Memetic Theory

Posted Monday November 15, 2010 by John Gunders in |

The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Memes was released in Australia last week, and to celebrate I bring you the second of my excerpts from the book. This section is taken from chapter twenty-one, in the section of the book where we look at the theories behind memes. This excerpt is reproduced with the permission of Alpha Books.

From The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Memes, Chapter Twenty-One

The message to take from The Selfish Gene was that simple preconditions can lead to complex results – that the underlying chemical processes that cause the gene to behave in a particular way can account for many of the behaviors that we see in plants and animals, and even in ourselves. Dawkins’s points out that most organisms will defend and support their kin over other members of the same species, and that this altruism is due to the fact that kin carry mostly the same genes. Thirty years since its publication, this scientific principle remains unchallenged.

But Dawkins acknowledges that the gene doesn’t have everything its own way, and that human intelligence can overcome the insistence of the selfish gene. A good example is contraception, which defeats the gene’s attempt to replicate itself.

There is another example that Dawkins used. He claimed that there was evolving a new replicator that had the power to defeat the dominance of the gene by encouraging people to consciously act against the blind compulsions of that particle. The meme. The selfish gene urges its host to act in a way that ensures the survival of the gene (and the host, obviously). Aside from the kinship example I mentioned above, this theory doesn’t account for altruism very well – why would a gene’s survival machine destroy itself for the benefit of unrelated genes? But people do sacrifice themselves to save others, they do inconvenience or even endanger themselves for a principle or an ideology. Perhaps someone is inspired by someone’s heroic deed to act similarly in the same circumstances. Perhaps a principle like “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” is recognized and believed, and affects the behavior of someone faced by an agonizing decision.

These are examples of memes that work against the dominance of the gene, something that Dawkins thought would become more prevalent. In Dawkins’s formulation, the meme copied the characteristics of the gene almost perfectly. Despite the fact that one was a biological entity, observable under a microscope, and the other was a purely mental state, their key similarities are the principles of replication and selfishness. In the same way that the gene affects behavior due to its pre-programmed drive to replicate, the meme wants to spread from brain to brain, and causes its host to behave in particular ways – from telling a joke, to structuring their whole lives in ways that conform to a particular ideology or belief.

The concept of the meme – the meme meme if you like – might have faded away if not for the attention of two people. The first was Douglas Hofstadter who between 1981 and 1983 wrote a column for Scientific American called “Metamagical Themas” in which he discussed a broad range of scientific, mathematical, and literary topics. In the January 1983 column, on viral sentences and self-replicating structures, he discussed Dawkins’s conception of the meme. When the article was reprinted in 1985, in the book that took the name of the column, Hofstadter mentioned receiving a lot of mail concerning the article, including one that suggested that the new science of memes should be called memetics, an idea that he thoroughly approved.

The second person was Daniel Dennett, a highly regarded philosopher of the mind at Tufts University in Massachusetts, who found that the concept fitted his developing ideas about the nature of consciousness.

Gunders, John, and Brown, Damon, The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Memes, Alpha Books, 2010, 336pp, ISBN 978-1615640355

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