Meme theory: Do we come up with ideas or do they, in fact, control us?


Mankind’s greatest inventions are all the result of individual flashes of inspiration – or are they? Jonnie Hughes argues that, instead, ideas are subject to evolutionary principles, and we humans are little more than their hosts.

Do you have ideas, or do ideas have you? What exactly are ideas? Are they divine sparks of inspiration, the accidental by-products of our weird ape brains, neuronal fireworks displays that find meaning in our lives – or are they more than all these things?

One idea that I’ve spent the past three years of my life investigating is that ideas are, to a very real extent, ‘alive’ in their own right – surviving, reproducing, evolving, going extinct, just like living things.

It sounds a harmless proposition, but the implications are quite startling. If ideas are just like living things, then they are subject to Darwinian rules – inherently selfish entities, doing anything and everything they must to survive and propagate. And in this scenario, what are we? Little more than their hosts, their habitats? Vehicles to carry them from one parasitic generation to the next, coerced accomplices to their wild ambitions? If this idea has any substance at all, it will upset a lot of people.

It’s not my idea, you understand. ‘Meme theory’, as it has been labelled, evolved in the minds of people including biologist Richard Dawkins, philosopher Daniel Dennett and psychologist Susan Blackmore, years before it entered mine. But at some point I, too, became infected and, in 2009, I decided to do what every good vehicle should do and take its passenger for a ride.

Like Darwin, I ventured abroad, into the cultural wilderness of America, to search out first-hand evidence that ideas are subject to natural selection. As I crossed the prairies, I classified the changing moustaches of farmers, plotted the evolution of the cowboy hat, dated American barns, and charted a taxonomy of tepees. In doing so, I found the evidence I needed to suggest that ideas do evolve just like the finches and tortoises that Darwin discovered in the Galapagos.

What’s more, I found that viewing our world through ‘meme goggles’ is like suddenly spotting that vase in the optical illusion with the two faces. Your focus shifts from the human beings to the things in between – the countless living ideas that skip through our seven billion brains, each one competing for space in our cerebrums and the chance to procreate through our tongue and wrist movements. The mêlée of a new form of life is revealed. It’s quite a view! Let me give you a few glimpses, with examples from my notebook.

Written By: Jonnie Huhghes
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  1. Pretty obvious in many ways: religion, proposed thousands of years ago, mutated and evolved to control millions thereafter; laws and politics ruled by previous ideologies and conspired to frequently poo poo all subsequent rationality and logic (how often have you heard one of them say “It doesn’t work like that.”). These are just the glaringly obvious!

  2. Regardless of whether ideas and behaviors just came to someone by accident, or if they’re “designed” by someone, they do reproduce and they do mutate. Ideas depend on the existence of our brains, but do we really consciously “design” ideas? I mean, do ideas thrive in our heads just because they had the opportunity (in the same way that self-replicating molecules formed just because they’re stable that way), and we only think we “designed” them because that’s just how it looks to us thinking beings?

  3. When I was young I was told, “If wishes were horses, then beggars would ride.” Now, I understand that beggars are horses that wishes do ride.

  4. Evidence for religious beliefs are powerful memes as far as I can tell. All you need is a community with a strong confirmation bias, such as Muslims believing in the “scientific miracles” of the Qur’an. Someone makes a claim on a website (e.g. that a scientist said something superfically complimentary about the Qur’an). Then someone else will exagerate the claim in a way that appeals to the bias, and someone else exagerates it further… Soon enough, the version most conducive to confirming the bias has spread most widely, all over the web, and there’s not much anyone can do about it.

  5. “Like Darwin I ventured forth into the cultural wilderness of America” (Excuse me?)
    “I classified the changing mustaches of farmers” (erm.. okaay)
    “Meme theory, It’s not my idea you understand” (well yeah.. I know)
    “I can prove it look. Here’s a picture of some cowboys all wearing the same clothes” (Sorry is that the time I really should..)
    “My book is called On The Origin of Tepees. Get it?” (Yeah that’s great. Look I have to go, this is my stop but you know.. good luck with all that)

    As the train disappeared into the tunnel I pondered for a brief moment on what he had said, “naaah” I thought and headed for the nearest Starbucks.

  6. You could say that memes are the products of evolution by nurtural selection as opposed to natural selection.

    They are great reminders that our thinking processes are not as unique as we think they are.  It only makes sense that humans share similarly evolved instincts, and therefore in turn will share the by-products of those instincts that our conscious minds and desires create.

    I would like to think that we could evolve to a point where scientific thinking is lying in our brains awaiting our maturity as we grow up in the same way that we have predispositions to sex, food and altruism.  Additionally, a calming of our impulsive urges to anger, fear and desperation would aid this progression immensely.  However, the truth does not agree: it must be remembered that evolution is not a ladder.  It is not a case of progressing our cognitive abilities into an infinitely ascending degree of intellectualism.  Evolution, if you can personify it, only cares about what species survive and not how smart those species are.

    Then again, there may be some tendencies for evolution to favour intelligence in the future.  A species with the knowledge of medicine and technology surely has to have those who will benefit from lucky predispositions to be skilled enough in those subjects.  The moral zeitgeist also seems to indicate a general progression towards improved altruism, which may be indicative of an evolutionary trend.

    I guess it is a race between the best degrees of civilisation involving scientific pursuits and ironic literature and the worst degrees involving fanatical fools who glorify the destruction of everything on this planet.

  7. 1. You have an idea.
    2. The idea has you.
    3. You have an idea, that is a consequence of the idea that had you.
    4. The idea you have is a consequence of the idea, that had you.
    5. It was inspired.
    6. You inspire the idea.
    7. You have the idea, that is a consequence of inspired one.
    8. The inspiration is a consequence of the idea you had.
    9. Combinations of previous.

  8.    While memes certainly change and evolve over time, it’s questionable to say that natural selection is the driving mechanism for this. For natural selection to take place, there are two main criteria: there must be variations from which to choose from (apparent in the barn example, but less so in the others), and a clear heredity, in which potentially advantageous traits are passed directly to offspring (the accent and teepee examples show this to some extent).

