Myths about Memes

I want to kill off four myths about memes before we go much further:
Myth 1) a physical object can a meme

The first of these myths is that physical objects can be memes.  A bicycle isn’t a meme – the meme is the concept of a bicycle and the many things you might do with it, possibly together with instructions on how to make a bicycle.  The bicycle itself is just a physical expression of the meme, just as my brown eyes are the physical expression of my genes.  Neither the bicycle or my brown eyes reproduce independently, but both can be replicated by their carriers.
Myth 2) memes have an evil plan

The second myth is that memes somehow have a conscious drive to spread.  We may talk occasionally about memes ‘doing’ this or ‘wanting’ that, but such loose talk is merely a literary convenience. Memes are not alive and they do not ‘want’ anything, any more than genes ‘want’ to be replicated or water ‘wants’ to run downhill.  When we catch a cold, the virus attacks our noses and causes us to sneeze, spreading the virus to others.  We don’t talk about the virus having ‘chosen’ to develop the capability to make us sneeze, it’s just that the viruses which didn’t develop that capability got selected out.  

Myth 3) everything is memetic

Thirdly, not everything in our mental make-up is the result of a meme. Our feelings and emotions are not memes as they are not transmitted directly from person to person. And something you learn for yourself is not a meme either. The skills needed to ride a bicycle are learned by experience, not transmitted by memes.
Myth 4) there are 'good' and 'bad' memes

Finally, there is absolutely no point in discussing whether a meme is inherently ‘good’, ‘moral’ or ‘true’.  It doesn’t matter that one meme carries a valuable contribution to human knowledge and another is a worthless theme tune. A good meme, at least as far as the meme is concerned, is one that gets replicated.


Let’s illustrate that last point with a genetic analogy: suppose a gene had arisen that caused a group of stone age men to be both extremely intelligent and extremely peaceful.  You might think this was a ‘good’ gene that should have been preserved, but sadly its carriers would have been wiped out very quickly by their stupid and aggressive neighbours – it may be a ‘good’ gene according to our current moral viewpoint, but a poor replicator.  

Similarly, memes in many ethical systems carry feelings of empathy and understanding for our fellow man (often called something like brotherly love), but they tend to be weakly transmitted. Memes which encourage feelings of racial superiority, based on the incorrect assumption that intelligence is related to certain external features, are strongly transmitted and fit well with a bunch of memes that cause intolerant and intolerable behaviour.  As a result, brotherly love is hard to find yet we have to stamp out racial superiority again and again. So what makes a bad meme from our point of view may be a very good meme from its point of view.

Next:
origin and transmission of memes
You've got a virus