We are all imitators
- Memetics

by Marcus Loane


Memetics is the study of imitation and how ideas spread.

What is a meme?

A meme is a unit of culture that can be imitated.

Examples of memes are catch-phrases, tunes, wearing earrings, getting tattooed, recipes for cooking, ways of building arches or decorating kitchens. A meme is anything that can be copied from person to person, or from person to book to person, or from person to computer to person or... well you get the idea. Other examples of memes are fashions, crazes, religious ideas, political correctness, shaking hands, ways of laying cutlery, rules of etiquette, the latest fad diet, belief in Shiva, drinking coke, alternative medicines, chain letters.

What do all these things have in common? They get copied from one human brain to another. Fads and fashions are often directly imitated. "Everyone is wearing combat trousers so I must get some combat trousers". Other ideas get copied from a speaker to a listener using language. Even words themselves are memes. We make a particular sound with our vocal apparatus to refer to a thing and the person listening hears the sound and knows what the thing being referred to is. Without the meme of "this sound means this thing" we would not have language. That meme is quite arbitrary. The sounds for a thing in Chinese are quite different from the sounds for a thing in Spanish. A Chinese person has trouble communicating with a Spaniard because their respective brains do not have the same language memes installed. When were the language memes installed? Mostly in early childhood by the process of imitation.

Installation of new memes never stops. Education is the copying of memes from teacher to pupils. Memes can be stored in books, computer databases and other objects.

The idea of a wheel is a meme.

When wheels were rare, any time anyone saw something using a wheel they would have thought "what a great a idea!" and copied it. The wheel itself was the advertisement for the wheel idea, ensuring its spread. A wagon was a great mobile advertisement for a wagon ensuring the spread of the wagon making meme.

Memes spread. They start somewhere and propagate by being copied from person (host) to person. The spread can be geographical like the spread of an infectious disease. Someone creates a new joke (jokes are memes too). They tell it to their friends in the pub. The friends tell it to their colleagues at work the next day. The colleagues tell their families and so on. There is an ever larger geographical area containing human brains infected with the new joke. Thousands of years ago the spread of memes was limited. Now with telephones and the internet, memes can travel the globe in seconds. One single joke email can get copied and forwarded to millions within one working day.

Advertising is a way of spreading a meme to millions of brains in a short time. It works.

"Just for the taste of it - Diet Coke"

Most of civilisation is the product of replicating memes. It would have started with memes for tools, spears, fire making, nature worship, clothes and eventually agriculture. Today almost all of life is the interplay of and competition between memes. Most fashions, trends and crazes have no rational explanation. Why wear wide ties and not narrow ties? It is completely arbitrary. However we are compelled to comply with at least some of them for the sole reason that everyone else does.

In general, which memes are most successful (ie. widespread) ?

The memes that become the most common are the ones that are best at spreading

Now there is a limited number of things a person can listen to or be exposed to in a day, so there is a "competition" between memes to get into people's brains. The memes that succeed will be those that are memorable or make some emotional impact that compels a person to pass them on. They may be true or false, useful or harmful. Memes that "fit in" better with existing memes in the hosts' brains will have a better chance of spreading. For example ghost story memes will have a better chance of being installed in brains already installed with other supernatural belief memes.

Now we would hope that most memes become common because they are genuinely useful like the wheel or medicines. However some memes become common just because they are good at spreading. A harmful meme could be called a mind virus. An example would be a chain letter which stated "Send this to five people or terrible things will happen to you". This has no desirable properties, it is just good at spreading. "Believe this or you will burn in hell eternally" is another very successful mind virus.

Mighty Allah meme

Memes can club together to help each other spread. The memes for "doubt is a sin" and "believe Allah is God" spread better when packaged together. You might doubt that Allah is God so you would not pass on that meme to someone else. However if you have the "doubt is a sin" meme, then your defences are weakened and all sorts of other memes can infect you because you will be less likely to doubt them. We could package the above two memes with the meme "teach your children and other people about Allah, and that doubt is a sin". These three memes would spread better together than individually. How about a fourth meme? "Teach others to teach their children about Allah." You can begin to see how religious doctrinal systems get built up into ever more complex structures. This is not by anyone's deliberate design, and the memes have no intentions themselves (obviously!). It is just an inevitable process. Memes get copied from brain to brain. Complexes of memes which bunch together are called memeplexes. Orange-ism in Northern Ireland is a memeplex. Protestantism is a memeplex. Roman Catholicism is one of the most powerful memeplexes ever and is responsible for the Inquisition and the Crusades. Millions died because of a memeplex.

