Friday, June 23, 2006

It's all in Your Memes

In the mid-1970s a now much more famous biologist, Richard Dawkins, published his groundbreaking book The Selfish Gene. I don't want to go into much detail about the theme or content of the book as it would require much more space than can be devoted to it in this blog. I will however say, that the main idea is that genes perpetuate themselves, grow, and change using their biological hosts - you and me and every other living thing out there with DNA. That statement actually brings up a point of contention and I would here like to point out that the subjects in Dawkins book are still hotly debated amongst evolutionary biologists. The point is that the very definition of a gene is in question. Whether it is a unit of information, a certain association of nucleic acids, or simply describes the code for how to make a protein, it is a useful term for biology and any uncertainty in its definition should not prevent the important work done in the name of understanding genes.

This post is not about genes however, it's about memes, a term invented by Dawkins in his 1976 publication. A meme, says Dawkins, is a unit of cultural information transmitted from one individual to another in some way. This could be verbally or by way of demonstration. He makes a good point in defining this concept, there is a distinct parallel between the way genes pass from individual to individual and carry specific information which can change, be lost, or expand with time and generations and the way information is disseminated throughout a culture. Memes, as well as being a good metaphor for genes - and biologists love to write metaphors - are of interest to many people and have led to their study, called memetics.

Some examples of memes are a popular song, phrase, or slang word. But memes are also much more integral to our culture and include the beliefs of a religion, aversion to torture by a developed nation, and hope for the future. Some memes are so large, or incorporate so much of what gives a culture its unique characteristics that they are referred to as meme-complexes. The exciting thing to think about with memes is that they may be subject to a form of natural selection and evolution just like our genes. You teach them to your children when you make a rule or punish misbehaver, and they learn them from the way you lead your life too. But you didn't raise your children exactly the same way as your parents raised you and the same goes for how your children will raise their own. The meme has the same origin but is slightly altered with each generation or cultural change. Some memes don't hold up, we have no use for them anymore or find them distasteful, and they go extinct. An important caveat to consider though, those cultural trends or norms you may disagree with aren't easy to change, and real change requires time and repeated selection towards a new idea. It is with memes as it is with genes; the process of change is slow and in many ways is more important and interesting than the end product.

Cultural fads come and go, religions gain steam and go the way of the Middle Ages, clothing styles, song genres, sayings and conventions all come and go and change during their time here on Earth. And all the while they are housed in our minds and executed through our actions. In a way, they inhabit our bodies and tell us how to behave, what to do in a given situation, and establish a social order. In that way, they are just as important or more so as our genes in determining the events in our lives. Can you imagine a high school education without prom? A world where children are raised by a community and don't know who their parents are? How about a society without ownership? All of those things, and so much more, are all in your memes.


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