The memetic mutual support society

Like flamingos, memes are usually found in flocks. We saw in the example of the Macarena how it promoted, and was promoted by, the political party and then the associated dance. The mutual survivability of these memes in enhanced by each other’s presence. Attaching a story to a tune makes both spread faster: using a catchy tune speeds up transmission enormously. Adding in features which press our biological buttons helps even more - I’m sure ‘she loves you, yeah yeah yeah’ would not have spread into popular culture as effectively without a memorable tune and without the sex appeal of the Beatles.

This also applies with the other main replicator - Dawkins (1994) identified that groups of mutually supporting genes exist, and suggested that they must have evolved together as each would thrive in an environment which contained the others. For example, a cheetah has evolved sharp teeth, claws, a specialist digestive system and tremendous speed - without all these, the cheetah would not be able to run down, kill, and then eat its prey.

Blackmore expands on this idea at length for memes but rather than repeat the rather clunky phrase ‘co-adapted meme complexes’, she (and I) just describe them as
‘memeplexes’.

If I can introduce a military analogy, the memeplex is like a stealth bomber creeping into enemy territory. The wings give the aeroplane lift, an airframe ensures stability, and engines help the aircraft travel further. The aeroplane has camouflage and stealth technology that gets it through defences, and it has guns that can shoot down enemy aircraft. Individually, wings, engines, paintwork and guns have no chance of getting through the defences, but together they can succeed.

Thus complex memeplexes (like religions and accountancy) have succeeded because they have some form of holy book, clergy, and components that reward evangelism and punish heresy.

The aircraft also carries something else: a payload. The aircraft does not care about the ‘value’ or ‘rightness’ of the things it carries - whether they be bombs or food parcels - and neither do memeplexes.

Because the payload is carried along by other defence-defeating memes, it can often escape selection pressures: regardless of what you think about the ‘rightness’ of Abrahamic religions, it’s pretty obvious that they have perpetuated dietary laws which made perfect sense in the Stone Age but aren’t really of much use in the Refrigerator Age. But they once enhanced the survival of the carrier, and thus of the meme, and so they are still with us today.

Let’s look at a particularly virulent kind of memeplex: the chain letter. The payload is typically some sort of irrelevant hard-luck story together with an instruction to send money to the person who passed the letter to you. It also contains promises of riches if you follow the instructions and pass it on, and warns of dire consequences if you break the chain. These letters are nothing more than ‘copy me!’ instructions backed up by a set of threats and promises. The threats are empty but the meme still gets transmitted.

We can also see the creation of self-supporting memeplexes in national newspapers. Some people ‘inherit’ their choice of newspaper from their parents, but I suspect that most adults experiment and then generally settle on one newspaper they like (unlike religions, which are vertically transmitted and deeply embedded).

Of course, people will naturally tend to pick a daily newspaper that resonates with their beliefs. In turn they are giving permission to the newspaper’s owners and writers to expose them to new memes. The owners want to keep on top of their customers’ opinions, so they use surveys to find out what their readers believe and then hire writers in tune with those beliefs. So the whole cycle feeds itself, and newspapers develop particular evolutionary niches.

Of course, memes flock together in businesses, too. Your plumber will be running memes for soldering, finding leaks, installing radiators etc but probably not memes for knitting or growing wheat, because they are not useful to him. Similarly, if you are in business then your organisation (assuming it is primarily English-speaking (we’ll get to the reason why that is important in the section on culture) will probably be running an appraisal system, sales targets and an bonus structure, which each rely on the others to succeed.

Memeplexes may have arisen because memes spawn other memes in order to increase the degree of mutual support. For example, as Lynch (1996) points out, if a person who believes that his religion saves people from a horrible afterlife is exposed to the idea that the world is about to end, he will probably conclude that he should spread his religion to those he loves as fast as he can. The new evangelism meme therefore supports, and gets transmitted with, the hell and doomsday memes.

And if you want to know why memes are becoming more important, find out about
how memes are stored in the modern world.

Interlocking memes