The parallels 




and memetic 







In Search of the Golden Meme
Is the meme a useful concept or an over-applied analogy?
 By Mark Cowan 

The author serves on the O4R Board and as chairman of our Investigations Committee. He is the creator of Ipso Facto and a frequent contributor to Pro Facto.

Twenty-three years ago the well-known evolutionist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” (1) to identify what have been described as “viruses of the mind” or “thought contagions” -ideas that are self-replicating.

     The field of memetics has mostly lain fallow since (2) as, for various reasons, few scientists have found much benefit in an ad hoc theory of contagious ideas supposedly evolving under Darwinian rules of natural selection. Exceptions include Aaron Lynch, a physicist-turned-sociologist who researched and wrote the recent book Thought Contagions in an attempt to explicate the field (3); Susan Blackmore, parapsychologist-turned-skeptic, who has just published The Meme Machine (4); Dawkins, of course (5); and a few others (6).

     Memetics, it seems, is still searching for the Golden Meme, an exemplar capable of justifying the questionable concept at its heart. And so shall we. Allow yourself to be infected by the idea that ideas are in-fective, and let’s see what comes of it.

Carpe meme?

     Memeticists have considerable trouble agreeing about what, exactly, a meme is (7). Blackmore claims a meme is “any kind of information which is copied by people imitating each other” (8). The one consistent definition is that “you know one when you see one” (9), but the predictive power of this approach is open to debate.

     In any case, a meme is not simply an idea. Ideas are born, live, and die all the time, often leaving no trace. A meme, on the other hand, is an idea with offspring.

     Memes reproduce much like viruses, through infection and replication. Indeed, like successful viruses, memes are not supposed to kill their hosts, at least not before spreading. Memes compete with one another for hosts, but their territory is mental, not physical.

     Urban legends, biblical injunctions, mass advertising campaigns (political and otherwise), scientific revolutions, secular prophecies of many sorts, folklore, and social mores are examples of verbally transmitted memes, yet infection can occur through any form of imitation. Lynch even goes so far as to postulate that drug addiction (the activity itself) can be considered a meme-in that the addict (at least in the initial stages) may by behavior alone communicate the benefits of the drug, and so encourage others to take it up. But most forms of imitation are more palatable and the social costs less onerous: songs, art, trends in fashion, tastes in food, styles of architecture, religious and secular iconography, sports utility vehicles (10)...

The selfish meme

     The parallels between Darwinian evolution and memetic propagation are suspiciously apt. Lynch makes ample use of these while correctly pointing out the dangers of over-applying an explanatory principle to inappropriate areas (as, for example, using Social Darwinism to justify repressive policies).

     Just as DNA, and the entire biological system that replicates and distributes it, would be overkill if not for recombination and modification of inherited traits, so memes mutate, recombine, and reproduce-all with the cooperation of the human mind (11). As memes meet and interact, they spawn new, possibly more successful, versions of themselves. Elvis goes from being a has-been Las Vegas crooner to the deathless avatar of saucer sensibilities. Conspiracy theories generate ever-widening ripples of malign influence-Was it one bullet? Multiple gunmen? The fault of the doctors? Each new seemingly plausible piece of evidence clicks into place in a constantly reworked edifice of speculation.

     Is the mind simply the unwitting vector, and the meme a mental virus taking advantage of opportunity? When a virus attacks, it co-opts the cell’s genetic replication machinery to produce copies of itself. When a good meme (meaning wild and virulent) invades a human mind, it immediately replicates itself, co-opting the host’s mental structure in order to do so. The analogy is of course not exact, but if you view the meme as an organized bit of information that is capable of transmission to new hosts-much like a virus-it makes a certain sense. It also is similar to how a computer virus spreads.

     So, is a meme just an idea that spreads? Maybe cause you to stop eating eggs, or start eating broccoli? Is that all? Not quite. According to Lynch, at least, a meme is an idea that alters the environment in(to) which it spreads. This is similar to the colonization of an unexploited niche among biological organisms, and extremely reminiscent of the process of speciation. Here is where memetics reaches for its deepest analogy with Darwinian evolution-the meme acts as if it has the ability to plan its future. Though, as in biological evolution, this is an illusion-evolution only appears purposeful in retrospect-the end result is similar. A successful meme can alter its physical environment in such a way as to enhance its survival.

     It may do this by influencing the success of the population affected (becoming more competitive or perhaps more warlike), raising the population’s birth rate (as in Mormon or Catholic taboos against birth control), reducing cases of food poisoning (as Jewish and Muslim dietary restrictions do), and so on. Even small changes for each generation can, over sufficient time spans, add up to significant alterations. And, the meme alone has been the agent of this physical change.

