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The Story of Evolution, Spring 2005
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Memes and Individuality

Haley Bruggemann

The scariest body snatchers you'll ever come into contact with may not be that hostile group of alien scientists from another planet who whisk you away in the middle of the night. Instead of being little and green, these frightening creatures are invisible, contagious, and virtually indestructible. At least, that's Daniel Dennett's version of the story. They can catch you unawares, he declares of these mysterious invaders he has termed memes, preying ferociously on human minds. Dennett tries to scare his readers into submission by offering up the question "Who is in charge, according to this vision, we or our memes?" We are. Dennett is so caught up in proving how memes control our minds that he forgot to give human creativity and individuality some due credit. Memes do not control us. In fact, it is the other way around. We use memes. We soak them up, twist them, cut, shape, and morph them to our likings. Using memes, we are able to create our own individuality, our own style. It is part of the reason that there can never be another person like you, even if you were to be cloned. That person would look like you, but when faced with a closet full of clothes, would they dress like you? Pick out your favorite CD from a stack? The answer is a most definite no.

One example of the control we have over memes is our taste in music. Rarely will someone force himself to like a song just because it is popular. Friends share songs with each other, in an attempt to discover new music they might like. If we're listening to the radio, and an unappealing song is played, we turn the radio off. We build libraries of music we enjoy, on the computer, or in the form of a CD tower. When a person hears a song, a conscious decision is made. This song cannot "invade" the brain like some "horrible musical virus" as Dennett puts it. The difference is that we can choose whether or not we want to store this meme permanently. Occasionally, a meme such as Dennett describes in the awful melody of "It Takes Two to Tango" will find it's way in, but it does not have staying power. Such songs are usually gone from our minds the moment we stop agonizing over their presence. Memes we like have that particular staying power. If any person on the street was asked randomly what their favorite song was, they could tell you not only the name and artist, but hum the melody, and recite most of, if not all, the lyrics. Our memories know the memes we like the best, and the rest, may have only temporary residence. We can discard them at our will.

In a sense, we choose which memes are important and useful to us and use them as we want to. Dennett concedes this on page 368, where he writes that memes cannot rule anyone completely. In this day and age, we are able to create playlists of music. This is a way of using memes as we see fit, and tailoring them to our individual style. For instance, a playlist of songs for the gym will most likely be full of songs the listener loves, that are energetic and upbeat enough to inspire him or her to run even faster on the treadmill.

As for Dennett's claim that we can rarely take credit for our "brainchildren" ("We would like to think of ourselves as godlike creators of ideas, manipulating and controlling them as our whim dictates"), and that this is a way in which memes catch us unawares, that is simply untrue. While many of us have been hit by what can be termed "divine intervention", or, "struck with an idea from above", we fail to realize that we have really just pulled a few different memes together. Perhaps our manipulation of memes is so unconscious, so back of the hand, that we do not even notice our own cleverness in combining them and using them to their full potential. Famous writers always speak of their inspirations, all memes in their own right. Some listen to a particular kind of music while writing a particular scene. Meg Cabot, a famous, well-liked young adult novelist, listens to loud rock music, "the kind teens of today like" while writing her infectious high school melodramas. If a writer is writing a scene set in Spain, he might listen to Spanish guitar music. Besides writing, when completing projects, we often watch a certain video to get inspiration or to "borrow" memes from. Really, all we are doing when we are seized with an idea that seems to come from nowhere is synthesizing all these temporarily "borrowed" and stored memes, and meshing them together. We are truly in control of what we create and the ideas that come to us, even seemingly out of the blue. At night the brain translates events that happened during the day into dreams. In a like process, the mind takes memes and changes them into ideas. A character that takes on a life of it's own or a painting that paints itself is a lucky, very special combination of memes. At that moment, the artist has hit on the perfect organization of the memes he chose to make his own. Perhaps these combinations are so intricate and so once in a lifetime, like a snowflake in it's uniqueness, that it is impossible to repeat them.

This gives way to individuality. What are the chances that the exact same memes will find their way into a human mind, and be combined in the exact same way, twice?; that is to say, in two different minds? Not incredibly likely, though the commonly heard phrase "That was my idea!" or "I had that idea first!" can certainly attest to the fact that it does occur. Memes are perfectly suited for the job of allowing us to create our individuality. Thus far, it has been illustrated that we choose the memes we allow to "invade" our minds and this manifests itself in something as simple as our taste in music and movies. We do in fact have mastery over our "brainchildren", as evidenced by the fact that we watch things or do things in order to be inspired. Finally, it can be said that memes allow us to create our selves. In the same way that music enriches the soul, memes enrich the person. We use memes to be creative and to expand our creativity. We control them and combine them. We manipulate them, and turn old ideas into new ideas. The musical West Side Story is a perfect example of this. The point is, we may not be in control of our destinies, and we certainly cannot control every detail of our lives, but we should take comfort in our control over our memes. Instead of alien menaces, memes serve as the building blocks we use to grow with each experience or idea, to enjoy and master the world around us.


Dennet, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Touchstone, 1995. (Interview with Meg Cabot)

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