       In the teepee example, I found it unclear whether the author was referring to species selection when they referred to “foundation species” and “daughter species”. It’s true that due to geographical and cultural isolation teepees changed to suit the different needs of different people living in different locations, but in this case memetic survival seems directly linked to individual survival — inadequate teepees might cause their inhabitants to freeze or boil, likely preventing the propagation of the meme. Species selection of memes, unless directly linked to the survival of the group of organisms, seems a sketchy possibility at best.  
       It was also unclear what the author was proposing as a memetic “individual”. It seems to be generally assumed in meme theory that the individual is the idea as held in one person’s mind, but this did not appear to be the case in some of the examples. Which of course is perfectly fine, but I wish they had specified what new unit they were proposing. After all, for natural selection to be at work, there must be competition between varied indiviuals, so individuals with survival or reproductive advantages transfer these to their (more numerous) offspring. If this does not happen, it can hardly be considered natural selection.

       Admittedly, I have hardly done an exhaustive investigation of the various types of memes, but I am inclined to wonder for how many memes it would make sense to suggest natural selection as an explanation of their origin. Perhaps I am being too unimaginative here: I’m strictly comparing it to biological natural selection, whereas memes might have many other factors influencing their evolution. 

  9. Looking at individual ideas, some have an ability to survive long
    term –passed on to future generations if they are developed, nurtured
    (I like that word) spread socially, and/or mutate to better survive.
    Ideas that are poor will be swallowed up and spit out. Great ideas
    without social support and nurturing can also die out while a mediocre
    idea with plenty of social support can easily go viral.

    At times, we do not know the true source of the idea, but one idea
    either expands upon a previous idea or comes from a connection made by a
    small minority of creatives. For ideas that do not seem to have
    variations from which to choose, or do not seem to be passed along to
    another generation (not necessarily biological) perhaps we need to step
    back further and see how variations have occurred over much longer
    periods of time rather than looking at ideas with a microscope. At times, you may not even see the connection
    If you only consider the current state of thought today, but ideas were built
    upon over hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands…of years.

    Meme theory: Do we come up with ideas or do they, in fact, control us?

      I do believe that some ideas can possibly control masses of people while only a very small number of creative people/entities develop or expand ideas. Everyone likes to think they belong to this first innovative, start-up group, but few are actually at this level. Lacking awareness of one’s own limitation or lack or skill sets up an environment in which a person from a second non-innovative group adopts a concept as his/her own and then nurtures the idea long enough for it to take hold and reap the social benefits. This is best done if the person in the socially influential position is under the illusion that they are responsible (if only partly) for the idea.(Ever have an idea and a higher up or client adds in their useless ten cents.) If the person from the second group is in a position of power, and is highly social, countless others (in a third non-innovative, no power group) will see the idea in a light of importance and massive change in people’s mindsets will probably occur. The more quickly people in this third group adopt  the idea, the more likely they are also to be viewed as current, trendy, important – or at least this is what they think. The thing is, some people frequently belong to different “groups” depending upon each situation.
    Take for instance, the Oprah factor. Oprah is not an innovative person although people may see her as a trend setter. The ideas that she supports were developed, created, written, edited/revised over and over, sweat over, etc. by other people; she merely brings them to a wide audience and we are all familiar with the results. (Let’s not get off track with Oprah comments, you know what I mean.) Ideas/memes need a marketing executive to really take off. Very few people may have the “it” factor for intelligence, innovation and creativity, while a few more have an “it” social factor. Since the social “it” group generally lacks superior technical or creative skills, they are limited to their ability to recognize potentially popular ideas that if introduced to a society, would enhance their social status and they would in turn become more influential. They hijack or massively replicate the idea, but are not the originator of the “adapted” idea.

  10. Make meme theory a meme, today!

    Sometimes you wonder. Fashion is an interesting subject on the matter. Who ever first thought top hats were cool? Ties? What are they for, really. Apart from giving your deadliest enemies a nice item of clothing to grab on to and to strangle you with? 

    Hmmm… Maybe that is the point. Come if you dare ,I’m not afraid…

  11. “While memes certainly change and evolve over time, it’s questionable to
    say that natural selection is the driving mechanism for this. For
    natural selection to take place, there are two main criteria: there must
    be variations from which to choose from (apparent in the barn example,
    but less so in the others), and a clear heredity, in which potentially
    advantageous traits are passed directly to offspring (the accent and
    teepee examples show this to some extent).”

    Just taking a stab at this idea…..It seems as if natural selection takes place or this is simply an analogy to natural selection depending on whether you are looking at the thought process/idea changing over time or if you are looking at the physical product or consequence/culmination of our thought process. To view “ideas are like living things” takes something that is a process of the brain and compares it to physically tangent objects. Looking at the barn or other objects is viewing the concrete and not the conceptual process. Tracing back ideas is difficult, because frequently, the only evidence that remains is the physical and not a journal of people’s thoughts.
    (thoughts? Did I miss the boat with this??)

  12. I just cannot see memes as Darwinian.  So many toxic memes grow and survive without so much as a nod to their utility.

  13. Memes don’t need to be useful– they just have to induce humans to copy them– like a song that gets stuck in your head, or a chain letter, or a belief system that tell you that you will live happily ever after for what you believe and be damned for doubt.

  14. I’m having eyesight-meme trouble again: I read “I wet in vain….” and thought about how practical you were attempting to be.

  15. I like this point very much. Utility, eventually can become a growing hindrance to the majority so that only those who are lucky or adapt ways of avoiding its critical mass burdens, manage to do well per se. I think you are right: memes have gotten out of control so that they even subjugate the genes that bore them. Memes the BPD enforcing genes to be C-PTSD. Good job!

  16.  I like this idea… one in the centre, six all around, and the box would be shaped like a hexagon… just think how cool all the boxes would look together in a grid…
    Internet, make this happen!

  17. The biggest difference between meme & evolution is that it’s possible to create ideas from a bunch of ideas combined together (there’s practically no such thing as completely original idea). In the natural world, there’s limitation to cross-breeding. You can’t cross a caterpillar with a cat to create monorail cat.

