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Another Picture of Memes

hope's picture

Meme: A cultural element or behavioural trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (esp. imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.

-Oxford English Dictionary

The first time I was exposed to the idea of memes was in Daniel Dennett’s book, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, which I read for a college class on evolution. Dennett gave several examples of things he considered memes, such as the wheel, the arch, Beethoven’s 5th symphony, and Moby Dick. He argued that evolution is an algorithmic process that works on memes in the same way it works on genes. 

It was hard for me to accept this analogy, because I was still unsure of what exactly a meme was.  If a meme is supposed to be analogues to a gene, it should code for something, as a gene codes for a protein. It should also have definable components, as a gene is composed of nucleotides.  So I read the chapter in Dawkins’ book in which he first introduced the meme. Dawkins describes memes as units of cultural transmission, but is also cognizant of the vagueness of a meme’s definition:

“So far I have talked of memes as though it was obvious what a single unit-meme consisted of.  But of course that is far from obvious. I have said a tune is one meme, but what about a symphony: how many memes is that?”

But later, in the notes section, he also says:  

“If memes in brains are analogous to genes they must be self-replicating brain structures, actual patterns of neurological wiring-up that reconsititute themselves in one brain after another.  I had always felt uneasy spelling this out aloud, because we know far less about brains than about genes, and are therefore necessarily vague about what such a brain structure might actually be.”

Finally memes started to make sense to me, so I made a picture to help visually explain my new understanding.  I tried to show both the parallels between biological and cultural evolution and the causal link between genes and memes.



In my mind, memes are, like Dawkins says, actual patterns of neurological wirings, which specifically code for conscious thoughts. These thoughts combine to make ideas, on which the cultural environment is the selecting force in the same way that the natural environment is the selecting force on organisms.

The cultural environment is still a somewhat vague idea to me, but it could consist of the time period, the other memes/ideas present, politics, sometimes (but definitely not always) the current usefulness to people, the mechanisms available to spread the idea, and probably other factors too.   Ideas could even theoretically be grouped into species, genera and such. Religions or tools could be genera of ideas, Christianity or shovels could be species. Ideas could compete with one another, such as the ideas of evolution and creationism, reproduce with one another, and combine to make new, different ideas.  

This way of thinking of memes is helpful to me, in that it allows for the algorithmic process of evolution to act on culture in the same way as it does on life-forms. It is also helpful for my understanding because it clarifies the analogy between genes and memes, and especially makes clearer the difference between memes and the ideas that result from them. Natural selection does not act on the genes themselves, but on the phenotypes of the organisms that result from them. Moby Dick to me is not a meme, but a compilation of memes, an idea.

I also like this way of thinking about memes because it is more clearly rooted in biological processes, and makes memes, and therefore cultural evolution, the direct result of biological evolution.


Chapter 11 from Dawkins "the Selfish Gene"


Anne Dalke's picture

Thinking memetically

What I like about this project is your willingness to use the assignment to figure out something that hasn't made sense to you for a while; in the process, you re-define memes much more specifically, and biologically, as "actual patterns of neurological wirings, which specifically code for conscious thoughts," and you represent that understanding visually. I find your re-framing very helpful, as you do; the only revision I'd suggest is making bi-directional those arrows that go to both natural and cultural environments.

What I guess I find most interesting here is the fact that the formulation we both find helpful is one that Dawkins himself actually "felt uneasy" about "spelling aloud," because (he said) "we know far less about brains than about genes, and are therefore necessarily vague about what such a brain structure might actually be.”

So let's think together about this issue. If we are vague about such brain structures, then how is it helpful to have identified (have we actually identified?) "actual patterns of neurological wirings"?