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.”
The Selfish Gene, 1976
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?