  18. Cowboy hats, barns, Coca-cola? Finally, a book on evolution about America… for Americans!

    I think we may have just won the war…

  19. Look up the article about the goats with genes from spiders, who produce silk proteins in their milk…
    Genes combine with genes, just like memes combine with memes…

  20.  I’m waiting for them to use this spider protein/product to create joint replacements. You know it will hit mainstream sometime in the future.

    Bubbub…and I was involved in a non-traditional religion. Now looking back I can see how memes evolved into new ideas that would attempt to better explain inconsistencies in Christianity and other religions. It was more like world religion apologetics everything had an “evolved” explanation even Evolution.

  21. Already though of that. Those are genetic engineering, not natural selection. So, we can’t use existing evolutionary theories to describe memes.

  22.  “So, we can’t…”.   Not so fast, please.

    Genes recombine in sexual reproduction, and recently, mediated by engineers who pick and choose which genes they’d like to combine. 

    Memes propagate by infecting (to use the terminology of parasitic organisms) host minds, and infected minds in turn do the work of passing on the infection to other minds.

    Memes mutate, as when someone invents or discovers a variation on a meme, or simply communicates the meme inaccurately.

    Memes combine by meeting in the same mind, analogous to the way virus genes recombine when different viruses infect the same cell.

    Having combined, natural selection can run its course, in the tautological “survival of the fittest” – the memes that survive are the ones that do best at gaining “market share” among the available hosts.  This has nothing to do with how they may benefit or harm individual hosts.

    No need to develop a new theory to deal with memes, the same one that has been demonstrated to work well with genes is quite satisfactory.

    I’m just paraphrasing material from The Selfish Gene,  no new idea (or meme) here.  Except for the errors, they’re mine.

  23. “ideas are like living things” – not quite, more “ideas are like genes”.  The Living Things are the vehicles that house and propagate the genes.   I’m not sure you’d call a DNA molecule a “living thing”.

    Looking at the barns seems to me to be similar to looking at the shapes of the fossilized shells of sea creatures.

  24. Meme theory: Do we
    come up with ideas or do they, in fact, control us?

    False dichotomy, it’s both. 

  25. I can’t help thinking that there is something not quite right with this rather interesting idea. Ideas are not “things” the way DNA is, and they have no part in creating us. I mean, unless you include the idea “hey, let’s have sex!” an idea building, molecule by molecule, a human.

    By extension you could posit that ANY byproduct or emergent property of humans are “selfish” like genes are, and control us and our evolution.  I mean, how would CO2 – an actual THING unlike an idea – fit into this way of thinking?

  26. “Genes recombine in sexual reproduction, and recently, mediated by
    engineers who pick and choose which genes they’d like to combine.”

    Right, genes recombine in sexual reproduction, but you can’t combine the genes of a dog and a goat through sexual reproduction. Meanwhile, in the realm of ideas, you get something like an iPhone, the combination of 2 different ideas. I know you might try to argue that iPhones are the evolution of mobile phones or perhaps the evolution of iPods. But which is it? It’s the combination of both. However, if those two ideas are expressed in the natural world, they wouldn’t even be from the same genus, so they couldn’t breed.

    However, if we use the virus analogy, I must admit that it works. I’m willing to drop some of my skepticism, but there is always the danger of fitting the facts to the hypothesis. Right now, we still have not determined the biological basis for memes. Some research using neuroimaging had been proposed, but we still haven’t got any news about that yet.

    Recently, we have a research that links the creation of memories to the proteins in our brains, if that is true, then there is the potential that it’s possible for memes to have biological basis too. Until that bridge has been built, I will remain cautious.

  27. I’ve always thought about this from a musical standpoint,being a musician.The evolution of rhythm and harmony,and also traditional genres like Irish or Indian music for instance are stuffed full of memes.Indian music has been evolving,and has been documented for about 3000 yrs,and is the most complex traditional music by far when it comes to rhythm,even in comparison to modern jazz or classical standards,and it takes a ridiculously long time before you’re considered any good at it…like,from the age of 2 to maybe 25 or so. So,please no-one steal my idea for a book on this,if I ever get the time. 

  28. Here’s a kind of fusion gig between irish/jazz and Indian musicians in Ireland about 11 yrs ago 
    forward to to about 4:30 to check out some of their rhythms.we probably started this kind of thing by banging 2 rocks together..

  29. Thanks adiroth for the thoughtful response.  Noting PBrain’s comment about music, I don’t think there’s any need for a physical biological or molecular “anchor” to define a meme.  It’s information.  Genes are information carried by a molecule of DNA, Memes are information (ideas, patterns, rhythms) carried by our minds, and – in dormant “spore” form – on any information media we have at our disposal – papyrus scrolls, books, stone tablets, cave walls, MP3 players, iPhones,  among others.

    I think the focus on sexual reproduction of genes is misleading, and the virus mechanism much more relevant for the meme discussion.  Let’s imagine that memes are so far developed only to virus-equivalent levels, not whole multi-cellular creatures, and haven’t stumbled upon the meme equivalent of sex (yet).

    So,  just shake a couple of different viruses into the same host cell, and presto, you got the possibility of some kind of combo.  

    Similarly, put a couple of ideas together and you may just have a new one.  Some will clearly have better survival fitness than others – the radio-cassette-recorder did quite well, but I never got anywhere with my combined barbeque and surfboard.

  30. So,please no-one steal my idea for a book on this,if I ever get the time.

    Then get your butt moving man, nothing like saying this on the www and expecting people to keep their hands off.

     I have found that when I get an idea, soon afterwards other people get that idea without me mentioning it to anyone. Many use the excuse that the Universe is sending the message out to many and only a few with the work ethic or ability will bring it to fruition. Anybody here believe this? No? I didn’t think so. Here is what I think is going on when several people get the same exact idea at the same time without any communication between each other. It’s the meme in action and people acknowledging and processing certain types of information from many sources. If two people on opposite shores of an ocean are employed in the same field, read and look at the same materials and references, they are keeping up with developments of the day. Minor transitions from one idea to another are recognized and utilized. If they are in a field which encourages innovation or following trends, they are expected to come up with the next new thing. They both may also realize what problems their industry or product needs to resolve. Being of similar temperament, the two set out on coming up with a solution —which ends up being the same. It happens all the time. Now can someone tell me why, every now and then, everyone comes to work wearing the same colors?