If you want to infect someone with a dubious meme you would do well to pre-infect them with the faith meme or "belief without evidence is virtuous" meme. This leaves the host ripe for infection by other false memes.

Sceptic meme as vaccination

How do we guard ourselves from harmful or untrue memes? By learning critical thinking. Scepticism is the best vaccination against infection by harmful or false memes. Scientific memes are filtered through the scientific method of repeatable experiments to establish validity. This process weeds out memes that are likely to be false so the scientific method usually produces true and useful memes.

Memetic theory can give you a whole new perspective. Every time I put on a tie, I think, the only reason I am tying this completely useless bit of cloth around my neck producing an uncomfortable choking sensation, is because it is a meme that everyone else has succumbed to. Most people seeing me are infected with the "wearing a tie means you are respectable" meme, so I must play along. There is nothing inherently respectable about tie wearing - it is just an arbitrary convention that has become widespread in some cultures. There is probably an obscure tribe or sect somewhere where tie wearing is a grave insult. In Vietnam showing the sole of your foot is an insult. When American soldiers sat in helicopters with their feet hanging out, flying over Vietnamese villages they were supposed to be helping, they did not understand some of the hostility. Different cultures have different sets of memes. In Japan there is a meme of removing your shoes when you enter someone's house - in the UK, wiping your feet is enough.

The altruism trick

Memetic evolution is Darwinian. Memes mutate (variation), get copied (replication) and compete (selection). Those variations that are better at getting spread will become the most common. For example imagine two cults that mutate into separate cults (denominations) with slightly different beliefs and philosophies. Both cults encourage members to get new converts. Cult BeNice teaches its members to be nice to people. Cult BeInsulting teaches its members to insult people for not sharing their beliefs. Which cult will spread the fastest? Cult BeNice of course. People are more willing to adopt the beliefs of someone who is nice to them. This is the altruism trick (Susan Blackmore). Memes for beliefs or doctrines hitch a ride with the altruism memes. This explains why successful religions often, at least superficially, have some emphasis on caring about others. Religions with those features spread better.

Genes and memes

When there are replicators that vary and compete, the results can be spectacular. Genes that replicate with variation, with selection by the environment, produced biological life on this planet. The memes that replicate with variation, with selection by the environment of human brains, produced our culture and technology. A theory containing the almost magical power of replicators in an evolutionary algorithm is exactly the sort of theory that would be expected to explain the difference between human civilisation and other animals. When you find complexity anywhere in the universe, suspect the power of differential survival of imperfect replicators.

A missionary is programmed by religious memes
to programme others with religious memes.

New terminology relating to memetics has appeared. The memosphere is all memes or all human brains where memes can dwell. A memebot is someone so badly infected with memes that they spend most of their life robotically spreading those memes to others. Missionaries are a good example: some religious memes are so virulent that they can alter the behaviour of their host so that all they care about is infecting others with the same memes. This is comparable to a virus altering the hosts behaviour (eg. by making them sneeze) to ensure the further spreading of the virus to other hosts. A memoid is someone who loses their life due to the memes they have been infected with. Kamikaze pilots, those in suicide cults or martyrs for religious, political or other memeplexes are good examples.

Therefore memes and especially memeplexes can alter the behaviour of the people (hosts) they infect so that the host spreads the memes to others. Memes can also be as lethal as any biological infection. It is a common trajedy that some people infected with the faith meme refuse conventional medical treatment preferring instead to hold out for a miracle. They may die as a result. The faith healing meme can kill.

Everyone should be vaccinated early in life with the scepticism and critical thinking memes and the world will be a safer place.

Self protecting memes

Memetic theory can predict that memes which have a self referential quality will become common. I have already mentioned the faith meme, which discourages critical thinking or doubt which might lead people to conclude that the faith idea is dangerous and irrational. The tolerance meme is another example. Tolerance of new ideas means tolerance of the tolerance meme. The free speech meme is another. The free speech meme helps create a cultural environment that allows the preaching of the free speech meme. We cannot attach value judgements to memes just because they help themselves spread like this. They may be harmful (faith) or they may be desirable (free speech - up to a point).

Are memes real?

