In academic circles the “meme concept”, whilst having its dedicated supporters, has been viewed with suspicion by many, derision by some, and outright hostility by not a few. Memetics, a field of study developed from the 80s onwards, is often accused of trespassing in fields such as psychology or sociology, attempting to replace well established and coherent analytical tools and models with half-baked and insufficiently scientific notions.  Luis Benitez-Bribiesca has described memetics as a pseudo-scientific dogma, and there are few more serious condemnations than that in the academic world! To say that the memes are controversial in academia is akin to suggesting that, after the Big Bang, the universe got rather warm, and the enthusiasm with which memes have been embraced by popular culture has, if anything, worsened the regard in which serious scholars hold them.    

The meme first appeared in Richard Dawkins’ first book, “The Selfish Gene” (1976), and was an attempt to understand why some behaviours, from an evolutionary perspective, seemed to make no sense but, somehow or other, were found to be very common in human societies. As Dawkins emphasised, natural selection is a ruthless judge of its subjects and any frailty, physical or behavioural, is almost inevitably rewarded by a rapid exit from the gene pool. It therefore followed that any widespread behaviour, prevalent in a thriving population, no matter how immediately inexplicable, should give some advantage in terms of gene survival. Continued research aimed to understand the reasons behind animal behaviours has yielded results that are entirely consistent with this thesis.

In some cases, however, it is necessary to dig a little deeper and understand exactly what is benefitting from particular behaviours. Daniel Dennett, in his wonderful book “Breaking The Spell” (2006), gives the example of ants climbing to the top of blades of grass, and staying there, from which exposed position they are frequently devoured by grazing animals. It is impossible to account for this behaviour until it is realised that the beneficiary is not the ant and her genes but a tiny creature called a lancet fluke which has taken over the brain of the ant and compelled it to follow this course of action. It is part of the lancet fluke’s reproductive cycle to be eaten by a sheep or cow, and hitching a ride inside the ant is an excellent way to achieve this. Viruses also utilise the behaviour of their hosts. They enter an organism and use the body’s responses to their presence, such as sneezing or excreting, to facilitate their passage to further unwilling hosts.  There are numerous other examples where one organism utilises or manipulates the behaviour of another to further its own genetic agenda; often at the expense of the other.

The lancet fluke, the virus, or any other organism furthering the spread of its own genes, has no malign intentions towards their hosts or, in fact, any intentions at all. What is being seen is a process that has evolved through natural selection and favours the genes of lancet fluke or virus, or whatever.

Expanding on these observations and discoveries, Dawkins wondered, when observing behaviours among humans, whether any similar process could be at work to explain why some ideas, which on the face of it seem injurious to those who hold them, continue to persist and proliferate. Devoting oneself to one’s art, impoverishing oneself in the pursuit of Truth, or welcoming martyrdom for one’s cause do not, it seems, represent behaviours which are obviously beneficial to the individual of for the spread of that individual’s genes. So, given that this kind of behaviour clearly exists, and is widespread, what is reaping the benefit? Dawkins’ somewhat surprising answer was the ideas themselves. Ideas are clearly in competition with each other so perhaps there’s a selection process going on, analogous to natural selection, through which some ideas prove successful and spread whilst others die out. He concluded that there was such a selection process and, to emphasise the parallel to natural selection, he coined the term “meme” which come from an ancient Greek root, “mimeme”, meaning imitated thing. Dawkins has also, perhaps a touch mischievously, referred to memes as “mind viruses”, which has been met, predictably, with howls of indignation from some circles. The point he is trying to make is that memes, just like viruses, are indifferent to the welfare or otherwise of their hosts and the only thing that counts, from their perspective, is that they persist.

For a meme to survive and spread in a competitive environment it must have attributes which give it advantages over other memes. Whilst advantageous to the meme they do not have to be to the benefit of the host. A new method to make blades sharper is valuable knowledge and will either spread throughout a population, if allowed to do so, or will be guarded jealously by those who already possess that knowledge. Either way its efficacy is an attribute which will guarantee its retention. On the other hand, an idea such as “life after death” has the attribute that, since people are scared of death, a belief in a hereafter is likely to be a popular notion and, indeed, is. Such a belief may or may not benefit the host. If it removes the fear of death to the extent that, say, martyrdom is positively welcomed, the host clearly does not benefit; at least in this life!

A meme may improve its prospects for survival if it becomes part of what Dawkins termed a “memeplex”. This is a situation where a number of compatible memes join together in a manner that is mutually supportive, and may be seen as a roughly analogous situation to that where genes work in concert with other genes in the genome. Political and religious beliefs and also the combined knowledge of experts such as blacksmiths or builders can be seem as memeplexes and they clearly help to secure the longevity of the memes of which they are composed.

Memes and memeplexes may evolve as alchemy evolved into chemistry or religions change over time. They are subject to outside influences and so they adapt. Memes may also die and be replaced by other memes as did the ether which scientists had always thought existed until the end of the 19th century. Whatever its fate however, its fate is dependent on a whole complex of variables which may or may not include its truth or its positive value to its host.

The whole “meme” concept, as was mentioned above, has been severely criticised as being, at best, poorly defined and, at worst, totally unscientific. Dawkins initially defined a meme as a noun that “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation” and there have been further attempts to define it more closely. He did not expect or intend for the concept to be taken up, away from the original context, with quite the enthusiasm it has been, and must have been as surprised as to its “success” as he was at the popularity of his book, “The Selfish Gene”. He has repeatedly cautioned that the analogy between memes and genes should not be taken too far and saw the whole idea as simply being one way to look at the way ideas spread and evolve. It is dangerous to simplify complex phenomena, subject to numerous and often unknown variables, into simple models, without attaching very strong caveats, and Dawkins has always been aware of this. Perhaps it is safest and most useful to view “meme” as one means by which one can get an idea as to how ideas, and particularly bad ideas, can contrive to spread so effectively in a culture; but without jettisoning the well founded theories provided by psychologists, sociologists and others.

In the meantime, the “meme, meme” continues to spread and evolve. Within its memeplex, memetics, it may eventually become another unexceptionable term and a tool to shed light on the complexities of culture, perhaps not. It continues, though, to branch out in meaning and usage, in diverse cultural directions, evolving all the way, and seems set, less than 40 years after its was first coined by Richard Dawkins, to become a fixture of our cultural universe and our lexicon.

Mark Jordan is a writer, researcher and music promoter, based in London. He can be reached on mrkjordan61@gmail.com