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Meme Theory

Updated on May 6, 2013

Evolutionary Memes

The entire concept of evolution is based on a principle called the gene theory; the gene theory states that individual traits are passed via chromosomes located in DNA, from parents to offspring through reproduction. Another theory, the theory of natural selection, sets parameters for the gene theory, stating which genes dominate and which genes diminish over time. However, these ideas do not explain the entire concept of evolution. Genetics can explain the physical and intellectual advances in the human race but not the cultural aspects. Hence the coining of the meme concept. Richard Dawkins created the idea of the meme in the 1970’s to connect the aspects of culture with the aspects of the gene theory (Barker). Dawkins states in his book, The Selfish Gene, that to truly grasp evolution the cultural transmission of humans must be incorporated into the theory, which means that the gene is not the only aspect responsible for the modernization of man (203-206).

Just like the chromosome is the building block of genetic evolution, the meme is the building block of the cultural evolution. The meme is translated by imitation of behaviors between humans. This information largely transfers in the brain and leaps from person to person through imitation. “The successful meme is one that is continuously imitated”, and carried throughout a culture until it grows or diminishes (Barker). The only restriction of meme imitation is time according to Dawkins, because the human brain can only absorb and understand a few pieces of information at once (211). The definition of a meme is some kind of idea that spreads through natural selection similarly to genes. A meme can be anything like “a catchphrase, a concept, a tune, a notion of fashion, philosophy or politics” (Lasn 44) or simply an idea.

Memes are extremely powerful in culture, especially today’s. Because of the massive increase in technology and informational exchange, memes can be transmitted in a matter of seconds. As Lasn states, “whoever has the meme, has the power” (44). Humans are not even conscious of memes because they are so frequent. Just as the young learn from imitating their parents, the average human imitates their environment because humans are constantly learning and changing. Because of this constant adaptation, memes can affect a culture without the conscious acceptance by the human host. Memes are selfish as Dawkins says because they compete ruthlessly with each other to gain a longer life (212). Even though memes are extremely competitive, they are not necessarily bad. There are three different kinds of memes: parasites, commensals, and mutualists (Coker).

Parasite memes; as the name suggests, feed off of the health of their human hosts. These memes corrupt the mind and can cause harm to the person (Coker). Many corporations in the business world have coined and use memes to persuade the average civilian to utilize one of their products, services, or ideas (Lasn 44-45). This market is extremely competitive even without memes, so while implementing them, the industry can ‘brainwash’ or persuade their subjects. An example of this would be fast food. Scientists and dieticians agree that the food presented by the fast food industry has uncountable negative health factors like: weight gain, increased levels of fat in the internal organs, dangerous cholesterol levels, depression, mood changes, and decreased hormone production (Fast Food). The reason that so many people still consume this food daily is because the industry has convinced people that their food is always cheaper and is a necessary part of life. “Billboards, television, and radio advertisements bombard us with pictures of fast food, visions of happy people eating fast food, and jingles and slogans about having it “our way”” (Fast Food). Because fast food memes are everywhere fast food is preferred by some people simply because of the label. In a study conducted in 2007, researchers presented 63 preschoolers with identical foods, some with McDonald’s packaging and some with unidentified packaging. “On average, children preferred the taste of foods and drinks in the McDonald’s packaging over the same foods in unmarked packaging…” (Children’s Taste…). This suggests that the implication of the logo had a greater effect than the food itself on the decision the children made. The children with more access to advertisements and fast food branches were more likely to pick the branded food over the non-branded food (Children’s Taste…). The memes coined by the industry are more recognizable and therefore more favorable even though the food is extremely bad for your health.

Commensal memes are not as severe as parasitic memes; however they are not necessarily good either. These types of memes are neutral; they really have little positive or negative effect on their subjects (Coker). For example, music and the arts, have not negatively affected the world but they do not necessarily positively affect the human species. These types of memes may be pleasing on a personal sense but they do not affect the evolution of the species culturally. Some would greatly disagree with this categorization based upon the artistic revolutions like the Renaissance. This time period was a phase of great change in the artistic fields but more notably a revival of the ease of life for the people living in that time. This revival cannot be attributed to the arts because they simply acted as a pleasurable benefit to an increase of fortune politically and financially. As Bennett says in On the Causes of the Renaissance,

“Once we recognize that the Renaissance had general causes in the

discontents produced by the evident failure of both the mediaeval religious

and political efforts, then it becomes apparent that humanism was only

one manifestation of a general unrest and search for new principles to

live by, and ways to live” (5).

