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Memes Essay

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Memes Essay

  1. 1. Memes are a Meaningless Metaphor. Discuss. This essay will review evidence to refute the statement that ‘memes are a meaningless metaphor’ and ultimately reach the conclusion that memes should be more highly regarded as an important aspect of human evolution The term ‘meme’ is defined, by the Oxford English Dictionary, as ‘an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non – genetic means, especially imitation’. There are currently vast amounts of speculation as to whether memes actually exist, or whether they are merely a metaphor used to explain pieces of human behaviour that, for some reason, get passed down to other generations. The truth is, some form of memes, whether you believe in them or not, have played a major role in the evolution of the human race in the most recent stages in evolution and continue to do so, particularly with regards to the ways in which we behave within our cultural groups. Richard Dawkins (1976) first introduced the concept of memes in his book entitled, ‘The Selfish Gene’. Here he introduces the meme as a new and improved ‘replicating entity’, much like the gene, which, despite being very much in its early stages, is achieving evolutionary change at an astonishingly fast rate in comparison with the humble gene. When Dawkins first discussed this idea, he was contemplating the existence of a second replicator. The first replicator, of course, being the gene, a biological entity which has a sole purpose of ensuring its own replication and survival down the ages. For many years now, it has been accepted that genes are responsible for evolution, as genes are passed on and tweaked each time in order to maintain its fitness. The meme, as suggested by Dawkins, is a psychological entity which in the exact same way as a gene. Both share the sole purpose of ensuring that they are replicated and passed from person to person. Memes come in many forms such as stories, morals and values and musical tunes. In fact, music is a good example of how memes spread themselves. If some one hears a tune that is catchy, they will remember it. If they remember it then they will sing or hum it aloud. Another person hears this and also thinks that the song is catchy so they remember it and so on. Religion is also an excellent example of the sheer longevity of some memes. How can it be that stories from so long ago are still prominent today? The answer is, in fact, memes. It can be argued that religion, in its essence, is a collection of ideas, many of these ideas are socially desirable. We, as humans, perceive it to be socially desirable to treat others, as we would expect to be treated ourselves. As a result of this the stories are remembered, retold through various mediums, they are printed in books, represented in art, music, movies, all of which enable religion, as a meme, to be passed down through the generations. Memes like these have been described by Dawkins (1976) as ‘viruses of the mind’ in the sense that they travel from brain to brain like a virus would, with the sole purpose of being passed on to as many other brains as possible so
  2. 2. that the idea can live on and carry on replicating. Memes like these carry with them the promise rewards and punishments dependent upon whether you agree to pass on the meme. For example the religion says that if you pass on their teachings to a friend, then you shall be rewarded. This is in place to reinforce the follower from passing information on to others. Dawkins suggests that just as genes spread themselves in a gene pool by leaping, biologically, from body to body, memes spread themselves in the ‘meme pool’ by leaping from brain to brain through imitation. Therefore imitation is the way in which memes replicate themselves, much like the way in which genes replicate themselves through reproduction. It is commonly accepted that some memes are more likely to successfully replicate than others, just as the stronger genes in the gene pool survive to successfully reproduce. This is where the idea of a catchy song or a good idea comes to light. Here, the more successful memes are the ones that are more likely to be remembered. In her book, ‘The Meme Machine’, Susan Blackmore (1999) suggests that our minds are made up lots of memes all working towards their own ‘selfish’ agenda, this being to replicate and be passed on. Paul Davies (2004) suggests that memes are the mental equivalent of genes; they replicate and compete in very much the same way as genes. He suggests that the idea of memes can be a rather dangerous piece of information, the reason being that the implications of such a find may be enormous. If it is the case that these ‘viruses of the mind’ determine our behaviour, there may be a danger of them being over simplified in order to explain more extreme types of behaviour like violence or crime. In its most extreme scenario it may lead to the belief that violent or criminal behaviour is some kind of biological anomaly that may be treated or even cured, this would be a drastically large claim, especially if there is possibility that it may be inaccurate. It may be for this reason that the idea of memes is looked upon with much contempt, as the ideas may be too radical for many people to accept and also because of the potential dangers of a society that may believe something they are told about their own behaviour based upon a possibly inaccurate explanation along with their own interpretations. Furthermore, it can be suggested that if people believe that forces outside of their control have the ability to determine how they shall behave, this may result in the relinquishing of a person’s own free – will, which may also lead to diffusion of responsibility with regards to acts of violence. For example people may think that they can be violent towards one another purely because they believed they are not in control of their actions as their bodies and minds have ready determined how there are going to act. We have seen why it may be important for evolutionary psychologists to refute the idea of memes and regard them as a ‘meaningless metaphor’; this shall be investigated further later on in the course of this essay. But first it
