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The Selfish Meme

Even memes like "celibacy" and "kamikaze mission," while detrimental for their individual hosts, may nonetheless be beneficial for the meme pool at large. As Matt Ridley so eloquently explains in his 1996 book The Origins of Virtue, magnanimous social behavior is nonetheless often guided by the self-interest of all involved. Like ants, human beings seem to have evolved to be genetically hardwired to cooperate. Successful memes can build on this tendency. For instance, few animals, including humans, are munificent to those outside their immediate group or tribe, but the "patriotism" meme, by giving us a way to conceptualize an entire nation as an extended tribe, is one way of explaining the phenomenon of the growth of nation-states—or "imagined communities," as Benedict Anderson put it in his 1983 book of the same title. Thus even memes that are detrimental to the individual can confer an evolutionary advantage; to build on the example of patriotism, groups with memes that promote extensive cooperation (such as Caesar's Roman legions) will tend to outcompete groups who do not (such as the tribes of Gaul). Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori (It is sweet and proper to die for one's country).

One of the most philosophically depressing implications of memetic theory is that it is our memes, not human genius and creativity, that are the guiding force in history. Just as Dawkins reduced biological organisms to a vehicle for the self-perpetuation of genetic material, so it is with memes. Our various behaviors, from building cathedrals to writing novels, can be viewed as nothing more than our memes attempting to survive and grow. "Memes might come to be viewed explicitly as the primary actors in the drama of human history, exerting an iron-fisted control precisely analogous to that of Richard Dawkins's 'selfish genes' in the pageant of biological evolution," as James Gardner put it in his article "Memetic Engineering" in the May 1996 issue of Wired magazine. Such an idea is tremendously troubling for notions of free will. Gardner continued:

A meme-focused vision of culture and consciousness acknowledges forthrightly that memes are not mere random effluvia of the human experience but powerful control mechanisms that impose a largely invisible deep structure on a wide range of complex phenomena—language, scientific thinking, political behavior, productive work, religion, philosophical discourse, even history itself.

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Science EncyclopediaScience & Philosophy: Mathematics to Methanal trimerMeme - The Selfish Meme, Memetic Engineering, Criticism Of Memetic Theory, Bibliography