The increase of fortune during Renaissance times could be attributed to mutualist memes. Mutualist memes are ones that positively affect their subjects and create positive change (Coker). For the Renaissance mutualistic memes for the general masses would be new political leadership and an increase in the trade market, bringing good fortune to most. These memes effectively launched these areas out of the Dark Ages and into a time of great joy and increasing comforts. Some other mutualist memes are anything that can be shared and has a positive effect like “food preparation and childbearing” (Coker 997). These increased memes changed the techniques used in these areas to safer and better ways to accomplish the same tasks.

Obviously, commensal and mutualistic memes are preferred over parasitic ones because of the joy and positive outcomes that spring from them. However, not all parasitic memes had an entirely negative end. Take for example: war. War is considered to be the most gruesome and saddening thing about the human race. Wars offer horrific deeds and unforgivable acts of cruelty toward fellow humans. War is a contagious condition that can spread from culture to culture for a number of different meme reasons. Some common war memes are the ideas of revenge, honor, pride, and ruthlessness (Coker). All of these contribute to the unmasked slaughtering of thousands. But, as Coker suggests, war “fulfills all three functions at the same time” (997); the positive, the negative, and the neutral. War has given the human race great pieces of art along with the recognition of many great people for their efforts in and out of the war zone. The inspiration of races of people to become stronger through rivalry and to gain power from their new strength is another positive aspect of war (997). War can cause a lot of good as well as a lot of bad; but the fact that it has affected our culture in many ways and has helped to advance it cannot be denied. An example of the positive effects of war can be seen in the era of World War II and the Great Depression. When the war started many men were needed to fight, this created jobs for the millions of unemployed and eased the pressure off of the American people.

These examples of a rise in culture due to the imitation of memes explain the evolution of a nation. But some memes are complete conflicts of each other; how do certain memes gain precedence over another? Memes are highly competitive and will sabotage each other given any chances (Dawkins). Memes use all the weapons in their arsenals to prevail over one another, but the most powerful weapons come from their human hosts. Memes thrive off of tradition, communal customs, and above all imagination. Such memes gather so much favor from the human race because people are highly imaginative. Humans crave to do, see, and experience events or instances that require the imaginative aspects of their minds. The escape from regular life is something that has always occurred (a strong meme) because it releases the tension and expectations (negative strong memes) of what are parts of survival. Coker thinks that the human race aspires to move beyond this time onto something more daring and interesting then the repetition that occurs today (914). This yearning spurs the meme theory into effect on culture because it gives memes the ability to “prevail over unstable forms” of memes and adapt or mutate to further prevail (Dawkins 13-14). Memes will do whatever they can to epitomize ‘survival of the fittest’.

The meme theory is a new addition to evolution that explains the change of culture like the gene theory explains the change of physical attributes. Both of these depend on the ‘survival of the fittest’ and compete with each other to succeed in the mind or body. Although not commonly accepted by the whole of the scientific community, the meme theory is quickly being used to explain the world more and more often; a strong meme. Numerous aspects of modern culture are being explained by the meme theory from religion to language. Every aspect of human life evolves over time and the gene theory alone does not cover the entire realm of progress. While the gene theory aptly explains evolution from a somatic standpoint, the meme theory is needed to explain evolution through culture and intraspecies development of humans.

Works Cited

Bennett, Josephine. "On the Causes of the Renaissance." The University of Chicago Press 2.1 (1949).

“Children's taste preferences linked to fast-food branding.” (2007, August). Irish Medical Times, 41(33/34), 43.

Coker, Christopher. “ War, Memes, and Memeplexes”. International Affairs. 84.5. (2008).

Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford UP, 1976

"Fast Food." Green Health: An A-to-Z Guide. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2011. Credo Reference. Web. 15 November 2011

Lasn, Kalle. “The Meme Machine”. The Ecologist.30.2.(2000).


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