Memes

I used to think Richard Dawkin’s  term, “meme,” was simply a fancy word for “idea.”  I was mistaken. Memes are ideas or actions in their social context, and not simply private thoughts that live or die with me. Broadly defined, a meme is any mental creation, considered in its capacity as an independent entity that survives, declines, adapts or mutates over time depending on the mental energy people supply them as part of a culture. They are much more than internet pictures, though those pictures are memes.

As I have come to understand them, they open us to the venerable occult concept of a thought form, and, especially when considered together, memes and thought forms transform how we might think of ourselves and societies. I go there in the next installment. But before taking that step, I need to explain what a meme is from a secular context, and why it is important. (For the very eager, two online discussions of memes and thought forms that I have found insightful are here and here

Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ from ‘gene,’ the basic building block from which complex life emerged through evolutionary processes.  Genes have been described as ‘selfish,’ but, catchy as that phrase is, it has led to misunderstanding Dawkins’ meaning.  A gene does not have a self, but if it did, and wanted to replicate, it would act as successful genes do, because genes that replicate more prolifically are the ones that produce evolution.  Unselfish behavior such altruism and parental care, can evolve via this process through kin selection or reciprocal altruism.

Many major biologists today argue that there is more to evolution than this, but at least the ones I have read say Dawkins’ description is a part of the evolutionary process. For some major figures who modify Dawkins’ original formulation see E. O. Wilson  and Richard Prum

Now, on to memes.

Ideas in their social context are memes, but some memes may have no clear meaning at all, such as the opening chords of Beethoven’s 5th.  Symbols, such as our flag, are also memes. So is shaking hands.  Memes are patterns of mental energy that influence our behavior and are sustained within cultural networks existing independently of any particular individual.

A meme is not a physical thing, though it can shape what physical things do. Nor is it mental in the sense of existing solely within our heads. It exists independently of each of us, but not from all of us. In return, while we can separate ourselves from some memes, we can never separate from all of them. A cultural ecology provides a coherent pattern of meanings and practices within which we live, most of which we accept. We are as much its creation as they are ours.

Memes populate the cultural ecosystem, enabling us to be social beings with a language sharing mutually understandable meanings so we can communicate beyond simple signals. When we uncritically accept them, as we usually must, from a meme’s perspective we are their tools, giving them mental energy and helping them replicate.  For us, they are just a part of the reality within which we live, and in the process of living, we reproduce some of them.

Memes as organisms

From this perspective, memes are mental organisms that, along with us, exist within a cultural ecology. Within this ecology memes can replicate, adapt, mutate, go extinct or perhaps simply go dormant for a time, using our minds as the means for their preservation and dissemination. Memes replicate by attracting the mental energy they need to survive and increase. They do this within individual minds that then spread them to other minds through words or other actions.  A meme’s success or failure rests on the degree it is picked up by many people.  But memes are independent from any particular individual mind.

Is a meme “alive?”  Their frequent comparison with viruses is useful here. Viruses exist on the borderline of life and not-life, as they depend on cells to reproduce.  By themselves they are not considered alive.  A meme is the same in the mental realm.  And like viruses, to persist they must ‘infect’ hosts and adapt to overcome barriers to their spread.

Scientists have discovered viruses play an important positive role http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/next/evolution/endogenous-retroviruses/  in biological evolution. Memes play such a role in human evolution- and like viruses, they can also cause ‘infections’ that threaten a culture’s survival.

 

Necessary as they are for a complex society to arise, a meme might have a number of meanings, depending on its particular context. In this way they differ from ideas as held by individuals, which seem to me simpler than memes.  This can complicate our ability to understand one another.

Think of “bad” and “wicked,” which still have their traditional meanings, but in a different context have the opposite meaning. Even so, the impact of that meaning is connected to the traditional one.  Otherwise we would just say “good.” Over time, a meme rarely used in its once common form, like “wicked,” could in time come to be a synonym for “very good” as its use in different contexts changes.  Translators can be driven crazy by this kind of thing, but it is also why we describe a language as “alive.”