  3. 3. may be useful to develop more of an understanding of how, as opposed to why, memes may affect our behaviour without us ever realising. The term ‘meme’ is by no means the first theory of its kind; there has been much discussion about the way in which culture evolves differently to biological evolution. Blackmore (1999) suggests that the notion that ideas and cultures evolve seems rather obvious, as ideas tend to be built upon over time, as cultures tend to change and develop through the generations. It can be regarded as a highly reductionist view that memes are a meaningless metaphor, especially given that the subject of this essay, memes, by definition, is a meme within itself. It can be argued that the idea of memes, is a meme. This is due to the fact that a term once coined by Richard Dawkins (1976), which has been dubbed a small time bomb (Matt Ridley – Times Literary Supplement), was read by other, remembered, adopted and passed on with slight variation and additional research, until it has now become one the single most controversial subjects in the field of evolutionary psychology. This in itself shows the vast effects that memes may have, this one in particular may hold vast implications for the way in which we understand our behaviours and cultural experiences as humans. With a small throwaway passage in his book ‘ The Selfish Gene’, Dawkins has perhaps opened up one of the greatest evolutionary debates of our generation. If this has been described as a ‘small time bomb’, then Susan Blackmore has certainly exploded it with her book ‘The Meme Machine’. Within this book, Blackmore goes on to deconstruct the idea of memes in order to thoroughly evaluate it. Blackmore suggests that most of our thoughts are potentially memes that would die out if we don’t relate them to someone else. This, in fact, the case for a lot of memes as people do not convey all their thoughts to another person. From here, she then goes on to discuss the problem for humans that we cannot stop thinking, ever. Dennett (1991) suggests that brains with memes have much more information to store, but can also use the memes themselves as tools for thinking. With this in mind, it could be that we can’t stop thinking as a result of all of those memes inside our minds that are desperately trying to get copied. Blackmore suggests that the best way to successfully achieve this is by repetition and rehearsal. The goal of the meme is to repeatedly expose you to a topic and make you keep rehearsing it in your head so that when you have a conversation with another person, the meme may be passed on during the conversation. Hurley and Chater (2005) go on to use memes in an attempt to explain big brain theory, they have suggested that human ancestors had the capacity to imitate. This imitation capacity gave memes a chance do develop and copy themselves. As some of these memes may have contained survival information, then this would serve to benefit the genes if they enabled the ability to replicate memes. Here we find genes and memes working together in an almost
  4. 4. symbiotic relationship as the genes are allowing larger brain in order to improve imitation and memes are passing on the survival information. Although memetics appear to be an increasingly prominent area of research, it remains a taboo for many academics. When reading about memes you will often find the word ‘memes’ in inverted commas, as if to illustrate that it is not a ‘real’ term. It also appears that a collection of the most respected psychologists in this field do have memes featured anywhere in any of their books, despite these areas being the most appropriate for the integration of memes theories. There appears to be a great deal of fear surrounding the introduction of the meme as a crucial factor in human evolution. Throughout history there have been many great shifts in the common beliefs regarding life and how it came about. The last great shift was in 1859 with Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. When this was first published, it was met with great hostility and rejection as up until this point the general consensus was that all living things were created by god and were therefore divine. Because of this, it is absolutely crucial that as much research is done as possible to test its validity as many academics regard meme theory to be the latest great shift that will revolutionise the way we look at human evolution. Jeffreys (2000) suggests that to call memes a meaningless metaphor is somewhat redundant; he suggests that the question we should be asking is whether or not memes are scientifically useful.

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