Memes and Cultural Transmission

In his book The Self­ish Gene (pub­lished in 1976), the ethol­o­gist and evo­lu­tion­ary biol­o­gist Richard Dawkins described how Darwin’s evo­lu­tion­ary the­ory might be applied to the spread of ideas, tra­di­tion, reli­gion, moral­ity and other such abstract cul­tural attrib­utes.

He gave the name ‘meme’ to his unit of cul­tural transmission—the sin­gu­lar mech­a­nism which makes each repli­ca­tion pos­si­ble. Meme is an abbre­vi­a­tion of mimeme, the Greek word for ‘that which is imi­tated’, which was so styled to sound sim­i­lar to gene.

“Exam­ples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fash­ions, ways of mak­ing pots or build­ing arches. Just as genes prop­a­gate them­selves in the gene pool by leap­ing from body to body via sperms and eggs, so memes prop­a­gate them­selves in the meme pool by leap­ing from brain to brain via a process which, in a broad sense, can be called imi­ta­tion. […] When you plant a fer­tile meme in my mind, you lit­er­ally par­a­sitize my brain, turn­ing it into a vehi­cle of for the meme’s prop­a­ga­tion in just the same way that a virus may par­a­sitize the genetic mech­a­nism of a host cell.”

Richard Dawkins
The Self­ish Gene, 1976

Men­tal parasitism

This idea that memes are parasites—that cul­ture is viral in a broader sense—is rather inter­est­ing. With The Self­ish Gene, Dawkins turns evo­lu­tion on its head in a way. Instead of evo­lu­tion being the process whereby a species works towards pro­duc­ing an ideal form of itself, the ‘self­ish gene’ sug­gests that a chicken is merely an egg’s way of mak­ing more eggs. The organ­ism serves the gene, instead of the other way around.

In a cul­tural sense, this would make us hum­ble human beings the car­ri­ers of cul­tural phe­nom­ena, infected at birth. Abstract values, etiquette, expec­tations… these are all meme infec­tions; nur­ture as opposed to nature.

Repli­ca­tion and mutation

In the begin­ning of The Self­ish Gene Dawkins looks at the repli­ca­tion of DNA mol­e­cules in his field of biol­ogy and describes these as ‘moulds’ or ‘tem­plates’ for copies of them­selves. He points out that the prod­uct of this repli­ca­tion is not a string of iden­ti­cal dupli­cates; in the process of copy­ing, mis­takes will always be made. Dawkins trans­lates this into the exam­ple of the repro­duc­tion of the Bible, in which first gen­er­a­tion errors have been be passed on to sec­ond gen­er­a­tion prints and so forth. The orig­i­nal body of work remains dis­cernible at the core, but has nev­er­the­less been mod­i­fied or affected by interpretation.

This is inter­est­ing, as it is also true for cul­tural trans­mis­sion; repli­ca­tion is depen­dent on inter­pre­ta­tion, cer­tainly when deal­ing with abstract replicators—language, ideas, etc. I sup­pose then that the inter­pre­ta­tion of a meme is based on the interpreter’s grander frame of ref­er­ence (which in turn con­tains all memetic makeup; the accu­mu­la­tion of cul­tural under­stand­ing). Per­haps in a sense, the frame of ref­er­ence could be seen as the cul­tural equiv­a­lent to DNA.

Even the idea of ‘fam­ily’ is a very human thing, and even this has evolved and mutated through the ages. And I sup­pose every fam­ily has their own ‘house rules’ for Monop­oly, don’t they?


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