     Given such power, could memes be harmful? Most certainly. You might find personal benefit in a meme that causes your society’s religious group to compete more viciously with others and thus acquire more territory, but if your job is to fight the infidels personally, you might have a different opinion. Memes can be harmful in other ways; pseudoscientific beliefs spread rapidly and discourage their hosts from seeking legitimate solutions to physical problems.

     Memes act as if they have lives of their own; part of their success is that they resist displacement. In this, too, they resemble biological evolution-and often the only way to destroy the meme is to kill the host. The history of religious wars attests to this, where to die fighting the infidel is to be truly blessed. That this process selects against the meme-host’s viability renders the more virulent forms of religious intolerance somewhat less widespread than in times past.

     Charles Darwin identified biological evolution in the 1850s (12), but the science of the time was unable to uncover the physical mechanism of inheritance. Still, the new theory indicated there had to be one. Modern biology makes little sense without evolution as its driving force, although the fine details of its processes are still being worked out. But can memetics really draw a parallel here? Can a mechanism be identified-a scientifically testable and reproducible operative principle-that applies to memes alone and not to the immense, and largely unexplored, substrate of consciousness as well? After all, genes are composed of ordinary nucleic acids, but their unique structure is the unambiguous signature of life-as-we-know-it. Life stems directly from their structure and its only obvious purpose is to pass that structure on. Can the same be said for memes? Does “meme evolution” indicate some core structure is involved? Or is memetics just a wannabe science, little more than an interesting idea whose time may never come?

I heard a meme today, oh boy...

     It may help to look at the supporting structure of memes-the mental substrate that allows them to spread.

     Suppose you knew how to add numbers together, but multiplication had not yet been invented. To multiply you must add repeatedly. (It really used to be like this, although it was long before computers.) Then somebody says, “Say, Pa-rat, I heard about this amazing thing called multiplication, and it works like this....” You try it, and sure enough, it really does work. What’s more, it saves lots of time, especially since your job happens to be accounting for the Pharaoh’s concubine’s household supplies.

     Now, every time you run into somebody else in your profession (or close to it, for the concubine’s accountant is a coveted position), you naturally pass along your new multiplication tables to them, along with the structure of how to organize their papyrus-work. And since you can simply calculate the multiplication tables from the basic digits anytime you need them, they can’t get lost. Any way you define it, this is a meme. It’s an idea that changes the environment, seeks new hosts, and that is reliably communicated to those hosts. What’s more, it’s self-validating and can’t be refuted.

     But note-the key to the spread of such a meme is that the hosts already know how to add. Without the Ra-given numerals and the concept of addition, multiplication hasn’t a chance of spreading (13). Since multiplication is already familiar (in the form of repeated addition) what is primarily being communicated is a new organization of knowledge. Nothing that wasn’t already available, in some sense, is created by this meme.

     Can memes communicate novel information? Our example utilizes existing knowledge as a base to propagate. The meme spreads much faster than the basic arithmetic upon which it is transmitted. Ptolemy would not easily have understood Copernicus’ worldview, because he could see that the sun orbited the Earth and, therefore, would see no need to change his perspective. Scientific revolutions tend to spread slowly, because the embedded worldview resists displacement. To convey novel information a meme would have to be able to do what a scientific revolution does-replace itself with a more comprehensive version. And there is no evidence that memetic evolution results in more correct memes-only more effective ones.

If old window panes...

     A persistent idea that has circulated as an urban legend and, more recently, on the Internet is based on the “fact” that glass is a liquid (if supercooled), that liquids flow, and, therefore, glass flows (if extremely slowly). This meme, or contagious idea, is false. (It is a true meme (14), but a false idea.)

     Demonstrating that it is false is complicated, for the disproof requires more knowledge than the mistaken assumptions that support the idea. Even once it has been demonstrated correctly that the idea is wrong, the person with the idea often refuses to give it up, still seeking to argue its validity (15). (Analogies to other contagious ideas are easily drawn.)

     The “evidence” supporting the meme is the observation that old windows are thicker at the bottom than the top. The obvious conclusion is that over the centuries the force of gravity has caused the glass to slump. But medieval glass windows were not made like modern plate glass, and “bullet glass” of the period is inevitably of uneven thickness. The majority of this glass was mounted the sensible way, thickest side down. This varies, however, and the thickest side can be found on either side, as well as the top (16)-hardly evidence of slumping!

     Further refutations may be cited. Obsidian flakes (natural glass) are millions of years old, yet still razor sharp. Or, consider the experience of telescope makers who routinely figure glass to a precision of millionths of an inch. The optical instruments used to test these surfaces can detect deviations of fractional wavelengths of light. No deviations due to “glass flowing” have ever been seen in over a hundred years (17).

