Not All Memes are Bad

By Maeve Maddox

I’ve recently become interested in the concept of the meme (rhymes with seem).

The word was coined by British biological theorist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins is an evolutionist. He argues that the human mind evolves in a manner similar to biological natural selection. He wanted a word similar to gene to describe the way ideas and beliefs spread and mutate.

He bases the word meme on a Greek word meaning “something imitated.”

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.

He gives examples:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, 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 sperms 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.”

Here’s the definition given in the OED:

meme: A cultural element or behavioural trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (esp. imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.

The word meme and the idea behind it is itself a meme and has propagated a new branch of science called memetics. The new memeticists have expanded Dawkins’ original definition and are not presently in total agreement as to what exactly meme means.

Outside the scientific realm, the word meme is used to describe the replication of words, phrases, and ideas on the internet. In this context it refers to the item that “goes viral.”

Scientists are also quick to compare the meme to a virus or a parasite. I question the wisdom of this method of explaining the action of the meme in a scientific context. It fosters a negative attitude towards the word that does not apply to its sister word gene.

virus: fig. and in figurative contexts: a harmful or corrupting influence; (a form of) moral or intellectual perniciousness. Also in weakened use: a phenomenon liable to spread rapidly and pervasively. –OED

Memes, like genes, should be studied as objectively as possible. Not all genes are “good.” Not all memes are “bad.”

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7 Responses to “Not All Memes are Bad”

  • Erik

    You said it yourself, though: “Also in weakened use: a phenomenon liable to spread rapidly and pervasively. –OED”

  • Dwain Wilder

    Another thought- (and response-) provoking post! Go Maeve! But I must quibble:

    “Scientists are also quick to compare the meme to a virus or a parasite. I question the wisdom of this method of explaining the action of the meme in a scientific context. It fosters a negative attitude towards the word that does not apply to its sister word gene.”

    I don’t think Dawkins meant the concept of memes to be considered in the light of “good or bad” evaluations. They are vital, but they can be disastrous when adopted unawarely.

    Actually, a virus is nothing more than a packaged snippet of genes, so the comparison is quite apt. And though, as you say, not all memes are bad, they bear watching. Left unattended, our mind picks up these memes entirely analogously to catching a virus, and we find our habits, points of view, and mental habits forming in ways we may even be entirely unaware of.

    The terrorism or “jihad warfare” meme is an extreme example. Our American style of Capitalist colonialism is another. Whole groups of people can adopt such memes without being conscious of their disastrous effect on themselves, their fellow citizens, and people half a world away.

    And the adoption act itself is ordinarily unconscious. This state of affairs is capable of twisting our awareness into tracks that are unfortunate even when they are innocuous, as their effect is to trivialize our lives, unless we bring them to consciousness. Concerning memes, “natural selection” should be a matter of each individual’s being alert to the cultural influences exerted on the mind.

  • Alan

    Interesting post. I agree with Meave, that the use of the terms ‘virus’ and ‘viral’ to describe the spread of memes can be seen as perjorative. This may not be what scientists intend – but it is how the words are generally perceived in the wider community.

    The term virus instantly makes me (and I assume others) of hackers attacking my computer or of something that may affect my health negatively.

    Yes a virus in scientific lingo merely means ‘a packaged snippet of genes’ (as Dwain Wilder wrote), but cannot a more neutral term befound fo defining a meme and how it grows.

    I find this interesting in relation to the last post by Meave about ‘mankind’ v ‘humankind.’

    Language is itself a meme that contains ” unit(s) of cultural transmission.” A word is not just its entymology – but also the hidden meme(s) that are attached to them.

    For me ‘humankind’ is a good meme – it is inclusive, while ‘mankind ‘is a negative meme – it is exclusive.

    Sure etymologicly ‘mankinds’ meaning may be harmless – but it also contains hidden cultural transmissions that have become attached to it throughout the centuries as it has travelled through patriarcal generations that today says to people ‘exclusivity.’

    I would argue that ‘mankind’ as a meme says men are more important then women. That may be far from the intention of the user – but the meme has a history that confounds that intention.

    So why not use the more positive meme ‘humankind’ – after all we are all human – whether we be female, male or something in between.

  • Jim Clinton

    Those of us who care about words are always trying to hold back the course of meaning mutation and evolution. However, no amount of whining could keep “ravel” and “unravel” from developing identical meanings. Or “regardless” and “irregardless.” I predict a similar future for “thaw” and “unthaw.”

    “Going viral” doesn’t have an exclusively negative connotation. Most bloggers want their words to go viral.

    The best thing about the meaning of meme is that it is going viral and becoming its own meme. A metameme, I suppose.

  • professional copywriter

    Memes are an amazing social phenomenon. As virals are around every corner the ability to create a viral campaign or meme is becoming more desireable for all kinds of organisations. Memes seem to discard brands and a small business to a world wide conglomerate can have viral success.

  • Joe Moffett

    I would question the absolute validity of saying that the word viral is automatically laced with negative connotations.

    Going “viral” has become almost the goal of many you-tube videos, blogs, and other ideas. It’s almost the current way of describing an idea that’s just right.

    Of course, going viral doesn’t automatically mean that it’s useful, or safe, or beneficial. But neither does it automatically conjure up images of disease any more.

    Having said that, the word “virus” on the other hand still sits firmly in the negative connotation basket.

  • Scott Bradlee

    There is no such word as “evolutionist.” There is only evolutionary biologist.

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