THE STUDY OF MEMES (a new
field called "memetics") is going revolutionize psychology,
cultural anthropology, political science and religious studies.
In fact it has already started. Memetics will have as dramatic
an impact on those fields as the discovery of the gene had on
The word "meme"
was coined by the British zoologist, Richard Dawkins in his book,
The Selfish Gene, which came out in 1976. Dawkins' book was a presentation
of a new way of looking at genes. Up until then, the conventional
way of understanding genes was from the organism's point
of view. In other words, genes are selected that help the organism
survive. The problem with that way of looking at it was several
facts did not seem to fit. Dawkins said when you think of it
from the individual gene's point of view, all those facts fit.
He went further to say
that whenever you have something that can make copies of itself,
like DNA, you will have evolution because some copies will survive
better or reproduce faster, and those will eventually outcompete
the other kinds.
And in his last chapter,
he said genes aren't the only things in this universe that make
copies of themselves. There is one other thing that we know of,
but there isn't a word for it, so Dawkins made one up: memes.
A meme is anything that can be copied from one mind to another.
A song is a meme. A saying
is a meme. An idea is a meme. The custom of shaking hands is
a meme. The word "meme" is itself a meme and
it has now been copied from my mind to yours.
Dawkins further said that
because memes get copied, they will evolve. Some will copy better
than others. Some will be more "contagious" than others.
And if they are not all be copied perfectly, any given
variation has the potential to be more contagious than
the original, in which case it will survive better or be copied
more often, so that meme will eventually dominate.
So for example, if you
have a religion and it's going along just fine and somewhere
along the way, someone adds the idea that if you can convert
others to your religion, you are more likely to get into heaven,
then you now have a new variation, a mutation in the collection
of memes that comprise the religion. Now you have two versions
of the same religion. One branch, say, keeps the religion to
themselves. In the other branch, many of the followers are out
actively trying to recruit new converts. Give those two branches
a couple hundred years, and guess which one will have more converts?
It doesn't matter whether it is right or wrong. It is blind,
just as natural selection of genes is blind. If a variation allows
a gene or a meme to make more copies, it makes more copies.
This is a very interesting
subject, and since Dawkins' book came out, several other books
have been written on the subject. The best one is called The Meme Machine. Also one with some great examples is called Thought Contagion: When Ideas ACT Like Viruses.
stand for culture?
Yes, a meme could be seen
as a unit of culture. What the concept of meme adds is the idea
of evolution, of competition between variations of a meme,
and the idea that it is possible to look at a meme from the meme's
perspective rather than from the organism's perspective. In other
words, memes are making copies of themselves, using our brains
and biology to do it, and what will succeed may have nothing
to do with what helps the organism or even the group. For example,
if you have a tune in your head you can't get rid of, what is
going on? It is a successful meme using your brain against
your will to generate copies of itself. In this case, you might
not be making a sound, so all it is doing is going around in
your head, but as soon as you whistle it or hum it, it is now
using you to put copies of itself into the brains of others.
A new theory often doesn't
add any new facts, but explains the facts with more power, or
more completely, and opens new avenues to explore that weren't
available with previous theories. A good new theory also makes
testable predictions possible that weren't possible before. A
new theory is better if it has more explanatory power,
and the memetics theory does.
One of the ways I think
memetics will impact psychology is...hell, I think it will completely
change psychology. Think about what the field of biology was
before the theory of evolution. Hardly recognizable. Yes, they
studied life forms. But now the foundation of biology
rests on the solid footing of Darwinism. Everything biological
is based on it. I think that will happen to psychology with the
theory of memetics. What is the role, for example, of early learning?
How is it influenced? Is our brain pre-wired to make copies of
memes? Are there biological predispositions toward learning some
kinds of memes but not others? Can learning curriculums be designed
to use this meme-copying machinery better than previous curriculums?
People have "learned"
a lot of things that aren't true, and may even be harmful. Could
you have something like gene therapy (where they infect you with
a virus that corrects your own DNA), called meme-therapy, where
they can correct important faulty or dysfunctional memes by infecting
you with a meme virus?
It's a new science. It'll
be interesting to see it mature.