     These objections may not convince the true believer, who may refine his or her mistaken logic into a belief that under certain conditions glass may flow. Or, certain kinds of glass (not telescope glass or obsidian, for instance) may flow. Or, perhaps a portion of the apparent slumping of cathedral glass is due to its flowing. This, apparently, is the meme defending itself. (Again, analogies to other contagious ideas may be drawn.)

...should sag in their frames

     The way to defeat this meme is to undermine its assumptions. Glass (at room temperature) is not a liquid in the common sense of the word-it is an unordered (amorphous) solid, more rigid than steel. The common idea that it is a “liquid” comes from the fact that glass has no phase change when solidifying. It simply becomes increasingly stiff until it stops flowing (essentially the definition of glass). It doesn’t ever freeze (a phase change), instead the molecules finally loose the ability to shift position, becoming locked in place. Residual random thermal energy cannot move them by the length of a single atomic bond.

     The force required to cause glass to deform through flow at room temperature is immense-around 2500 tons per square inch. And all glasses will shatter long before this pressure is reached, for there are always surface defects in even the most carefully prepared bulk samples. But if you melt a piece of Pyrex and carefully draw out a gossamer thread to where it is thinner than a hair, you can demonstrate several interesting things. The thread’s surface is essentially defect-free (which makes it extremely strong); it floats on air; and, it is quite flexible. You can easily tie it in a knot. If the thread is, say, half the diameter of a human hair, applying the rather large force of one-half pound should cause it to exhibit flow (18). But at about one-fifth of that force, the thread will break-for it, too, has tiny flaws. Under ordinary conditions glass cannot flow at all. But the meme spreads quite handily.

Super memes

     We have seen something of the power of the meme, even though we may legitimately question the concept.

     Most people believe in viruses-even though they cannot be seen without an electron microscope-because they cause illness and even death. We know they mutate and evolve because we encounter newer, more virulent strains that seem to keep pace with human defenses (19), evolving novel means to evade detection. When a virus becomes able to evade most human immune systems, the only way our species can adapt is through selective survival. Only resistant individuals survive, as we see happening at present worldwide with AIDS. It’s hard to avoid feeling that viruses are “out to get us”-but of course they’re not. With the aid of evolution, they just happen to be good at what they do. That they make us sick is something of a side effect.

     A definitive test of memetics would be if new memes evolved that were malign (like viruses) and proceeded to kill their hosts-or caused their hosts to kill themselves. Suicide epidemics sometimes occur, usually aided by the media, occasionally concentrated in small populations. Studies of such epidemics might lead to the isolation of a “killer meme,” and perhaps volunteers could be recruited to see if it was truly deadly.

     The preceding paragraph is only partly in jest. If memes actually evolve (as proponents claim), and if their “purpose” is to utilize the resources of their hosts to survive and reproduce (as claimed), then, by general application of Darwinian theory, memes that fully mimic viruses should evolve, taking over the hosts thought processes entirely. Humans should be subject to this “meme-lock” (20), suffering far worse infestations of ideas than is commonly experienced when, for instance, you can’t get a tune out of your head.

     Memes that did this would obviously be much more successful, since you’d never be able to get rid of them. That this does not happen cannot be passed off to our having (unknown) defenses against such occurrences. Our immune systems evolved long ago in tandem with infectious agents and are effective against most of them by being able to generate nearly infinite combinations of antigen-recognition configurations (21). Similarly, memetic “immune systems” would have had to evolve long ago as well, given the disparity in genetic and memetic evolutionary rates. But, according to Dawkins and others, memes only appeared after brains capable of supporting them evolved. For evolution to have anticipated what is primarily a cultural adaptation is untenable.

Meme me up, Scotty...

     A primary hallmark of human culture is its communicability. This may seem obvious, but human intelligence has not evolved significantly since agriculture appeared. We are applying Paleolithic brains to the modern task of developing a completely controlled, artificial environment. Our present success as a species owes more to our ability to share knowledge than to any inherent biological fitness.

     Human culture spreads as useful (or more powerful) ideas win out over dead ends; such ideas live longer and prosper. Observing this, memetics would simplify culture enough to fit it into the meme mold. Dawkins claims that “memes will automatically take over” (22) once brains capable of rapid imitation have been produced by biological evolution. The implication is clear. Culture is automatic, and memetic evolution is the logical heir to biological evolution. Its pace of progress far outstrips the range of the slow, generational pace of modification by selection. Though we may pay a price for this accelerated memetic future, there doesn’t seem any way to stop it, let alone slow it down.