  31. Apparently subliminal messaging is a prime mover amongst leading academics, as this survey shows (….

    However one university complained there weren’t enough bridges to consider this a fair test making it unsurprising they became famous for footlights humour and entertainment whilst another claimed they spent far too much of their time driving around in a well known make of car to compensate for the general decline of cattle in their region which lended toward their socialist reactions. Other universities are still working on the surveys implications!

  32.  Thanks for the link about music PBrain. Yep, I hear it. This is really common in the arts.  Native American bead work and jewelry is a good example of this. When you trace back the history of this art, there is very little about it that actually originated with the native peoples. The beads were made available through trade, the designs of much of the silver jewelry is Spanish influence. along with other influences….Even what is considered to be classic American western (cowboy) design is surprising. One day I took a close look at some of the leather work and suddenly noticed that many of the designs were classic textile designs of the day and many were outright Art Nouveau. yeehaw

    I vaguely recall a lecture in an art museum in which the woman presenting was giddy because of a piece of cloth in the exhibit proved a theory that she was researching. Evidently, the cloth proved that one of the cultures was influenced by the other because certain design elements and materials found exclusively to one culture was present in a textile piece from a different culture.It was found that kidnapped craftsmen were forced to create textiles for this particular culture and in turn changed the aesthetics of the culture from that point forward.

    Travel, new trade routes, new ways of spreading information, cultures mixing, people migrating to places with different views…all seem to affect memes tremendously.

  33. To be honest, without a biological basis, I am skeptical that the meme as gene model can hold, because I think memes are more versatile than genes, yet they don’t have physical forms. I predict that eventually we will discover that the meme model is larger & more complex. But of course, I could be wrong.

    If I am wrong, then humanity would have to reevaluate itself since life itself is analogous to a swirl of information. It also leaves us with the question whether the meme theory is merely a manifestation of the gene selection process that’s happening inside all life form. Ideas are dealt this way only because that’s the only way all life form handles information.

    On another note, it would be beneficial for other disciplines to try whether it is possible to break information down to its memetic level and engineer new ideas and creativity out of them.

  34. Memes most certainly can perform genocide. The reverse is less simple due their covert nature.

    If I had it in me I’d write more, however I’m long past my own sell by date to perform such odious capitalism. 

  35. I remember one day back in 1974 suddenly realising that I was an idea.  Everything I experience about myself is some sort of internal brain experience — roughly speaking, an idea.  Death is when the internal dream generator shuts down.

  36. My partner has been telling about the truly bizarre early history of the Mormons. The modern cults need to be studied to figure out how such nutty ideas can get such a hold.  There are also simplified political ideologies. I suspect the simplicity is their main appeal. It may be every truly nutty belief system has at its core a charismatic individual, who might have also been skilled at hypnosis.

  37. Hypnosis is less what I think it is than silver screen star mania type mularkey. All it takes is someone watching a certain speaker, who gets high on romantic glints of the eye and ideas about eternity with him her helm, to then indoctrinate her progeny with his gobshite and away we sail. I wasn’t thinking of a Tom Cruise but that would be an excellent metaphor. Starstruck style Memes. Pseudo Sky at Night. Ladies with a penchant for monacles.

  38. Ideas are manifested in behaviors, and in writing or any other manner of recording, but ultimately, they’re patterns of brain activity, right? It might be worth it to study memes using that perspective since we’ll have something tangible to deal with.

  39. Good point: let’s see if we can’t wire up a brain in the depths of its charismatic preaching and that of those listening and see what goes? It does, peculiarly tend to be a male brain that does this. Explain…..

  40. We can run experiments on what memes infect brains faster, what memes persist longer, what kind of brain is more receptive to a certain meme, how existing memes within the “infector” and the “infectee,” and even how the bodies of the infector and infectee affect the transmission of memes, etc. Psychologists have been doing this for a long time, except that they don’t use a Darwinian model for memes and they don’t even call memes memes.

  41. My guess is that there are persisting memes that male brains more effective in transmitting. It could be because of the meme that males should be in charge, that made some brains more responsive to ideas from male brains than female brains.

  42. Good show! Lots of American Psychiatry has “traits” of humans well defined, though subjectively not always easy to be certain about in the scientific observation/analysis sense, which I won’t go into right now. I’m sure they’re more qualifies about how more than one variable makes it tricky to exactly say what is always going on – it’s more about patterns and themes of behaviours in the face of reasonablesness. I say reasonableness with particular potency. Let me explain:

    It’s my considered opinion that someone exhibiting chronic PD behaviour will by default bias a rational individual toward some traits, more and more over time as critical mass accumulates, that are synonymous with other types of PD behaviours. An example of this would be BPD and it’s dominant traits that induce C-PTSD traits as a de facto response. Not to do so becomes exponentially violent very quickly or worse – promoting a scenario likely to require law enforcement or similar. Therefore I see, in the psychological sector, very well established (though always evolving) set of groupings of “traits” which amount to a spectrum of behaviour patterns humans display and deploy in response to each other. If we look purely at those in the PD groupings we see how some are complementary of each other – aggression and dominance promotes apathy and submissiveness. No wonder then we see both of these as different traits of different PD’s.

    The potency of reasonableness: From the above it can be secured that what we mean by a PD per se is that behavior which displays as an irrational tendency in response to its environment in spite of being presented with a reasonable surroundings and discourse with fellow humans. This seems like vague woo to a scientists but as far as animal behaviour and patterns in behaviour goes not so strange.

    What is harder to know is when PD behaviour seems prevalent but in fact is a rational individual being prompted to display PD traits due living under a dominant theme of their surroundings and insincere/delusional others resisting reason and logic per se.

    An entropy of reasonableness becomes the benchmark for how well disposed a human is to trait or not to trait. That is the question my friend. Is it the entropy or the individual or both, in which case can we know who started it?

  43. They are old existing things recombined in new ways. They fit so they go together. We naturally fit them together, like hydrogen and oxygen they must fit to work. We simply recognize the pattern and do the natural fitting. The new idea needs to have to potential of pre existing ideas in order for it to be discovered.

