping represents the evolution and transmission of a “meme” across time and space. Such a “meme” map uses a figure-8 diagram to map the gestation, birth, and development of the selected meme. Such “meme” maps are nonscalar, with time mapped onto the y-axis and space onto the x-axis transect. One can read the temporal progression of the mapped meme from south to north on such a “meme” map. Paull has published a worked example using the “organics meme”. See also Baldwin effect TPsycholinguistics Survivals Universal Darwinism Viral marketing Viral video Notes

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