Friday, August 7, 2009

Meme | Simple Introduction

This post is aimed at bringing the study of memetics to a broader audience. What is a meme? The idea began in 1976 with Richard Dawkins. A meme is, “that which is imitated.” It could be any cultural idea, any behavioural pattern or idea that has the potential to spread through a population. A rumor, for example, is an idea that is passed along through humans, it is changed a little every time it is told, and the carriers like to select which ideas to keep. Richard Dawkins was not the first to suspect that evolutionary principles may be applied to more than genes. Genes achieve evolution by having 3 properties: inheritance, variation, and selection.

When you have those 3 factors, evolution must occur. I’ll outline how genes evolve before applying it to memetics. Genes consist of information coded in nucleotides, on strands of DNA. This information is passed along through humans through reproduction. That is how genes obtain inheritance. Evolutionary biologists talk about genes being selfish, in the sense that they want to exist because what exists is good at existing. You might want to re-read that line.

Genes also have variation. There are random genetic mutations that occur rather infrequently (though enough to have an effect), and there is also sexual recombination that occurs during meiosis. Since genes have slight variations caused by these processes, they are one step closer to achieving evolution.

The final requirement is selection. The main selection process in genetic evolution is natural selection. This is what Darwin noticed back in the late 19th century. He realized that if some individuals had traits that were different (variation), and the trait was beneficial to the individual’s survival (selection), then the trait would more likely be passed on to another generation (inheritance). Let’s say that one individual, in a group, develops a better immune system. Since he is better at defending his body than his peers, he will survive better, allowing him to pass on this beneficial trait.

Now, memetics is the study that looks at the transmission of memes – cultural ideas that spread – and how they evolve. A meme is a replicator just as a gene is. The physical medium it occupies is the human mind. Memes are varied as well (there is a continuum between memes that are self-correcting, and memes that rapidly change). And lastly, there is the selection of memes. Humans do not allow just any old memes to be spread – only the best ideas, the most useful, the most desirable memes are accepted. Thus even though a meme is simply information, it achieves evolution, similar to that of genes.

Memetics is a field of study that is gaining a lot of scientific attention now. This is really only the surface of memetic theory. Memeticists look at all the variables involved in the transmission and evolution of memes, its relationship with genes as a replicator, and using these ideas in applications of real-world problems. Memetic theory has huge implications in explaining anatomical development, what it means to be human, and why certain cultures exist.

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