    In a way, the new idea already exists in theory before we discover it. The parts of the new idea must exist before the new idea can be combined. I suppose all ideas can be mathematically predicted for each time a new idea is discovered without the need for a human mind.

    I don’t think it’s a matter of survival at all. Do anything and everything to survive is false. Life doesn’t do that. Survival is a byproduct of evolution without bias. A few happen upon a better way to survive but they don’t do it for that. The a new idea is the sum of old ideas suggest that the more new ideas we have, the more complex they become.

  44. “Little more than …….”

    I find myself increasingly chucking into the mental dustbin any and all articles that contain ‘only…’, ‘just…’, ‘mere….’, or ‘little more than….’.

    It seems to be almost compulsory these days to add some belittling qualifier to every scientific article regarding homo sapiens. We are a ‘mere blip’ in the universe…..and such like. Such statements add nothing to the science and are ridiculously subjective.

    Can science writers please stop doing this, and let the readers decide what is ‘mere’ and what isn’t.

  45. Something bothers me about memetics. For the theory to work, a meme has to copy itself, i.e. it has to be a replicator. For DNA to be a replicating molecule, it has to build copies of itself by “seizing” passing matter of the right constitution and shape it into a DNA strand, creating a copy of itself. Information in my head, however, doesn’t seize matter and turn it into a copy. It has to send a signal which gets picked up and reverse-transcribed by somebody else’s brain into a copy of the meme. This means the brain already has to have some innate tendency to guess what shape of meme caused that phenotype.
    Is this actual replication? If left in a box with a bunch of matter needed to make a copy of itself, a chunk of brain won’t replicate. DNA could, but even if you shove a neural net into the needed compounds, no replication occurs. It needs something else to do it. Can the nerve net really be called a replicator if it doesn’t do anything under its own steam?

  46. Memes, like viruses, are parasitic, requiring an external host to do the work.

    Virus DNA doesn’t replicate without access to suitable live “host” cells.  By analogy, meme information-patterns only replicate when “loaded” into a suitable brain.

    In brief, DNA doesn’t copy itself, but copies do get made.  Same with memes. 

    I think it’s a distraction to get too concerned about the details of the replication mechanism.

  47. The markets exploit this for massive returns. How to get the individual unaware they are about to choose what we want them to choose. We know religion gets parents to get their kids doing the same, for example. We even know the salesman personas who get us not to like who they don’t want us to like and vice versa. One begins to wonder what the fuck we know even about what we want to choose in this life and worse still how to know what someone else knows is more or less identical. I know it’s why I don’t like humans per se for example – this utterly unconsciously corrupted species that we celebrate about ourselves. I could walk away and not want to look back at this. I need no nostalgias about the collections we’ve accrued, under the carpets of our symphonies! I hear the silences louder and clearer.

  48. Hey Premiseless – there’s nice ones among us too.  It’s said “90% of everything is garbage” (or was it 99%?).   But it’s not ALL crap.  You just gotta keep on being picky, keep on looking, and keep your Not-Crap detector switched on, it will beep eventually, even if it’s been silent for too long.

  49. Here’s another difference between memes & viruses. The latter can survive outside of their hosts yet they can be killed by heat or disinfectants.

    Ideas on the other hand, cannot survive without direct transmission between hosts or recording mediums such as a piece of paper. Also, you can’t kill ideas with fire or antiseptic. You can affect the hosts, but it’s not the idea itself that gets destroyed.

  50. Can we move past this whole nature versus nurture argument? In a conscious world, our subconscious drives our cognitive interpretation of experience(evolution). Our consciousness, drives the focus of such experiences. At this point in time, to have a debate over the chicken and egg; is to miss the enjoyments of a meal.

  51. DNA is a refinement of a pre-existing replication process, possibly of RNA, and RNA is a molecule which does replicate itself. Indeed, RNA has the twin virtues of being both a replicator and a producer of phenotypes (via polypeptides), though its instability is what let RNA hand over to DNA most of the information-storing load in the first place.

    It isn’t a distraction to get concerned over the replication details, because “to make copies of oneself” is a different process from “to be copied by another mechanism”. If I made a clone of a fish’s body, or of a table, that’d be very different from a fish or a table making clones of themselves. If paper replicated itself, we’d be interested in the paper, but since photocopiers replicate the paper for it, we’re interested in the photocopier. A passive replication process is very different from an active one.

    It seems to me that specially-built brain mechanisms, and by extension genes, are doing most, if not all, of the explanatory work. After all, brains are information-processing organs, potentially spreading computer viruses. Why, if bits of information can be alive and virus-like, are we the only information-processing organisms that apparently spread information as though copying it? It’s not like we’re the only ones communicating.

  52.  Picky.  And false.  Destroy every instance of a virus, and it’s gone.  Destroy every instance of an idea – in a person and in storage media – and it too is gone.  Where’s the difference?  Fire is great for burning books. 

    Maybe you’re suggesting that an idea “whose time has come” cannot be suppressed, and I’m inclined to agree. It could arise anew if sufficient component ideas were still around.  Like the eye, which evolved independently how many times? 

    So – for example – if somehow all nuclear weapons, reactors and their designs were destroyed, and nuclear physics was banned from education for a few generations, would the idea ever re-emerge?  Probably, I’d guess, since the underlying principles can be rediscovered via the scientific method and some hard work.  Quicker if someone squirreled away a few notes.  

    But that just says ideas are hard to stamp out.  So are viruses.

  53. The main point I am trying to bring up here is that virus and memes have different survival traits. And as you know, in evolution, small but significant differences can lead to great divergence over time. Just because some of meme’s reproduction function superficially resembles virus’, it does not mean it has to completely fit the mould.

    Water at 100 degree celcius does not kill ideas out of pages and antiseptic does not wipe memories off hard drives. Both meme and virus can be extinguished, but if they have different survival capabilities, then they deserve to have their individual model. Lumping them together is almost like lumping spider crabs and tarantulas together.

    Also, with memes, every different ideas are almost like their own species. Rickrolling, for example, does not translate well on paper & most likely it wouldn’t catch on. I just think that it’s too early to make any conclusions regarding memes because it’s a relatively young idea and not very well researched yet.

