Culture: Dawkins and the idea of the Meme

A meme is an idea likened to the gene, insofar as the movement of the meme mirrors genetics within forms of life. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins, who analogously argued for the possibility of this idea through the exemplification of cultural evolution. In this presentation I shall briefly explain Dawkins’ proposition, entertaining the thought with my own examples, providing other views regarding his concept.

Dawkins points out that the centrepiece of all forms of life is the gene. The special attribute of the gene is their ability to replicate. The DNA molecule is the replicating entity that prevails on our planet, and this process of replication is propagated through sperms or eggs. Similarly Dawkins highlights another phenomenon on our planet can be analogously claimed to replicate itself through propagation. This spectacle is the meme, which propagates itself through the process of imitation via brains. Dawkins provides examples to show the similar eventual change Humans and other genetically inspired beings make. One is of Geoffrey Chaucer, a figure in History hailed as the Father of English Literature, engaging in a conversation with a modern Englishman. Dawkins points out that despite their linguistic connection through the centuries of Englishmen they cannot converse intelligibly. Our language has evolved non-genetically over time and this has occurred at a rate that is much faster than the similar genetic process. Furthering this point he uses another example; one that is not of Human activity but an observation of birds. P.F. Jenkins observation of a group of birds showed there were around 9 distinct songs and any male of the specie sang one or a few of these songs. Each sons of these birds adopted their Fathers and their territorial songs. Another finding Jenkins made is that an entirely new song could be created through error and adopted by others. This is not genetic movement, but a theme of change and evolution shown. It is this type of change that Dawkins’ entertains as a meme.

Other examples of memes are songs, ideas, fashion, architecture, art, technology and so on. Hence Dawkins claims that the movement of memes could be aiming toward progression. Conspicuously, Science has taken tremendous steps, as has Technology, ideas such as equality and so on. Some memes are not adopted, Dawkins asserts, but rather self-mutating. Such as the idea of God, which Dawkins claims has great psychological appeal and survival value as it provides an answer to troubling thoughts about the injustices within our World and the point of existence. Dawkins provides an example of a scientist learning an interesting idea. By discussing this idea, the scientist is replicating and spreading it to another who then does the same. Dawkins highlights the fact that memes can be altered this way, providing an example of his own endeavours as a Darwinian inspired theorist. He states that each biologist has their own way of interpreting Darwin’s ideas, even stating that mostly what he proposed was wrong. So what of Darwin’s altered ideas over the last couple centuries? There are three qualities Dawkins assigns to memes which have high survival value insofar as they have withstood the test of time and adapted, like genetics, to an almost foreign yet still referential idea to the original meme. Longevity, fecundity and copying fidelity.

The longevity of a meme is the length of time a meme exists and the fecundity is how the meme is passed down. For Dawkins the most important of the qualities is copying fidelity, which is exemplified in the previous example of the Scientist and the interesting idea. The transmission of a meme is susceptible to alteration, and blending with another. Hence a meme can be subject to continuous mutation. Dawkins attempts to contrast between genes which blend together, like the genetics behind the child of two people of different skin colour, and memes which could compile to be established as one, like a symphony. The result of a child of two parents with different skin colours is not one of the other, the various chromosomal slots that make skin colour are filled with genes of both parents. As for a meme in this scenario, Dawkins questions if parts of a symphony are one single meme – or a compilation of memes. Like with the adapted Darwin influenced ideas Dawkins referred to, if the original theory is a part of the latest which sounds totally distant but stems from the same idea, can it be classified as one meme, strands of the original meme or entirely new memes?

Genes are often described as selfish and ruthless, in the gathering of the replications it is somewhat survival of the fittest. Chromosomal slots can only be occupied by a certain amount of genes. Dawkins questions whether the same can be said for memes. An idea, or rather meme, I think fits the comparison of genetics is racism. In different countries there are different memes, and some memes have slots which actively refute another. Currently we face an issue of racism. Its definition is contentious, however its usage implies that prejudice or discrimination against someone or something of a particular race, culture, tradition or religion is considered racism. Hence racism cannot only be a theme in someone’s actions or logic, but also systematic – institutions can be structured with the aim to alienate people who have unwanted traits, or in this analogy memes. Briefly I shall exemplify racism as a meme in accordance to the genetic transmissions in which Dawkins believes are analogous.

Evidently genetics aim toward progression. It would be odd to deem racism progressive but in a purely mimetic light, it seems racism acts as a self-interested meme, which aims to maintain an established culture under threat of being undone. This culture already contains racist logic, as the media paint the picture of the foreign with bad and unwanted memes. Such as Islamaphobia, undertones in words like thug, criminal, which are used to describe certain people in order to create a lesser image of them. Conspicuously this discriminatory logic has invaded systems, such as Policing and mainstream Media. It has propagated itself within the minds of many, hence those on the receiving end of such treatment will not get a fair advantage by them. E.g. In application of a job position. It could be argued that racism has adapted and embedded itself within minds and systems, which points to it having a high survival value through copy validity, blending and adapting through other memes and new instances.

So this meme idea, which may have been self-mutated, perhaps started as acknowledging the difference between physical features, culture, tradition, religion and so on. Though in fear of there being competition for a chromosomal like position, such as religion – in this country many wrongfully associate Sharia Law with Allah and Islam opposed to the usually understood religion of Christianity alongside God and English culture, despite both religions referring to the same being yet worshipped and considered in different ways. Therefore understandably, it seems these memes contest at the core – despite spreading like a virus and strengthening through many forms in order to uphold its own propagation. Dawkins refers to such as mutually assisting memes that work toward maintaining some ideology.

Dawkins also highlights a similar phenomenon within God and blind faith. Similarly to my example, he claims that despite two religions worshipping the same God, in order to propagate their way of faith they have ruthless ways. Such is apparent in the Crusade. Patriotism and Politics also maintain themselves through very questionable methods, and yet in light of these genetic comparison the will to maintain and infect is forceful. In conclusion Dawkins states we can defy these selfish memes of our indoctrination, despite being built by genetics and cultured through memes we can rebel against this tyranny.

There are theorists which attempt to take away from the plausibility of the meme idea. Gregory Schrempp divulges in what he entitles the “dark side of the meme”, highlighting the morally negative insinuations of the genes which are described as disease, virus like. The same occurs within memes, despite some aiming for good Schrempp states they behave badly. He claims they are like politicians, due to their unnerving exploitive and self-promoting behaviour. Schrempp uses an example of Plato, who in his Republic advocates hiding the atrocities caused by the Gods which could make them questionable to youth. This encourages the maintenance and respect of those Gods, which in turn influences the propagation of this meme.

A more optimistic perspective on memes is proposed by Daniel Dennett. Dennett states that meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genetic evolution, and it is not just something metaphoric or analogous as Dawkins describes – but a phenomenon that exactly obeys the laws of natural selection. He states the same way the evolution of animals didn’t proceed until the evolution of plants, which paved way for convertible nutrients, memes only began to evolve when homo sapiens with the necessary brains to propagate them through habitual communication. Unlike the negative Schrempp, Dennett claims that very general memes are beneficial for us, such as: cooperation, music, writing, education, environmental awareness etc. Whilst others, like anti-Semitism, computer viruses, and criminal damage are not. Hence Dennett likens meme vehicles, which invade our eyes and ears, to parasites. However he raises the point that we contain parasites within our stomach in the form of bacteria, which aids food digestion. Therefore some could be beneficial, despite the bad connotations which come with parasites.

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