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The Meme: 40 Years Later

Time to revisit the concept of the “meme.”

This term is attributed to Richard Dawkins, who used it in his book, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976.

And today, the memes are flying so fast and furiously they have done what Dawkins could never have predicted: they have made themselves irrelevant.

The term”Meme” is attributed to Richard Dawkins, who used it in his book, The Selfish Gene, published in 1976.

Dawkins hypothesized that there was not just a genetic makeup to human beings that limited, predicted, and determined their behavior, but also a conceptual inheritance that could travel both vertically (parent to child) and horizontally (across a culture or sub-culture). His notion was that the meme evolved and came into clearer and clearer resolution over time, ultimately ending up as a “truth.” And in general, these units of cultural transmission were those that most benefited the social order in which they resided.

So, “Thou shalt not murder” was of benefit to a society (note that the actual translation of the Biblical commandment was not “kill,” but murder, the implication being take another’s life without purpose or justification, such as self-defense, or perhaps in war, was the wrong), and spread rapidly from parent to child, and outward, from person to person. Thus Grog learned that it was better for all not to club Oog over the head and take his haunch of venison.

Over time, as we note in the parenthetical comment, “murder” became “kill,” as social groups refined the initial meme and altered it – either purposefully, or evolutionarily.

Memes are flying so fast and furiously they have made themselves irrelevant.

And therein lies the evolution of the very concept of a “meme” that, in 1976 and before the advent of the personal computer, the Internet, and social media, Dawkins failed to envision: that memes could become tools, rather than unconscious but useful ideas, often used for the very antithesis of his notion of their purpose: rather than spreading a useful “truth,” they are used to deliberately spread lies, half-truths, and confirmation bias in the form of a short (false) attribution, or a captioned photograph.

What Dawkins could also not have suspected was the proliferation of social media, its power, and that it —as well as to a large degree the so-called “MSM”— would be used as a vehicle for propaganda. As such, propaganda used to be considered, in western cultures, an evil thing, a tool of the devil, something only a “Commie” would use. At some point, propaganda became a necessary evil (they’re too ignorant to know what’s good for them), and finally, “Truth to power.” Of course, in reality, various social groups have used propaganda for millennia, in the form of religion, patriotism, proper behavior and norms. Dawkins would still have found this acceptable: that small but important ideas would be spread across a culture to aid that culture in surviving and prospering, and that eventually these small ideas would become an entrenched part of our psycho-social evolutionary selves.

Recently I stumbled across an oldie but goodie (or, baddie): a President-who-shall-remain-unnamed said in a old People interview that (a certain party) had “the dumbest voters,” therefore, were he to run for President, he would run on that ticket. The person who quoted the meme on social media was absolutely serious in sharing it –that is, believed its authenticity. That it wasn’t checked goes back to the idea of confirmation bias: the sharer desired to believe its truth. I corrected it, but the bias stood: well, if he didn’t say it, it’s no doubt that that’s what he thinks.

What do we call this? Memes run amok?

A recent conversation with an acquaintance confirmed a suspicion I have been contemplating: all this “meming” is ultimately self-defeating. We have become so inundated with short, self-important, half-true or completely un-true “posts” that we’re only interested in two ways: either they confirm what we already think, or we can dismiss them as proof of the other side’s “fringe” lunacy. We’re tuning out. We are deliberately limiting our social media consumption, or being much more selective about it.

All this “meming” is ultimately self-defeating. We have become so inundated with short, self-important, half-true or completely un-true “posts” that we’re only interested in either confirming our beliefs or dismissing others beliefs.

Either way, if the meme was a unit of unconscious cultural evolution but it has become self-aware and used to bad purpose (think genetically engineered babies): what replaces it? The good possibility: more self-aware development of thought and value selection. The bad possibility: more small sub-groups, warring ferociously with one another for survival, and more importantly, supremacy for its own sake.

Grog and Oog back at it again.

Nancy Roberts
Writer, voice over artist, information achitect, very curious person.