  54. Are you people serious? You all do understand that ideas have no existence apart from individual consciousness. They exist and can be discussed as an abstraction, but in no way can any characteristics associated with actual existents be ascribed to them. Its not rocket science but ideas are the products of a reasoning consciousness. Think

  55. “like lumping spider crabs and tarantulas together.”  – well, exactly.

     Related, but not as closely as they appear, which is the point you were making, I suppose.  They still have a common ancestor, though I have no idea what it looked like or how long ago it lived.

    I agree the “meme” concept is relatively new.  The analogy with genes appears strong, and warrants investigation.  And discussion.  Most analogies break down at some point, and locating that point is a worthwhile endeavor.  I suspect you have lower expectations of this analogy than I do, so are more inclined to downplay it.  I think it has great potential, so am at risk of overblowing it.  [Not saying you’re wrong, I hope you understand.]

    Somewhere in between, I expect “meme-ology” or “memistry” or [insert name here]  to settle down as an accepted and useful tool in the scientist’s conceptual toolbox, so – for example – ideas may be classified in terms of how “infectious” they are.  (On the genetic side of the analogy, some diseases are passed blood-to-blood, others via aerosol inhalation).   The analogy also opens up the interesting question: what would be the meme-equivalent of antibodies?

    One point of difference is the science-fiction idea that memes, by virtue of their different environmental needs,  may be better capable of spreading across the cosmos than genes encoded in DNA.   Cue the CGI department…..

  56. well, that would explain the constant shift of the Zeitgeist through the generations and all over the world in purely darwinian terms, it might seems to be quite obvious to understand for people used to think of the world as an entity governed by the laws of nature and which is constantly evolving, but I agree with the author on the point that the idea would upset quite a LOT of faith-heads.

    by the way, i think is quite exagerated to say that “ideas control us”, just like saying that “genes control us”…it looks like they’re gonna make you obey orders, that’s quite an unpleasant way to put it. Sure, genes and memes can influence our life, but we can also influence the “life” of our genes and memes. ideas always get judgement from us to decide if an idea is good or bad, if our decision is wrong, and the idea we decided to spread around turns out to be a bad idea, it might be bad for both us, and our genes. if our genes are bad for living and will cause us a premature death, it will be bad for us and any kind of idea we might have had in our life, and so on….

    if we really want to use a metaphor to describe our genes, our ideas and our body as 3 personal entities, i think it’s quite a bad thing to picture it as genes and memes get an hold on our body which is just the slave. I’d rather think of the 3 entities as symbionts, all of them defining ourself, any of them having benefit for the 2 other companions succeeding during our life.

    that’s why I think is wrong (even misleading and futile) to say that our memes (or genes) control US, they just “cooperate” with other kind of entities to constitute our own identity. the fact that our body is the one component of the “trinity” not to be potentially immortal is just due to other reasons, humans might find ways to make it even untrue in the future, thanks to artificial brains and things like that, who knows what science can eventually achieve? in the meanwhile, we know that the other 2 components might spread, and last for decades, centuries, millennia…what are we gonna do about this? I’m sure a lot of people would rather blame theyr genes and memes for lasting longer than theyr physical bodyes…..I’d rather be glad to know that at least a part of my very self has the potential to have an impact on the world, and last very long. but after that, it’s just up to ME, to make this potential blossom in something which is actually valuable. And when i say “ME”, i mean that thing composed by the 3 entities, working together.

  57. We already have a means of distinguishing why some ideas are adopted and others rejected. A common psychology capable of millions of neural rearrangements is all you really need.

    The thing is, memetics supposes that ideas inherently replicate. I develop the argument more fully elsewhere, (see discussions, I’ve opened a thread about it) but to put it in brief:

    Ideas look like memes for the same reason the evolution of groupiness looks like group selection: they have overlapping characteristics, but different mechanisms that give the illusion of a selection process.

    Ideas don’t replicate themselves. They just sit there and get copied by another mechanism which has genes at the root of it (in this case, brain structures designed to dissect and reconstruct incoming information from the senses).

    Groups and group structures don’t replicate themselves. They just sit there and get copied by another mechanism which has genes at the root of it (in this case, genes favouring copies of themselves in other related bodies or genes favouring a tendency to stick close to other animals, or genes favouring memory and a give-and-take style of bonding, or genes favouring an association with symbionts).

    If paper replicated, it would be interesting, but photocopiers do the replicating, so the photocopier is the interesting thing.

  58. Interesting point about personality disorders. Psychologists themselves
    are in a disagreement over certain diagnoses, due to the cultural bias
    involved (the “norm”).

    Is it right to equate maladaptive behavior to whatever is against the
    cultural norm? From what I’ve learned from a course in abnormal
    behavior, a behavior is only considered maladaptive or “abnormal” is
    when it harms other people and/or the person doing it. Comparing a
    behavior against a norm to appraise its “abnormality” is only a
    shortcut, and it doesn’t always work, especially now that people from
    different cultures can easily intermingle. For example, one can be a
    homosexual within a culture that despises homosexuality. And yet what
    harm does being a homosexual has in itself? That is why psychologists do
    not consider it to be a disorder today.

    Enter rationality. It is no surprise that most “normal” behaviors turn
    out to be rational, otherwise people will not get along well with each
    other and will not even be in touch enough with reality in order to
    function. I’m interested to know of other examples of a rational
    behavior within an irrational culture (aside from my example on
    homosexuality above).

  59. One problem that remains intractable is our (I mean homo sapiens’s) inherent, and misleading dualism. The ideosphere seems like a Cartesian concept; the ideosphere in here in the head, and culture, that is to say things, language, electromagnetic patterns, out there in the world.
    An alternative (and I think maybe more consistent with Dennet’s virtual engine hovering within the brain) is to use the idea of material continuity, which gets rid of the dualism. e=mc2 is an overused and under-understood formula, but it’s necessary here because it deals with space, time and energy as a continuum. This continuum is the one in which the universe exists. If one accepts this not as a mystical or poetic but factual statement, then it is so that between, let us say, the pen of Beethoven writing the fifth symphony and my hearing it on the radio, there is no gap greater than Planck length. Thus a material condition of biological evolution, no gaps greater than Planck length between me and the first ancestor, is met in cultural evolution. This allows for culture to exist in the world, but reproduce, and be selected, in the brain; and furthermore, because the continuity between the world and the waking brain is absolute, selection relies on a reciprocity between world and brain, (appraising a joke, buying a hat, learning a song) that does not need, in fact precludes, a dualism between things and the, very question begging in this context, mind.

