Memes and Cultural Viruses Research Paper

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1. Definition

The meme is a hypothetical unit of cultural transmission, sometimes restricted specifically to forms of culture which are transmitted by imitation. Memes are replicators in that they are copied (with imperfect heredity) when one individual imitates another. Given that memes have some properties (their outward effects on human behavior) which affect the rate at which they replicate, their copy fidelity, and their longevity, they are thus subject to natural selection and are expected to accumulate adaptations.

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The key aspect of the meme hypothesis is that the adaptations generated after many generations of meme transmission (cultural evolution) are not necessarily expected to increase the reproductive success of the persons that carry the memes (as traditional sociobiological theory explains cultural traits), nor are they expected to aid any higher levels of organization such as familial groups (as functionalist strains of sociology and anthropology often explain the existence of cultural characteristics). Memes are expected to garner adaptations which aid the memes themselves as they spread through human social networks. In this way, memes are described as being selfish replicators.

Memes are sometimes referred to as ‘cultural viruses,’ in reference to their putatively maladaptive (or at least nonadaptive) nature. In this case, humans are referred to as hosts to parasitic memes. Host behavior (and in some cases, host phenotype in general) is not always under the control of the genotypes which built the host. In some cases, the host may be considered an extended phenotype, which acts in the interest of parasite genes. Thus the aggressive nature of rabid mammals is understood as a manipulation by the rabies parasite, which is spread by the saliva into bite wounds caused by the rabid animal. Memes are proposed to affect their spread in a similar manner, through the manipulation of a human host’s behavior. From this perspective, much human behavior is the result of insidious cultural parasites which manipulate the instincts and motivations of human hosts in order to ‘trick’ host bodies into performing maladaptive behaviors which increase the reproductive success of the cultural traits (memes) themselves.

2. History

The term ‘meme’ was coined by the British biologist, Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, and its original definition is found in the following oft-copied excerpt:

Examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation … If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain (Dawkins 1976 p. 206).

Dawkins’ text, however, was not a work on culture, but on biology. He had added the section on memes in order to demonstrate that the principals of natural selection and adaptation were likely applicable outside of the realm of genetic evolution. Dawkins claimed that ‘I am an enthusiastic Darwinian, but I think Darwinism is too narrow a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene.’ Dawkins wished to use the idea of meme as a way to enrich his thinking about evolution, to support a concept of universal Darwinism, and to shed some suspicion upon the nascent discipline of sociobiology, which was emerging out of evolutionary ecology, the academic milieu in which Dawkins worked. Thus from the onset, the meme hypothesis was proposed as an adjunct aspect of a theory of evolution, not as a serious proposal as a theory of culture. However, many of the aspects of meme theory have appealed to those who are on the fringe of social theory, especially to communities who have backgrounds in evolution, population genetics, and artificial life.

While Dawkins is credited with the origin of the word ‘meme,’ R. A. Fisher, a pioneer in the discipline of population genetics, had claimed as early as 1912 that natural selection should apply to such diverse phenomena as ‘languages, religions, habits, customs … and everything else to which the terms stable and unstable can be applied.’ While the desire to apply ideas from evolutionary biology to social phenomena was nothing new, the way in which Fisher thought of the process was distinct from the intersociety competition which other early twentieth-century biologists thought of social evolution. He outlined in a paper as an undergraduate the first meme-like theory of cultural evolution, with his claim that playing cards had spread widely due to games like bridge, as the eager bridge player must find several other naive persons and teach them the rules of bridge to get a game. This way of thinking of cultural evolution at the level of the cultural trait, and not at the level of the society at large, differentiates meme theory from other forms of social theory derived from evolutionary biology.

While other terms have been introduced into the literature to describe putative units of culture (e.g., Lumsden and Wilson’s culturegen, 1981), and some investigators have proposed explicit theories of cultural transmission without coining new terms to refer to their cultural units (Feldman and Cavalli-Sforza 1976) the term meme has achieved a comparatively wide distribution and has been added to dictionaries, further reinforcing its legitimacy. While the use of the word meme has spread in the popular literature, especially on the internet, its use within academic circles is limited. The term ‘meme,’ however, when compared to other terms which attempt to describe culturally transmitted units, has been particularly successful. A number of popular works on ‘memes’ have sprung up in recent years (Lynch 1996, Brodie 1996, Blackmoore 2000). These books are only tangentially related to work on cultural transmission theory and evolutionary biology. While they have produced substantial media splashes in the popular press, none of them has received a substantial positive response within academic circles. Their uncritical ( positively zealous) position on memes has helped in associating the term meme with popular pseudoscientific literature. Time will tell whether the rapid spread and acceptance of the term meme in the absence of reasonable experiments or formal theory is used as evidence for, or against, the meme hypothesis.

