Luke Kristopher Davis
The Selfish Meme
We have thought and still like to believe that us humans choose ideas as we like and create them as we wish. However this view might be slightly erroneous as it fails to explain some of the oddities we see in our cultural world. It may seem as if we do choose to accept certain ideas and reject others or to create new ideas out of thin air however this is simply an illusion, we are being made to accept or reject ideas by the ideas themselves. Analogously with genes building and manipulating our bodies for their own survival, memes manipulate our brains for their own survival too. What I will propose is a possible theory, in some sense a paradigm, that could explain cultural phenomena. The theory I will develop is currently untested to the standards of modern science and should be seen as a set of working hypotheses which in principle could be tested.
What is a meme?
A meme is a unit of cultural information and its complete form is some unique temporary or permanent neuronal pattern in the brain. As the brain is not completely understood yet, the definition of the meme will be used in vagueness, however it can be usefully thought as a unique pattern in the brain. A meme can be related to what we already recognize as cultural objects; ideas, videos, images, pieces of art, scientific principles, songs, music and much more. For example Michael Jackson's Thriller is a meme as it produces a unique neuronal response and is expressed in a unique form in a cultural environment. These cultural objects are simply expressions of memes akin to organisms or cellular matter being expressions of genes. The expressions of the memes can be defined as their memotypes. The memotypes of memes are vulnerable to selection mechanisms in certain cultural environments. This is similar to phenotypes of genes which are under selection pressures be it Darwinian, sexual or artificial. This moves us onto the next important topic, replication.
Genes replicate through reproduction, how do Memes do it?
Memes are not constrained to the chemistry of life as genes are. Memes are based upon the social culture that we have evolved and hence replicate through completely different mechanisms. A meme is said to have been replicated if its unique neuronal pattern is experienced by a new brain. One way for this unique neuronal pattern to be experienced is by the sensory interaction with the respective memotype. For example if John shares Nicky Minaj's new song on facebook to his friend Mary and Mary watches the video then the meme, which is the song, has been successfully replicated. If Mary then shares this to Joan who then watches it then shares ad infinitum then the song will be continually replicated. Normally memes are shared by the interaction of sensory equipment of humans with a memotype.
What determines the success of memes?
Firstly what is success in terms of memes? Well, like genes, if the number of copies of a meme at time t is greater then it was a time t-1 ago, then it can be said the meme has been successful. What happens if the meme rapidly copies itself but dies off very quickly... surely this is not a sign of success. So longevity, the lifetime of the meme in a meme pool, is a term in the success equation. Also a meme is vulnerable to mutation that is to say its memotype might be changed in collision with some other meme or randomly by replication error so if a meme can be resistant to mutation then it will be more successful. Memes may occupy different memepools in different environments for example a song can exist on the internet or on television (which may be considered to have different selection criteria hence different memetic environments). A meme which is in more memetic environments may increase the probability of replication but it may be vulnerable to different mutation rates and longevity so we only consider the success of a meme in one meme pool.
An equation for success for a meme m in memepool A may look like this: S_A(m) = N_A(m)*L_A(m)/M_A(m) where N_A(m) is the number of successful copies of m, L_A(m) is the longevity of m and M_A(m) is the mutation probability of m (the higher the less successful m will be). Note 0 < M_A(m) < 1.
What effects the number of successful copies of a meme depends on its interaction with selection pressures in different memetic environments. Consider a meme in the imgur, reddit and tickld sense i.e. a picture with language on it existing on the internet. There are many selection mechanisms at work, whether a meme makes us laugh or whether a meme appeals to our sensibilities. A successful meme in this memepool will do well against selection pressures relative to other memes in the memepool. We must note that success of memes is wholly relative to the rise or demise of other memes in the same memepool experiencing the same selection pressures.