  60. Broadly speaking there are four possible outcomes:
    Object is selected and increases the competitive survivability of its host homo sapiens population.
    (scientific medicine).
    Object is selected and decreases the survivability of its host homo sapiens population.
    (Messianic religion with added suicide).
    Object is not selected and its absence increases the survivability of its host homo sapiens population. (Messianic religion with added suicide).
    Object is not selected and its absence decreases the survivability of its host homo sapiens population. (scientific medicine)

    The need for conservatism and the selection/survival success of conservative objects, at whatever scale (a monotheistic theology, OMG, ), gives rise to otherwise inexplicable phenomena, traditionally characterised as human stupidity, the ignorance of the masses and so on.

  61. In support of Ohooligan, whether the Higgs boson actually existed before Peter Higgs hypothesised it, the Higgs boson in the meaning space has a material existence; clearly a far more complex and coherent existence in the brain of Higgs than in mine. We cannot describe the nature of this material existence much beyond its neural and electro-chemical substructure. And we cannot by observation distinguish between the substructure of the Higgs boson concept and the belief that Jesus might have walked with dinosaurs, except that the first probably takes up more room than the second. But I think that the material existence of concepts is unquestionable, if only because there is no evidence for any existence which is not material, as long as you accept e=mc2. However, to continue to exist, these things must get out and about, because human beings die and each individual meaning space is quickly snuffed out. Culture gets out and about by means of language and graphics; speech, ink, writing, symbols, diagrams, binary code, screens. It’s really safest in books. But its likelihood of survival depends on a continuous and multitudinous circulation between the world and human brains. If all existing human meaning spaces were suddenly cleared, emptied, the Higgs boson might be recoverable from the non-human, in-the-world record by later generations, but that is by no means certain. And if all books were burned, and every recording medium permanently lost, the chances of the Higgs boson’s continuance in a merely oral culture is minuscule.

  62. Yes, symbionts, with different kinds of extension in the universe, that’s exactly it.

  63.  “Ideas don’t replicate themselves.”  But does anything?  Organisms can clone, but not replicate, themselves.  An idea (I prefer the term object) can go through a brain and out again into two brains, slightly mutated, and so on exponentially, and selection take place, and so on (cf

  64.  But then, complex ideas are far less likely to be replicated except in very small environments, like this one.

  65.  Absolutely.  Whether or not culture is a quasi-life form living in symbiosis with the human organism, that organism and that culture is, along with the universe itself, the most amazing thing in the universe.

  66.  A very good point. But space-time is a continuum, and a mortice joint that goes into a brain and out again as another mortice joint exists in that continuum.  Between Bach’s quill and your hearing his first partita there is no gap greater than Planck’s length.  See 

  67.  This is certainly one of the central problems.  Things certainly multiply.  A woman can see in a distant market a new and better design for a piece of pottery, and go a hundred miles home, and make that piece of pottery, and all the potters around do the same, more or less, so that pot has multiplied.  Whether it has reproduced or not maybe depends on processes of the brain which we don’t yet understand.

  68. Not really. For one thing, the pottery can differ very quickly in style in only a few generation, if for example the styles blend or the next person decides to “improve” it or make it stand out. For another, the brain processes aren’t that mysterious, and it seems mirror neurons are a key component. My point is that pots don’t copy themselves. They have to be copied, and that makes all the difference.

  69. This is actually a reply to James Waddigton below, but I can’t reach the reply button on his post.

    Replicators are real phenomena. RNA and DNA molecules will directly create copies of themselves once exposed to the correct ingredients. That’s the point. However much they may need to be handled and prized apart and locked up in the nucleus, when push comes to shove, they do all the replicating work. The same cannot be said of ideas, which have to be reconstructed blindly without direct contact, and have to be replicated. They do not do it spontaneously and need intervention, which has consequences – such as an increased reliance on the delicate copying mechanisms.

  70. I think there are two things here.  The term Idea is fuzzy to say the least, and not much use in trying to make this argument rigorous.  And while genes are mechanisms that contain the information necessary to reproduction, they are not the only possible mechanism, just the one that happened to have been selected by the environment.  Centrally, I would put all this on an entirely physical basis, including in the material world the continuity of matter, energy and time.  It is a condition of both biological and cultural evolution that there is never a break, however small. Dawkins emphasises this for life in Climbing Mount Improbable.  There is this continuity between the first lump of dried mud that was ancestral to the brick, and the most recent brick made.  But the continuity is not from brick to brick. It is from brick to human brain to either another human brain or the production of another brick, a continuum.  The information, the mutation, the natural selection, is not the same as in biological life, but I do argue that it fulfills all the criteria of evolution, and also explains a lot of odd things about human behaviour, like why we can find the Higgs boson but no take any action at all on global warming. ( I argue this more extensively at but it is only a draft, and I am still working on it)

  71. Absolutely agree that pots don’t copy themselves.  Less agreed about our knowledge of the processes of memory, meaning, reason and so on in our brains.  And I think a pot is a discrete and coherent object only in the world.  It, like everything else in culture, is a location in a continuum of cultural objects in the bit located in the same space as the brain which Dennet describes in Consciousness Explained as the virtual engine.

  72.  Because we evolved in symbiosis.  It’s like the human organism using human, not lion, mitochondria.

  73. This is in reply to Zeuglodon.
    Yes, replicators are real phenomena. DNA molecules will directly create copies of themselves. But that doesn’t mean that genes are real physical entities that copy themselves.  A gene is not a DNA molecule.  The DNA molecule is a chromosome and the genes are information encoded in the sequence of nucleotides in the chromosome.  If you looked at a chromosome, you couldn’t tell the genes from the junk DNA unless you knew the start and stop codes for a gene.  A gene is not a separate molecule that replicates itself, but is copied by relying on the delicate copying mechanisms of mitosis and meiosis.  When a gene is copied by mitosis, it is acually the chromosome that is replicated including all of its genes and ‘junk DNA’.  In addition, in meiosis, the two chromosomes align themselves closely and cross over to swap random sections of DNA without regard to gene boundaries.  As a result, some genes will be split and combined with the other half of the gene in the other chromosome.  As you can see, this doesn’t amount to the gene replicatilng intself, since it relies on other processes to get copied.  The gene doesn’t even exist as a separate entity until the protein is being synthesized from the information in the gene.  The gene is the ‘unit of selection’ not the ‘unit of replication’.