Ideas that can be copied are real. Memes are ideas that can be copied. Therefore memes are real. When you learn something new from someone else (acquire a new meme) it must have some physical coding in the wiring of the neurones in your brain. How else would you remember anything? It follows that memes are literally rewiring your brain all the time. Memes are a large part of who you are. There is a physical representation of a meme in the brain tissue. Your brain is initially built by DNA and then memes modify it from birth to death. That statement is less radical than it sounds. It is just a more precise way of saying we are part nature, part nurture. We are products of the co-evolution of genes and memes. It is also a useful reminder that we are constantly changing. You are not the same person you were 15 years ago. You are not the same person you were yesterday. You are not the same person you were before you started reading this article. Your brain structure has been modified (yes, physically modified) by this paragraph if you remember any of it!

What is original thought?

If most of what we know is just memes how can we have original thoughts or creativity? We can have original thoughts by putting together old memes in new ways. New pieces of music are composed from a whole lot of prior influences (musical memes). The same can be said of creativity in the arts and in other areas too. Einstein had original thoughts. These would have drawn on the prevailing scientific memes and perhaps some chance event which caused him to put together previously unrelated ideas in new ways. The brain looks for connections between things, always seeking patterns - that is the source of creativity, new connections. Some types of learning do not involve memes. Learning by trial and error is largely meme-free but it is slower than getting information secondhand by the meme route. Both types of learning are valuable. When I solve a genuinely new (to me) problem by myself it is very satisfying. Sometimes I will later find out that someone else had already solved the problem. That means the same meme can sometimes be created independently. The good tricks get discovered.

What is memetics good for?

Memetics has been around for 25 years. Scientific theories must be testable. To test memetic theory we would need to find ideas that spread in spite of being false, harmful or meaningless. What other theory except memetics could explain that? We could also test memetic theory by deliberately creating different kinds of memes, releasing them into the wild (the internet?) and predicting which would spread the most rapidly. This is being done, often using the internet as the medium because it allows for such rapid results. Other ways of testing memetic theory concentrates on psychology experiments, establishing what it is that makes people adopt or reject different types of memes. Other studies attempt to find the physical structures in the brain that represent stored information (memes).

Some people are extremely hostile to memetic theory, probably as an emotional aversion to the disturbing language (memes "infecting hosts" or the mind as a "meme-nest"). If you don't like the words "being infected by memes" we could use the term "acquiring memes". "Infection" suggests all memes are harmful and that is certainly not the case. Most memes are symbiotic with the host.

There is often hostility to any theory that attempts to explain human behaviour.

Another misunderstanding is that the language used suggests that memes are conscious and have intentions. This same misunderstanding occurs when talking about genes in biological evolution. It is just a shorthand - for example when it is said "the chain letter meme tries to get itself replicated by using threats" we mean that "a meme which includes threats is more likely to spread well". When it is said that "genes compete to make trees taller" it is a shorthand for "genes that just happen to make trees taller will become more common since the trees they produce get more sunlight than the shorter trees in the forest below them. The shorter trees getting less sunlight are more likely to die and not produce offspring with the genes for making shorter trees. Therefore trees tend to get ever taller." That is quite a mouthful so you can see why shorthand is used. Memes do not have intentions any more than genes or viruses do but it is often useful to talk about them as if they have intentions.

Useful metaphor

Some say memetics is at least a useful metaphor and I would definitely agree with that. Memes exist by definition, and we have examples of memes which spread even though they are false or harmful. Therefore memetic theory is valid. Memetics is a different perspective. It does not replace existing sociology. It complements it. Actually a lot of sociology already used evolutionary or epidemiological metaphors to explain cultural change. The memetic perspective may lead to new insights or areas for experimentation. There was a similar change in perspective in evolutionary biology in the 1970's. It emphasised looking at life from the point of view of genes instead of the organisms themselves. That was genuinely useful and led to explanations for kin selection, reciprocal altruism and behaviour of social insects. Memetics has been useful in explaining the persistence of religions and why religions have certain features.

Memetics does not rob us of our individuality. While we are all part of a bigger system, each one of us is a unique (but constantly changing) construct of genes and memes!

Knowledge of memetics is useful for advertisers, political campaigners, confidence tricksters and the rest of us who are their targets.

If you have read this far, you are now infected with the meme meme. It is worth having the meme meme just to make sense of a world where we are bombarded with advertising, religious proselytisation, political movements, rampant consumerism, fashions that change monthly, and days when you can't get that annoyingly catchy tune out of your head!

Marcus Loane