Introduction to Memetics

More than the sum of our genes
Most of the things we do make no sense at all.  If we took a step back and asked ourselves why we wear ties, or high heels, or why we smoke, gamble, join cults, mow the lawn, play sports, paint the house, vote, or do a million other things, there would be no good reason, other than ‘because we do’.

You might think ‘because that’s the way we’ve evolved’, and that is certainly part of the answer.  We have some basic behaviours that are programmed in to the very cells of our bodies. and that everyone (and pretty much every animal) does – we move about, we sleep, we excrete, we have sex, we eat, we die.  We do these things because natural selection left us with a set of genes that drive us to do them.

But look at the number of different ways that we do these things: our modes of transport, the designs of our bedrooms and bathrooms, our courting behaviours, what we have for lunch, and our funeral rituals. These all vary from culture to culture and from century to century, even though there is very little genetic difference across cultures and across (biologically) short periods, so our genes cannot account for all the differences between the ways we act.

It has been argued, and may well be true, that biology drives the human capacity for culture, but it does not explain the diversity and richness of that culture within very similar genetic groups.

The culture virus
These imitated elements are infectious – they pass from person to person, from business to business, and from culture to culture.  There are also a lot of them: we are constantly bombarded with infectious ideas from our family and friends, and through television, books and social structures such as religions. 
These infectious ideas have been pithily described as ‘viruses of the mind’ (Brodie 1996), although they are definitely not biological in nature. Here are some examples of everyday infectious ideas that we pick up from others:
  • our language, including vocabulary, grammatical structures, alphabets, spelling, the art of writing, pronunciation and regional accents;
  • cultural fragments such as aphorisms, proverbs, fairy tales, folk stories, nursery rhymes, myths, jokes and poetry, as well as songs, symphonies, melodies and theme tunes;
  • all social customs (shaking hands, bowing, kissing cheeks, not belching in public, etc.) and concepts of acceptable behaviour, virtue or vice, and not to mention fashions in food, clothing, architecture and acceptable behaviour;
  • religious and cultural symbols such as Christmas trees (not to mention Christmas!), totem poles, the star of David, crucifixes, crescents, the hammer and sickle, icons, logos and flags, not to mention obsessions with vampires, werewolves, the Loch Ness Monster and alien abduction;
  • QWERTY keyboards, HTML, email, electronic messaging formats, GUI operating systems, the side of the road we drive on, traffic lights, road signs, team sports and anything else that requires co-operation between people who have never met;
  • legal, financial, political and religious systems, not to mention constructs like the arts and sciences, and knowledge structure such as units of weight, time, length, volume, etc., the periodic table, taxonomies, colours, notation systems used in mathematics and the sciences, and so on;
  • Internet scams, computer viruses, phishing, spam, urban myths (drying the poodle in the microwave, the alligator in the sewers, the Blair Witch, etc.);
  • Absolutely everything to do with the way that organisations operate.

A test of universality

Nothing in the list above is common to every human everywhere, but the ideas are so commonplace that we must have copied them from somewhere.  So there must be something that carries these concepts and makes them stick in our heads.

But it can't be biological - Germans and Dutch are biologically very similar but their cultures are very, very different. There must be some other carrier.

I propose that if something is widely shared but not universally common, then it must have been transmitted from one person to another.  There must be a means of transmitting it, which we shall call a ‘meme’ for reasons we will get to shortly.

To see how saturated our lives are with memes, just sing ‘Happy birthday to you’.  The first meme here is the idea of a birthday.  Next we have the birthday party (another meme) at which a birthday cake will probably be served and birthday presents (two more) given.  Then people may sing ‘Happy birthday to you’ to a tune that is so well known that it’s probably going through your head as you read this.  The lyrics are well known too – at least the first verse – so there’s another meme.  And until recently the song was subject to copyright (another meme). In case you think ‘these are universal, everyone sings that', I can tell you that large parts of the world either ignore birth anniversaries or use some substitute such as a Saint's Day. So this whole set of structures has to have been copied from others, rather than being innate.

We are no more aware of the memes that govern our lives than a fish is of water, but just think how memes like property, money, slavery, crop rotation, slavery, democracy and equality of women have, in their turn, transformed our society. In fact, the whole of human civilisation propagates through meme transmission, and our culture is defined by a set of dominant memes that filter the way we see the world, determine what we believe, and tell us how to act.
Meet the memes
Is fashion genetic?