Do we meme what we say?

Richard Dawkins didn’t know what he was starting when he speculated in The Selfish Gene (1976) that the mental artifacts of culture might spread in the same way that genes do.

The “meme” idea he spawned certainly has spread, but the jury is out on whether that’s a good thing.

Cultural content clearly persists, and it does change over time. But does it really spread and “evolve” in the same ways that genes spread and evolve?

With many in the information and culture study community leaning against meme theory as either a flawed analogy or just plain wrong, it’s interesting that the Smithsonian should seem so behind the curve as to publish James Gleick’s “What Defines a Meme?” (May 2011). Of course, the cynic would say that it has more to do with the recent publication of Gleick’s new book on information theory, The Information (2011), than with the subject itself. Magazine articles, online excerpts, and YouTube videos are the new book promotion tour, after all.

At its simplest, a “meme” is “a unit for carrying cultural material, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.” According to supporters of this theory, memes spread through a process similar to physical selection, transmitting themselves from one human brain to another. They compete with each other for our attention and seek self-replication regardless of the consequences for their human “hosts.”

Gleick cites French biologist Jacques Monod, who wrote that “ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.”

Gleick writes: “Memes emerge in brains and travel outward, establishing beachheads on paper and celluloid and silicon and anywhere else information can go. ” Gleick says that memes are “complicated,” not simple. Things are not memes. Simple ideas are not memes. Memes are complex entities. He quotes Daniel Dennett, who wrote that “a wagon with spoked wheels carries not only grain or freight from place to place; it carries the brilliant idea of a wagon with spoked wheels from mind to mind.”

Although memes can be spread by simple imitation (the way some birds learn their songs, for one example), they are most closely associated with language. And that language often expresses the effect of memes in the vocabulary of infection. Dawkins famously called religion a “mind virus,” and Gleick remarks that “perhaps the analogy with disease was inevitable. Before anyone un­derstood anything of epidemiology, its language was applied to species of information. An emotion can be infectious, a tune catchy, a habit con­tagious.” The most pervasive and obvious use of this vocabulary describes the spreading of self-replicating, invasive content online as a “computer virus.”

Yet not everyone is enthralled with memes and their study, memetics. As Gleick points out, “Dawkins himself emphasised that he had never imagined found­ing anything like a new science of memetics.” Gleick outlines some of the problems some people have with memes:

Even compared with genes, memes are hard to mathematize or even to define rigorously. So the gene-meme analogy causes uneasiness and the genetics-memetics analogy even more.

Genes at least have a grounding in physical substance. Memes are abstract, intangible, and unmeasurable. Genes replicate with near-perfect fidelity, and evolution depends on that: some variation is essential, but mutations need to be rare. Memes are seldom copied exactly; their boun­daries are always fuzzy, and they mutate with a wild flexibility that would be fatal in biology. The term meme could be applied to a suspicious cor­nucopia of entities, from small to large.

Gleick is sanguine regarding the criticism. He stresses instead the new insights that the meme concept offers us:

Most of the biosphere cannot see the infosphere; it is invisible, a parallel universe humming with ghostly inhabitants. But they are not ghosts to us-not anymore. We humans, alone among the earth’s organic creatures, live in both worlds at once. It is as though, having long coexisted with the unseen, we have begun to develop the needed extrasensory perception. We are aware of the many species of informa­tion.

These new insights make us more aware of the unseen mental world around us, and they give us a new elemental substance to study:

In the competition for space in our brains and in the culture, the effective combatants are the messages. The new, oblique, looping views of genes and memes have enriched us. They give us paradoxes to write on Möbius strips. “The human world is made of stories, not people,” writes David Mitchell. “The people the stories use to tell themselves are not to be blamed.”

This is all well and good, especially if you’re a humanities or mathematics postgrad looking for a trendy thesis topic. But should the criticisms really be dismissed quite this easily? That meme theory makes us see the world differently is not in and of itself evidence that memes exist, or that they operate in the ways memeticists claim that they do.

Criticisms range from the technical (memetics is just Lamarkian inheritance in new gear) to the mathematical (there are no equations describing the operation of memes) to an appeal to authority (“memetic theory is hardly discussed in recent texts on evolutionary psychology and linguistics”). Some even criticize meme theory as a form of reactionary politics, a thinly veiled attempt to reintroduce either reductionist determinism or quasi-mystical entities into cultural studies. Others, more cynical, or more paranoid, suspect that meme theory is popular because it lets atheists characterize religion as a malignant virus; they note that many of the major proponents of meme theory, such as Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett, are also prominent anti-religionists.

In addition, memes are  “hard to define, quantify, and measure; their very existence is somewhat nebulous, inferable but not scientifically verifiable.” They can be seen as an oversimplification of a complex, multifaceted process. For these critics, memetics is a theory without a methodology, with no empirical results, no identified agent of replication — not a coherent theory at all.

And yet, I feel that there’s something in this meme business, despite the objections. Something tells me that ideas and attitudes and beliefs are “contagious,” that their existence is not dependent in particular on my thinking or holding or believing them. I am the bearer of something with a separate existence, and it does not die with me unless it originated with me and I have kept my mouth (and my laptop lid) shut forever.

Of course, that feeling could just be my memes’ way of fooling me into passing them on. They’re clever little devils.

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One thought on “Do we meme what we say?

  1. There is something to the meme business because the topic is crying out for theoretical definition; the topic being the product of human brains. So far philosophy, psychology, sociology and now neuroscience have grappled with complexity of the issues to do with language, religion, art; the brain trying to understand itself. The meme idea is another insight like the brain as machine or computer but isn’t the last word.

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