  74.  Maybe the whole meme/gene thing is a red herring.  The reproduction process for any object in human culture at any scale is an electrical/chemical event in the human brain.  “What’s the time?”  That’s an apparatus (in this case a question) and a specific and limited form of a very diverse cultural object (time).  It is reproduced when an English speaker without a watch wants to know the time.  The apparatus and the object, in this case, exist in brains, and in modulations of a carrier (acoustic, electromagnetic) between brains.  What it is when it’s not being reproduced we don’t yet know, but there seems to be no necessity to infer anything analogous to a gene.

  75. This is in reply to James Waddigton.
    While genes and memes may differ in detail, superficial analogies can be made. Genes are information and DNA is the medium that carries the information.  The DNA may copy that information to a new DNA molecule. By analogy, the meme is information and the brain is the medium that carries it.  The brain may copy that information to a new brain.  Also, groups of organisms don’t compete and get copied, but genes do, and may change the group dynamics. By analogy, societies or cultures don’t compete and get copied but ideas(memes) do, and may change the culture. That is why dictatorial societies try to control access to ideas and information, something that is becoming increasingly difficult in this information age.

  76.  From my distant memory of a book I once read on Claude Shannon and information theory, to be information, something must alter the state of something else.  Genes are not information until they meet RNA, and RNA is not information until it meets enzymes (I may be leaving stages out here, I’m no biologist).  In turn, enzymes fabricate proteins.  Thus it seems that information is not an autonomous entity, though it has discrete locations.  It only exists as a property of a system that is on the move.
    From you to me, through multiple channels and waves, information moves, alters the state of my brain, there is a process in my brain traditionally known as thinking, and then from me to you… and so on.
    I think one of the things our search here is about, is for analogies to the biological locations, gene, DNA, RNA and so on.  But to expect them to be easy, to be anything like these biological things, is maybe a little too hopeful.

  77. This is in reply to James Waddigton.

    Information is the common thread behind this issue.  In fact, it’s the common thread behind everything. Something is information if it means something that makes something happen.  Without meaning, there is no information–It’s just random noise– and nothing will happen. So, where does all this meaning come from?  Meaning has been evolving in the form of complex systems since the beginning of the universe.  It is the structure of a complex system that gives it it’s meaning.
    The structure of the system of particles that make up an atom determine it’s properties, and the way the atoms are put together in a molecule determine the molecule’s properties and how it will interact with other molecules.  Carbon atoms can be assembled in a few different ways.  One structure can mean a diamond while another structure can mean graphite.
    Complex systems interacted and became even more complex giving rise to living systems.  Living systems eventually gave rise to cultural systems.  In all of this meaning of meanings of meanings in systems of systems of systems there is a taxonomy in which classes of information and meaning can be defined by their basic units. For example, in chemical systems the basic unit of information and meaning is the atom. In biological systems, which are chemical systems but with a higher level of meaning than other chemical systems, the basic unit of information and meaning is the gene. In cultural systems, which are another level above biological systems, the proposed basic unit is the meme. The structure of different systems within each class is determined by how these basic units are constructed and assembled.  Between the classes, the details and rules of information processing can be quite different, but the basic principles behind it all are the same: Information and meaning.

  78.  That’s an excellent definitive summary of the situation.  A reliable stepping-stone.  I’d add the proviso that any taxonomy of information, or anything else, has limitations, because it’s a way of chopping up the universe, which is a continuum, eg the circumpolar gene shift of what we here in the UK call the Herring gull, which if you follow it round clockwise changes slowly, through a constant gene shift along an interbreeding continuum, into what we call the Lesser black back, a species which does not interbreed with the Herring gull.
    Likewise Newton’s laws, despite Einstein, are beautifully scientific for many purposes.
    With that reservation, you’ve done the background in meticulous detail.  Now what about the foreground.  What’s a meme?

  79. Reply to James Waddigton.

    What is a meme?  That’s a difficult question because all the examples of what are supposed to be memes seem so different.  A cultural system is basically shared experience and knowledge between a group of brains. The network of brains is connected by their sensory systems.  If a person has an experience and wants to share it with someone else, he can draw a picture that shows the experience.  That picture would be a meme.  If they have a shared language (which is itself learned through the introduction of a series of memes), he can try to explain the experience. That explanation may amount to one or several memes. 

    An experience can be internal as well as external.  An internal experience is constructed in the mind by mental simulations of possible future external experiences.  This internal experience could amount to a new idea- something that hadn’t been done before.
    An experience or an idea is stored in an individual brain’s memory by associating it with previous memories.  If an experience is to be shared with another brain, it has to be associated with a prior memory in that brain.  If no suitable prior memories exist, additional memes need to be added to complete the link to a prior memory (education).

    Since we want the meme to be the basic unit of information and meaning in a cultural system, its meaning has to be understood by the receiving brain.  By this standard, the meme would be a relative term.  For any particular experience or idea to be transmitted between brains, the meme would be the smallest unit of information that could be understood. Any smaller and it would not be information and if it was too large, it may be too complex to be associated with prior memories.
    A meme could be constructed of a chain of memes. A sub-culture which is itself a series of memes, could be represented by a single meme between individuals who have a general knowledge of the sub-culture.

    A persons knowledge and identity are built by a chain of memes from infancy through life from experience and interaction within the culture.
    I don’t know if there’s anything to meme theory.  Memes get copied and changed.  Cultures and languages evolve. Genes and memes have some similar characteristics, but many differences.  They don’t have to be the same for the theory to work.  I got involved in the discussion because I didn’t think Zeuglodon was right about genes being self-replicating, and that memes had to be self-replicating for the theory to work.

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