The evolution of memes
As with Darwinian evolution the most successful genes will survive and among those the next most successful genes will survive and so on. However for evolution to act there must be mutation, selection pressures only exert themselves on slight differences in gene expressions, those that are just a tad more successful will replicate more and take a larger share of the gene pool until another more successful mutant comes into play. It is so with memes too, memes will mutate after many or little replications and the selection pressures of each memetic environment will exert itself on these mutations. It also happens that memes can merge much very easily to form a new unique meme and if this merged meme replicates more or has a longer longevity then its parents then it will be more successful than them and take a larger share of the memepool. Over time we will witness the gradual evolution of memes or combination of memes (if it does each meme better) in different memetic environments and we should witness a journey towards higher complexity.
As each new meme is either the mutation of a previous one or the combination of previous memes (its parents) then it can be postulated that the evolution of memes will form an ancestral tree.
It is then possible to track back down the tree to an 'origin of memes' which would be some basic neuronal patterns near the start of the emergence of a linguistic culture... this would be very back in evolutionary time indeed maybe somewhere near the evolution of homosapiens. However this is just speculation, it would be extremely unlikely to track far back to the origin of memes... what is important is that memes follow an ancestral tree like pattern. As memes replicate and mutate extremely fast and numerously so the branches of the tree will be extremely dense and each branch being almost indistinguishable from the next.
Why is a meme selfish?
A meme is considered selfish because it does for its own good and only for its own good. Memes which seem to help us in our lives are only doing so because memes which promote the well being of humans will tend to be favored. A meme may seem to give us happiness or promote logic and reason etc. but it has evolved to do so i.e. those memes which do produce happiness and do not endanger the human will be more likely replicated from brain to brain. This is not entirely so! Some memes encourage self harm or sacrifice which does not promote human happiness or health but it might be successful for the meme to do so. I think there is no other way to explain self harm or religious suicide other than that a meme encouraging that behavior might be successful in a fundamentalist memetic environment, one that promotes insane acts in the name of another meme.... God.
As the survival of memes is entirely based upon selection pressures which are based on our own physiology it seems extraordinarily likely that memes which appeal to our biological well-being will most likely be favored... that is why memes which encourage malice to our own survival hence genetic survival will be extremely rare. What is important is that memes seem to act for themselves and we should avoid talking as if we are in complete control of the evolution of the culture which originally emerged from us.
Interaction of Memes and Genes
Following on from our discussion, memes which promote human well being and longevity will be favored. If we also assume, which I think we do, a Dawkinsian 'selfishness of genes' point of view of life we have to conclude that successful memes in most meme pools will promote the survival of most genes. I say most genes as some memes, Hitlers idea of blue eyes and blonde hair being the best, favor some genes than others.... also racism and prejudice towards gingers or small people etc. However memes which promote most genes i.e. does not discriminate will most likely be replicated by everyone and hence become more successful than those which promote some genetic discrimination.
It is possible to have memes which encourage the selection of certain genes.... that is an idea of beauty which encourages females to only mate with males above 6 ft. Or an idea of a designer baby or even genetic modification of a human to glow in the dark.
Memes simply manipulate the phenotypes (mostly in the brain) of human genes to promote itself and memes do not carry themselves down the genetic germ-line. Also genes do not replicate in the same environment as memes do. This why the evolution of both can be considered separate. But in certain cases it will be useful to study how memes can provide selection for certain genes.
How can this theory be tested?
Well on the assumptions which have been briefly proposed here it is possible to build mathematical models of cultural memepools and memetic replication and predict the successes of different memes.
Also if memes really are the selfish and brain manipulating replicators which I claim they are we can predict that each unique meme will have some unique temporary or permanent influence on brain structure.
What does this paradigm imply?
It implies that culture is life. As life is merely the differential survival of different replicators. It is also an example that life may take many many different forms and different forms of life may emerge from one another in the continual march towards complexity.
It once again teaches us that we are simply vehicles of genes and vehicles of memes.... that we are being manipulate by replicators from the bottom up and the top down. Our power in the universe has yet again been stripped away... however this is nothing against the theory it is simply a possible truth.