Social Skills – Integration – Memes Special!

Friday, October 22nd, 2010 at 8:00 am.
by pre.

Last week we mentioned that language allows the easy transmission of memes from one person to another, but what exactly is a meme, are they made out of language? How do languages facilitate their transmission? What are the survival advantages of being a creature which can carry these memes, and what dangers might they pose?

We’ll try and answer a few of those questions this week.

What are memes?

The word meme, which rhymes with beam, was first coined by Richard Dawkins in his book “The Selfish Gene” in 1976. He was comparing the transmission of physical properties from parent to offspring through genes to the transmission of mental properties from person to person.

He suggested an analogy to Darwinian Natural Selection. In biology, genes which build bodies which are better able to reproduce become more common in the global gene pool. This is a simple mathematical fact: genes which replicate more efficiently come to outnumber genes which replicate less efficiently, and in surprisingly quick times.

Dawkins’ analogy pushed this idea further. Ideas which replicate more efficiently in human minds will, by a similar mathematical proof, quickly come to outnumber ideas which are less efficient at replicating themselves.

For example, the idea that you should tell everyone about your idea is likely to spread much more quickly in a population than an idea which insists you should keep that idea secret and tell nobody.

Dawkins wanted a word to represent a unit of cultural transmission in an analogous sense to the word “gene” referring to a unit of hereditary transmission, and chose “meme” from the same Greek root as “mimic”, to copy, and also to rhyme with “Gene”.

A meme then, is any cultural phenomena which can be copied, which is transferred from one person to another. Examples of memes include melodies, dances, catch-phrases, accounting, religious beliefs, clothing fashion, and the technology of building arches. In short, if one person observes another person doing something and copies them, that something is a meme.

How does language facilitate the transmission of memes?

First note that not all memes are words. Professor Dan Dennet has said that words are “memes that can be pronounced,” and certainly there are some memes which can’t be pronounced. The skipping gait of a dancer, the arching of an eyebrow, the melody of that pop song, all are memes for which there is no word.

Yet of course, I was still able to describe them with words. Still able to refer to the quizzical eyebrow of Mister Spock from Star Trek and have you know what I mean. It’s not always easy. To describe the silly walk of John Cleese in that Monty Python sketch the minister used the words “the right leg isn’t silly at all and the left leg merely does a forward aerial half turn every alternate step” and it wasn’t even all that silly a walk. You also would be unlikely to reproduce it the same way just from that description. You really need to see it.

However, you would, if given a few minutes to learn it, be able to reproduce that description exactly as I gave it to you. And it’s this which makes language so useful for enabling the transmission of memes.

Language effectively digitizes memes, gives them discrete names. Imagine trying to remember a recipe without having the words to describe each step. This not only helps to remember and recall the memes in question, it also abstracts them from physical reality and so enables us to describe them to each other.

I can teach you how to use a can opener without a can, or a can-opener in the room. This can even work if you’ve never seen either. With a good enough description of the implements and the process you’d be able to recognise a can, and a can-opening tool, just from the words which I’d previously given you. You’d know how to apply the blade from the can opener to the lip of the can, how to twist the handle so that it grips the can and rotates it under the blade. All of this information could, in theory, be given to you without you ever coming into contact with a can opener at all.

Doctor Susan Blackmore proposes in “The Meme Machine” that language evolved, at least party, precisely because it facilitates the digitisation, abstraction and transmission of memes from one person to another. Language evolved to do this due to the selection pressures both on the genes which enable it, and on the memes themselves which human brains transmit.


If this is true then language genes could only have evolved if the ability to be a carrier for memes conferred a survival advantage to the genes which build the brain which can perform this feat. Is there a survival advantage to being able to observe and then copy other people? To be able to pick up their ideas as easily as a sponge can hold water?

Of course! Being able to copy someone is a massive time-saver in learning how to behave in the world, how to survive and thrive. Rather than having to learn everything by yourself, by trial and error or else by difficult calculated planning, you can just find the most successful people in your community and copy what they do.

This is not a simple skill. You need to be able to use your mental filtering functions to determine which aspects of a person’s behaviour to copy. You need to be able to understand what a person is doing and then translate that into the actions you need to perform yourself in order to copy them. You need to be able to determine which people, which memes, are most useful to copy and, in the case of abstract digitized linguistic memes, be able to decode and speak a whole language.

Oh, but when you have those skills licked, when you can make yourself into a vessel for memes to live, the powers it gives you are incredible. It enables time binding or the Jumping Jesus Phenomenon, which we discussed back in Lap one. It lets parents program their offspring’s brain, allows teaching, learning and education. It enables a being to learn life or death lessons without risking death!

In a species which has been using memetic evolution for some time, the very ability to copy well also increases a person’s attractiveness to members of the opposite sex, enhancing reproductive capacity still further.

However, these memetic powers do come with a dark side.


As Dawkins pointed out, the ability of a meme to spread is not directly related to the benefit that meme has to an individual organism which carries the meme. Memes for self-harm, suicide, celibacy and trivial distraction all thrive in our modern society despite the disadvantage to the people who spread those memes. A meme will become more frequent in the memesphere not if it enhances the well being of those that carry it, but if it enhances the ability of that meme to spread.

As a species we have evolved some discrimination when it comes to memes, you do try to copy only those things which are advantageous to you, but the mechanisms are flawed and your ability to tell which memes are useful and which aren’t is likewise sub-optimal.

You have probably found yourself humming a tune which, even as you hum it, you find annoying and distracting to the point that it really begins to make you angry and yet still you keep humming. This earworm is buzzing around your head because its hook, its melody, is adapted to fit your neural hardware. It’s a tune which has evolved to fit the environment it lives in: human brains. It’s likely the only way you’ll dislodge it is by thinking of a tune which is even better adapted to being repeated endlessly by the firing of circuits in your head.

This is only the most trivial of examples. You will often in life find yourself copying others blindly, mindlessly, without thinking and often you’ll be doing things which are detrimental to your mental health, your well-being, your life and your plans.

The more transcended you manage to become, the more likely you are to be able to spot and control these instances, but no matter how skilled you become and handling your own brain there will still be unnoticed “mind viruses” lurking in your grey matter.

Look out for them. Eliminate them.

While memetics is, mostly, just a metaphor, we think that a memetic viewpoint on the world is often enlightening and educational. As such, our meditation this month will encourage your to look for memes in the world, to analyse them, see what it is that makes them spread through the social sphere, and to help control which memes you decide to pick up and transmit, and which you reject.