Richard Weber: Memes, the new replicator
If there is any truth to the theory of memetics, our thoughts are controlled by memes in much the same way as our physical traits are shaped by genes.
Richard Dawkins coined the word meme in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene," and since then the term has played a central role in the budding science of cultural evolution.
Memes are units of cultural transmission. Dawkins dubs them “the new replicators” because they have only recently emerged on the planet. Memes are analogous to genes but they use a different means of transmission. Genes are passed from body to body through DNA and memes are passed from mind to mind through imitation.
Some examples of memes are: ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, artifacts, games, songs, dances, stories, tools, weapons, sculptures, paintings, or any elements of culture passed from one mind to another.
Some memes have fostered the advance of civilization, such as the wheel, agriculture, altruism and cooperation, while others have caused great harm, such as slavery, racism, antisemitism and xenophobia.
Memes are sometimes called viruses of the mind because they are so infectious. Think of the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Ta-ta-ta-TUM. And just like that, that familiar tune leaped from my mind to yours.
We are most likely to get infected by memes that push our instinctive buttons and trigger strong emotion. Often they sneak into our mind surreptitiously and without our permission.
Dawkins sees the selfish meme as a fruitful metaphor. Memes are selfish in the same way. It is as if they are “active agents working purposely for their own survival." And they do indeed seem to have a life of their own.
Memes not only “have the power to effect their own replication," they also have the power to drive our behavior. They can make us buy products we don’t want, give money to a con artist, join a gang or get swept away by a charismatic cult leader.
A dangerous meme that has recently overtaken the country is that the election was stolen. Virtually no evidence of fraud has been discovered, but memes don’t care about truth. Motivated by the “Big Lie," a mob of protesters stormed the Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to stop certification of the vote. At least five people died in the insurrection.
How ironic that our democracy was threatened by a mob of protesters acting on the illusion that they were defending it.
The idea of freedom is powerful but it can be corrupted by association with other memes. Freedom is not license. It doesn’t mean you can do anything regardless of the consequences, and it doesn’t mean you can believe anything in spite of the facts. How free are you really if you can’t change your mind in the face of hard evidence?
Memes are powerful but they don’t have absolute power. Our minds and bodies are shaped by culture and DNA, but neither memes nor genes are destiny.
Dawkins ends his book with this note of optimism: “We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”
The best way to arm yourself for that rebellion is to live consciously. Take note of your thoughts, and make sure that you are the one who is in charge of your life and not some pernicious meme.
Richard Weber is a science and nature enthusiast living in Ellis County. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org