Gangnam style, Lolcats, and Chuck Norris’ superhuman feats are all memes – units of cultural transmission – that spread through the internet.
I bet that when most people hear the word ‘meme’ they think of the Internet and the viral spread of things like planking. Or maybe new expressions like LOL, or Gangnam style or the Harlem shake. This week's program may touch on that stuff, but that’s mostly not what we want to discuss. We want to discuss a serious scientific hypothesis about the evolution of human culture -- the idea that memes are to cultural evolution as genes are to biological evolution.
Now genes, I get. They’re self-replicating packets of biological information. All that genes “want,” figuratively speaking, is to replicate themselves. The competitive process of natural selection determines which ones will. The winners -– the most “fit” ones -- proliferate. The losers die off.
Same with memes. Memes are self-replicating too. But what they encode is not instructions for building proteins in our bodies, but instructions for building behaviors, beliefs, and emotions into our brains. Like genes they compete with each other. The memes that win survive. The memes that lose, die off.
But there’s a huge difference between the way genes spread and the way ideas spread. Genes make actual physical copies of themselves. Ideas don’t. We pass actual physical copies of our genes onto our offspring. We don't do that with ideas. My ideas are just my ideas. They’re forever confined to my head.
Or maybe we're being too literal. Think about how culture is passed on to the next generation. It’s no accident that most people grow up, at least initially, believing the religion and speaking the language of their parents. That’s a form of non-genetic inheritance. That’s the kind of thing that memes can help explain.
Now, we couldn't deny that people get ideas and beliefs from other people. Most of what we know, we learn from other people. But does that mean that ideas literally replicate themselves in our heads? Suppose you have an idea for how to do something. Maybe I like your idea. Maybe I even decide to adopt it. Or try to improve upon it somehow. None of that is the idea’s doing; it’s my doing. It’s not that ideas actively replicate themselves. I actively adopt some ideas and not others.
On this view, it's the person, or the mind, or the self that's in the driver’s seat. You might call this view outmoded -- this picture of a person kind of rationally weighing the pros and cons of various ideas, and then autonomously deciding which ideas to adopt and which ideas to discard. But Isn’t that what we do in philosophy all the time? Don’t we do it in science too? We consciously put our ideas under scrutiny. We keep the ones that survive the scrutiny and reject the ones that don’t.
But most of the time our ideas aren’t the product of rigorous scientific experimentation or philosophical thinking. If they were, our heads wouldn’t be filled with so many awful, even pernicious ideas (and philosophy and science can act as antidotes to bad thinking). But for most of us, most of the time, acquiring an idea from another person is more like catching a cold. In other words, ideas are like viruses of the mind that spread through a contagion-like process. Wich would make our brains the virally-infected hosts, which self-replicating ideas use to get more of their kind into existence.
Of course, viruses can be quite detrimental to their hosts, and so can memes. Memes don’t replicate for our benefit, they replicate for their own benefit. Just as Richard Dawkins first spoke of the selfish gene, now we have the selfish meme. Our guest, Susan Blackmore, goes so far as to call us humans the "meme machines." Tune in to hear more of her views on the memetic theory of cultural evolution.