something new every day

9/17/11 (Memes)

What do Lolcats, hijabs, Volkswagon Bugs, ‘Where’s the Beef?,’ Zeus, chain letters, planking, and double-entry bookkeeping all have in common? Well, if you’ve read the title of this post, you may have guessed that they’re all memes. 

Those of you familiar with the internet, particularly sites like livejournal and tumblr, are all too familiar with the word ‘meme.’ But, if you’re anything like me, you didn’t know where the word came from, or even what, precisely, it meant. 

The word was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Pronounced to rhyme with ‘seem’, a meme is to human culture what a gene is to biology.  Like genes, memes are passed between individuals, encapsulate a piece of information, and mutate over time. The term is far more broad than the latest survey or challenge showing up on your livejournal friends list or tumblr dashboard. Miriam-Webster defines the meme as “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.”

Dawkins used the idea to suggest that culture can be subject to evolution in the same manner as biology. Memetics has been used to suggest theories to explain things as varied as religious symbols to religions themselves to racism. Others are more interested in the how of memes, proposing theories that memes may act more like parasites or viruses than genes. Still others have used the concept of memes as a tool to explore how the brain works, such as an experiment asking autistic people to explain common memes such as “Go with the Flow.”

Memes aren’t even restricted to just humans. Memes have been observed in other species as well, such as dolphins and birds. (Think of a bird learning songs from its parents or neighbors).

Memetics, as fascinating as it may be, is still very young, and is considered by many scientists to be, at best, a pseudo-science and, at worst, utter garbage. One criticism is the fact that, unlike in genes, selection-pressure does not seem to balance mutation rate. Another is that the very concept of memes reduces extremely complex and multi-faceted ideas like religion or politics to simplistic and one-dimensional abstractions that vastly overlook what is actually being discussed. In other words, you can’t look at something like ‘Christianity’ in a microscope the same way you can a gene.

Whatever your stance on memes and memetics, if you’re reading this, you’re presumably on the internet, which means you’re being constantly bombarded with new memes. Better to be informed than not.

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