3. Context

In the discussion within evolutionary biology from which the term meme arose, the scale at which natural selection operates (species, group, organism, or gene) was of great importance (Williams 1966). It is now recognized generally that selection at larger scales, while possible, is likely a weak force in comparison with selection at the smaller scales. That the meme is an important agent in cultural evolution (as opposed to the individual, the social class, or the society as a whole) is an outgrowth of this mode of thinking.

Scale is a key concept in the description of memes, but while there is agreement on the importance of scale, there is not yet a consensus on what scale is appropriate. Cultural phenomena on scales as small as the phoneme, and as large as entire religious systems, have been considered memes. Some have even claimed that all cultural phenomena within that wide range of scales can be viewed as memes (Durham 1991). However, most definitions of meme focus on relatively smaller scales.

Dennett (1995) claims that memes are ‘the smallest elements that replicate themselves with reliability and fecundity,’ while Pocklington and Best (1997) argue that ‘appropriate units of selection will be the largest units of socially transmitted information that reliably and repeatedly withstand transmission.’ From both of these perspectives, replicative integrity and repeated transmission are important. However, Pocklington and Best argue that the very smallest elements within culture are likely to be unable to accumulate adaptations, as they do not have subcomponents which can vary, providing grist for the mill of selection and preventing adaptation at the level of the replicator. They argue that the largest clearly coherent cultural material will be most likely to respond to selection pressure and generate self-serving adaptations. Thus, while there may be no single, uniform answer to the question, ‘How large is a meme?,’ a focus on scales of cultural phenomena makes evolutionary theory more useful in describing the observed phenomena.

Questions of scale in evolutionary theory are prominent in discussions of the topic of group selection and the repercussions of individual based vs. group based models as possible explanations for human altruism. Those arguing for true human altruism often suggest group selection as a mechanism through which the differential survival of human populations has caused group-level adaptations. The more cynical gene and individual selectionists usually describe all altruism as being the reflection of underlying selfishness and suggest that true altruism would be unlikely (if not impossible) to evolve. Thus, within this debate, important moral questions are claimed to be resolved by a better understanding of the scale at which natural selection works on human populations. The addition of the idea of selection at the level of the meme, as opposed to individual level selection (or group selection), is a simple continuation of this general argument.

While the term meme is sometimes used simply to refer to a ‘cultural particle’ without reference to concepts of selfish cultural adaptation, the majority of work making use of the term meme makes explicit analogies to the exploitation of host animals by parasites, and suggests that culture itself creates culture, with humans and their societies as intermediate ‘vehicles.’ A substantial exception to this is the work on bird song making use of the term meme (Lynch and Baker 1993). In this literature, the term meme is used simply to refer to bird song types, with no reference to selfish cultural adaptation. Similarly, there is substantial work on cultural transmission using quantitative models (mostly from population genetics) which does not make use of the term meme.

In summary, the central concept that differentiates the idea of a meme from the idea of culture in general is that memes, having replicated (through a process of imitation) are expected to evolve adaptations that do not help their host, but instead will have adaptations that serve their own replications, much as parasites do. Neither human reproductive success nor social function at any higher level of scale needs be involved. Thus memetics is inherently a functionalist and adaptationist viewpoint, but with an important shift of emphasis away from the individual (as sociobiological theories emphasize) and the social group (as traditional anthropological functionalism emphasizes) to the cultural trait itself. This conclusion has important consequences for many areas of social thought which have yet to be explored seriously. At this point, the meme is purely hypothetical, merely the lineal descendant of one of Darwin’s more dangerous ideas.


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  3. Brodie R 1996 Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Integral Press
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  6. Dawkins R 1976 The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, Oxford, UK
  7. Dawkins R 1982 The Extended Phenotype: The Gene as the Unit of Selection. W H Freeman, Oxford, UK
  8. Dennett D C 1995 Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: E olution and the Meanings of Life. Simon and Schuster, New York
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