Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Theory of Memes: Fuelling Ultra-Darwinism?

 A term better known by the general public pertaining to ideas and topical doodles going viral on the internet, is the theory of memes fuelling the current ultra-Darwinism movement? 

By: Ringo Bones 

A term more likely to be used in cultural anthropology and sociology, the term” meme” is largely seen by the general public as pertaining to topical ideas and topical doodles or topical political cartoons going viral on the internet primarily thru sharing in the major on-line social networks like Facebook and Twitter. But unbeknown to the general public, the word meme or the term “theory of memes” had been in widespread use in the A-level syllabus of academia. 

From the viewpoint of cultural anthropology and other humanist based sociological sciences, a meme is an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept regard meme as a cultural analog to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures. The word meme is a shortening of mimeme – from ancient Greek mimeima – meaning something imitated. 

Based on the word’s first usage in academic musings, the word meme was originally coined by the British evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins when he first published The Selfish Gene in 1976 as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles – as in Darwinian evolution – in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in the book, The Selfish Gene, included musical melodies, catch-phrases, fashion trends and the technology of building arches – i.e. learned skills. 

Proponents theorize that memes may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution proposed by Charles Darwin. Memes do this through the process of variation, mutation, competition and inheritance. Each of which influence a meme’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less proficiently may become extinct, while others may survive, spread and – for better or for worse – mutate. Memes that replicate more effectively enjoy the most success and some may replicate just as effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts. 

A field of study called memetics arose in the 1990s to explore the concepts and transmission of memes in terms of a Darwinian evolutionary model. Criticisms from a variety of fronts had since challenged the notion that a “mere academic study” can effectively examine memes empirically. However, recent developments in neuro-imaging could make empirical study of memes a real possibility. Some commentators question the idea that one meaning can fully categorize culture in terms of discrete units. While others, including Prof. Dawkins himself, have agreed that this usage of he term is the result of a misunderstanding of the original proposal. 

From the perspective of academia, the word meme originated with Professor Richard Dawkins’ 1976 publication titled The Selfish Gene. Dawkins cites as inspiration the work of geneticist L.L. Cavalli-Sforza, anthropologist F.T. Clark and ethnologist J.M. Cullen. Dawkins wrote that evolution depended not on a particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission – in the case of biological evolution, the gene. From Dawkins’ perspective, the meme exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution. Does this mean that Prof. Dawkins’ ontological empiricism of memes is more akin to how data is transferred in the concept Information Theory as opposed to the biochemical aspects of Darwinian evolution? 

From the consensus of mainstream academia, Dawkins used the term meme to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. Dawkins hypothesized that that one could view many cultural entities as replicators and pointed to musical melodies, fashion trends and learned skills as examples. Memes generally replicate through exposure to humans, who have evolved as efficient copiers of behavior and information. Because humans do not always copy memes perfectly, and because they may refine it to suit their immediate needs, combine or otherwise modify them with other memes to create new memes, these can result in changes over time. Dawkins likened the process by which memes survive and change through the evolution of culture to the natural selection of genes in biological evolution – i.e. Darwinian evolution. 

In The Selfish Gene, Professor Dawkins defined meme as a unit of cultural transmission or as a unit of imitation and replication, but later definitions would vary. Memes, analogous to genes, vary in their aptitude to replicate; memes that are good at getting to be copied tend to spread and remain, whereas the lesser ones have a higher probability of being ignored and forgotten. Thus “better” memes are selected but the lack of consistent, rigorous and precise understanding of what typically makes up one unit of cultural transmission remains a problem in debates about memetics. In contrast, the concept of genetics gained concrete evidence with the discovery of the biological functions of DNA. Meme transmission does not necessarily require a physical medium for its transmission unlike genetic information; Thus marking a vast gulf between traditional Information Theory and genetic science and ultimately a humanist – though sometimes a quasi-religious / quasi-mystical vindication of ultra-Darwinism. 

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