What’s a meme?

Dear Cecil: My boyfriend just told me about “memes,” which are part of the theory that ideas are viruses that invade the human brain. Strong memes replicate, causing the ideas to spread from person to person, and you wind up with things like religion and professional sports. Please, Cecil, what’s the story on this? Susan P., via the Internet


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

The concept of memes is either really deep or really, really obvious. You can guess what side I initially came down on. But having studied the matter, I’m obliged to say I’m not so sure.

The term “meme” (rhymes with “dream”) was coined by zoologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book about evolution, The Selfish Gene. Dawkins doesn’t claim genes are selfish in the same way as, say, kids who won’t share. Rather, he explains, the genes carried by each individual are the driving force behind evolution. As sentient beings we consider ourselves masters of our own fates, but in reality we’re just the battlebots in which competing genes slug it out — determining, through the impersonal workings of natural selection, which will survive.

Dawkins proposes that the meme is to culture what the gene is to biology. A meme is a reproducible idea and as such is the basic unit of cultural transmission. In his words:

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 sperm 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.

A meme isn’t just any fleeting impression or random thought. One defining characteristic of a meme is that it reproduces itself with a fair degree of fidelity. A joke is a meme; so is the alphabet. One can argue that language is the ultimate meme (or “memeplex,” as some call it). The sum of all memes is culture, transmitted from generation to generation, just as the genome is.

Meme theory proponents argue that, just as we’re the pawns by which our genes compete for dominance, so are we the creatures of our memes. You’ve heard such expressions as “The concept took on a life of its own” or “Never underestimate the power of an idea whose time has come,” right? To memeticists, these aren’t mere conceits but rather reflections of the true state of affairs.

You’re saying: Get out. I’m the boss of my ideas; they aren’t the boss of me.

Don’t be so sure. Few doubt that genes are real, and I venture to say the notion of the selfish gene is now the accepted scientific view. But genes are really coded bits of information more than they are tangible things, and though they happen to be embodied in the physical substrate of DNA, their essence can also be conveyed symbolically.

Memes are much the same, and their substrates can be as varied as a book or someone’s memory. Granted, some memes (a chain letter, an urban legend) are trivial or short-lived. But think about the memeplex of organized religion, instances of which have endured for millennia and to which many devote their lives.

Memes arguably have shaped our biology. Some think the human brain has evolved a built-in faculty for language acquisition. Memeticists say language offered an advantage to our early ancestors because it can transmit memes: for instance, how to make a stone ax. Memes thus tipped the evolutionary balance in favor of individuals with language skills. Through this mechanism they may even be responsible for our big brains.

What do memes add to the conventional understanding of the propagation of culture? Just this: They remove the element of conscious choice, making the process purely mechanical. Just as natural selection accounts for mankind’s origins without invoking God, meme theory accounts for our cultural edifices without positing a “self” or a “soul.”

That solves a long-standing philosophical conundrum: If we accept the idea of an unbreakable chain of cause and effect at the molecular level and take the materialist view that our brains are just complicated arrangements of molecules, there doesn’t seem to be any room for free will. Susan Blackmore, in The Meme Machine (1999), argues that with memes there doesn’t need to be. Free will and the sense of self are illusions. I’m not an independent actor, just an assemblage of memes (a “selfplex”). Things happen not because “I” make choices but because of interaction between the memes of which this “I” is composed.

One objects: So how did you write your book, lady? Blackmore’s response: Creative types don’t create; they’re merely vehicles by which evolving memes manifest themselves. (“The book wrote itself.”) Sounds like the woolliest college bull session ever, I know, but even if you don’t buy it you’ve still got to think: Whoa.

(Followup: More on memes.)

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.