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The Selfish Meme, Memetic Engineering, Criticism Of Memetic Theory, Bibliography

Meme is indeed an interesting and apt subject to include in a dictionary of the history of ideas, for it is nothing less than a meta-concept for describing the transmission of knowledge among persons and cultures. Memetics—the study of memes—is, briefly stated, evolutionary theory applied to ideas. The word itself was coined by the British biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene as a neologism derived from mimeme (that which is imitated) and gene. However, Dawkins's insight was presaged by William S. Burroughs's observation that "language is a virus from outer space" and by the work of thinkers ranging from the dadaists to Jacques Derrida, who, in seeking to transcend language and textuality, recognized the role that language and ideas play in controlling human behavior. In the late twentieth century and early twenty-first century, however, memetics has drawn its strongest supporters from the rather more literally minded camp of computer scientists and devotees of Internet culture—not only because the memetic model of human intelligence is similar to the programming of a computer but because memes are a useful metaphor for describing certain phenomena that occur in the online world.

Cultures, Dawkins observed, evolve much as organisms do, and he conceptualized memes as ideas that guide human behavior just as a snippet of genetic code can guide instinctual mating or dominance behaviors. Much like genes, memes arise in response to a new stressor in the environment and evolve in response to changing conditions:

all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.… I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged.… It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture. (Dawkins, pp. 191–192)

A meme can be a concrete technology, such as a technique for making a stone spearhead, or an entirely abstract idea, such as "kingship" or "jihad." Examples of memes range from methods of making pottery and building arches to songs and stories, to tastes in clothing and fashion, to even more sophisticated behaviors, such as manufacturing hydrogen bombs, which require a "meme complex" or group of mutually reinforcing memes—in this case, the concepts of metalworking, atomic theory, and explosives.

As the result of natural selection, some memes become rare or are altogether eliminated from the "meme pool," the collective sum of a society's knowledge; they can also be overwritten by an invading group's memes. For instance, few twenty-first-century Native Americans know techniques that were indispensable to their pre-Columbian ancestors, such as flint-knapping or making a fire with the bow-and-drill method. Some memes (such as "cooking") survive because they are generally useful; others (such as "sports cars") trigger hardwired evolutionary imperatives, such as "food" or "sex" or "danger"; still others use more insidious means to ensure their own survival. For instance, chain letters, though intrinsically useless, have managed to be successfully passed on for decades because they contain instructions for their own reproduction and because they successfully exploit the human desire to get something for nothing, while evangelical religions (to give another example of a self-perpetuating meme) emphasize the virtues of proselytizing.

These latter cases serve to illustrate an important point of Dawkins's conceptualization, namely, the parasitic quality of memes. Lacking any physical way of reproducing themselves, memes survive and grow by imitation or by transmission from mind to mind. The transmission may occur through the observation and copying of a certain behavior or technique; it may occur as a craft is taught to an apprentice or as a farmer shows his or her son how to shear sheep; or it may be verbal, as by a professor's lecturing or assigning reading to her or his students. The participants need not speak the same language, as was the case with American GIs learning judo in occupied Japan. The transmission may be by force, such as the spread of the meme complexes of Islam and Christianity by conquest; or it can be by trade and indirect influence, such as the spread of classical Greek and Chinese ideas and motifs through the ancient Mediterranean and East Asia, respectively. Certain ideas are more easily imitated, or more contagious, than others; these are the memes that tend to be selected for survival, irrespective of the benefits to the individual they infect; in fact certain memes (such as celibacy or kamikaze missions) may be detrimental to the host's genetic survival but are nonetheless highly successful at reproducing themselves. Thus a viral contagion is a more apt metaphor to describe the meme than is sexual reproduction—a comparison Dawkins also used to describe the genetic code itself. To extend the metaphor, one is "infected" by an idea as a cell is by a pathogen, and one is compelled to carry the idea to others so that it may reproduce itself. Much like a computer virus, information begets information.

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