When we repeat a meme, it may not mean to others what we mean when use it.  But the more it is used, the greater its memetic success. It possesses a field of meanings and, like “wicked,” its dominant meaning can evolve within that field. In my first section I described how the meaning of marriage changed over time to become a celebration of loving commitment- the organism had evolved, and as it did it influenced the larger cultural ecosystem, so that interracial and later gay marriages became possible, neither of which played a role in its original change.

Co-evolution

We are not merely replication agents for memes.  We can also evaluate particular memes, even if always in the context of the others, and decide to accept, change, or reject them. Our ability to change, empower, or disempower memes at the individual level frees us from being simply their vehicles for expression. When we step outside a meme and consider it critically or creatively if we continue to use it, the meme becomes our vehicle replicating our influence and contribution throughout society rather we theirs. We have changed it, and that change might help it spread more widely, generate another meme, or go extinct if people reject it.  As individuals, our independence is real but always only partial and we each play a role in how a meme maintains or changes its meaning. We and memes are interactive agents powered by our mental energy, and over time both they and we co-evolve together.

Far from being centers of society, we are organisms sharing a mental realm with memes and society is the collective creation of people and memes.  Again, this is like a biological ecosystem. (As a Pagan I know more is going on, but we don’t need to go there now.)

Robert Heinlein is one of the few to have created two terms that became memes: “grok,” and “TAANSTAFL.” In Stranger in a Strange Land he used “Grok” to describe a certain kind of understanding that went deeper than words. For some years, it was common in popular culture well beyond those who read the novel, and is still occasionally encountered. Many Pagans are acquainted with it. TAANSTAFFL, “there aint no such thing as a free lunch” emerged in The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and is still occasionally encountered in libertarian circles.

We flow pretty effortlessly within a network of meanings most of the time, without really thinking about them. For example, in normal conversation we rarely if ever pause to choose our words - they emerge pretty automatically. If you want to experience the force of a powerful meme, refuse to shake someone’s hand when they extend it to you.  For most of us it takes a major act of will not to extend ours in return.

As ecosystems neither culture nor the memes within them are static.  The more magickally informed readers will have noticed that there is a great similarity between what some secular scientists call “memes,” and what magickal traditions call “thought-forms.”  And that is where my analysis is headed. But first I need to add one more element to this argument: our own role. 

Cultural change

American culture is relatively patriarchal, has grappled for centuries with an entrenched racism, and, when convenient, from Indians to Iraqis and Afghans, has consistently acted aggressively towards militarily weaker peoples. As a young boy, I initially imbibed the memes that contained these values to some degree and experienced them as linked with other dimension of our culture.  For example, our military preserved “freedom.” But like all cultures, ours is not monolithic. As we grow up we encounter competing memes, or see contradictions between memes that once seemed in harmony.

I still consider myself an American but now support feminism, oppose racism, and have a long record demonstrating, speaking, and writing against American military aggression. These changes emerged from my encountering and noticing contradictions and deciding between them.  The mix of memes that contribute to my self-identification as an American has changed in some respects though not in others. If the same happens in enough Americans, the culture will have changed, but still be American.

Consider again the triumph of gay marriage. The meme ‘marriage’ is complex, containing different cultural meanings involved in the term.  Once the meme ‘marriage’ incorporated love as a reason for its existence, the stage was set for a transformation.  ‘Love’ quickly came to dominate all other reasons for marriage. A meme thousands of years old shifted in its characteristics. As it did, it began to transform other basic memes, and therefore the institutions expressing them. First, it legitimized interracial marriage in a racist society, and it has now legitimized gay marriage as well. This was a kind of mutation that changed the meme’s ideational ecosystem and the cultural institutions that arose from it. Because so much is linked, the evolution of a single meme can be a powerful force in a society.