     If memetics is worth taking seriously, and is an accurate representation of a real process, perhaps it offers humans the opportunity to control their future. Certainly no previous species has ever been able to direct its own evolution! On the other hand, much of human culture may actually stem from biological “hard-wiring,” and only ideas that fit into existing patterns can ever become active. There could exist entire classes of ideas (or memes) that simply pass us by, because our distant ancestor’s survival was enhanced by lumping thunderstorms and sabertooth cats in the category of “fearful things.”

Meme’s the word

     Could it be that memes are, instead, an artifact of observation? Evolution, like life, exists simply because it can (23). But memes are said to exist because they must, once brains that can support them exist. Blackmore has said that an Australopithecine without language memes would lack a modern human’s sense of self (24). Leaving aside senses of self that owe nothing to language, did our brain’s language centers somehow develop in anticipation of a need for language memes?

     Without the substrate of mind that allows memes to spread, memes would not be possible. We have seen that memes are imitative, not innovative. Rather than looking at memes as entities unto themselves, it might be better to view them as waves on an ocean. Waves move through the water, but the water only moves up and down. Waves could not exist without the water, but, given water and wind, they are inevitable.

     Zen Buddhism speaks of mind as like wind blowing on a flag-we see the motion of the flag (thought) and infer the wind. Without mind there is no thought. But what is mind? Modern research indicates mind is fully contained in the brain and ultimately explainable by science. Although the possibility exists that mind may utilize quantum phenomenon in its self-generation, perhaps being even irreducibly complex (25), numerous epiphenomena appearing to originate outside the brain have already been localized within it (26).

     Workings of the mind that rise into consciousness are perceived as thoughts. It is hardly surprising that thoughts are portable from mind to mind, since the similarities between human brains are far greater than the differences. Memes might indeed be those frozen, portable thoughts. But placing them in a position of control is seeing only the waves while missing the vast ocean beneath.

     Genes to cells to bodies to brains to minds to thoughts... The influence of the highest level is undeniable, but its roots lie deep, indeed.


1. Dawkins, R. 1976/1989. The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

2. Polichak, J. W. 1996. Memes-What are they good for? Skeptic 6(3):45-53.

3. Lynch, A. 1996. Thought Contagions: How Belief Spreads Through Society. New York: Basic Books.

4. Blackmore, S. 1999. The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press. (This came out too recently for reading-feel free to contribute a book review to Pro Facto.)

5. Who, in a tongue-in-cheek blurb on Lynch’s dust jacket claims he will use it as source material for “The Selfish Meme”...

6. Polichak. References indicate a number of adherents but not a great amount of progress.

7. Ibid. A lot of attention is devoted herein to the difficulty of finding a common definition.

8. Blackmore, S. 1996. (Interview) A mind out of body. Skeptic 6(3):72-79.

9. Lynch. He then works out an elaborate theory of classification for memes by virtue of what particular kind of activity they inhibit or excite. The point is that if the meme is to survive and reproduce, it must provide some benefit to potential hosts.

10. The SUV as a meme is a calculated refinement by auto manufacturers of a low-efficiency design into a “cute” package producing higher profit margins. SUVs tend to resemble large toys for a very good reason: they bypass rational buyer (host) restraints. Whether this is a deliberate ploy or just a response to market trends is an open question.

11. We will ignore the very real possibilities of nonhuman culture.

12. Darwin, Charles. 1859/1962. On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. New York: Collier Books.

13. Somebody will undoubtedly point out that the Egyptians performed multiplication by successive doubling and it was the Hindus who developed multiplication in the style we use. They are right.

14. It changes the host’s belief in the stability of glass and it spreads easily, since it encourages the host to pass it on whenever appropriate. Note the “Ah-ha!” feeling of this idea, tying two disparate “facts” together to arrive at a “new” conclusion.

15. It showed up on our own O4R e-mail list last year. The full text of this thread has been archived here. It contains numerous links to further information, both in print and on the Internet, as well as a lengthy discussion archived at an urban legends site.

16. Medieval stained-glass-window restorer Peter Gibson said that “in a lifetime of dismantling medieval glass [windows] he had seen hundreds of pieces that were thicker at the top.” See also Ibid.

17. Numerous reports.

18. Of roughly 1/15,000 of the magnitude of the applied force, however, so it’d be hard to measure. See glass_flow_the_thread.

19. A necessary illusion due to natural selection, since we are aware only of viruses that penetrate our defenses.

20. Unlike mental illnesses such as paranoid delusion due to organic injury or chemical imbalance, this hypothetical condition would be transmissible simply by expression-like the Monty Python skit about the world’s funniest joke, where anyone who hears it promptly dies of laughter.

21. And, incorporating random mutation as the last line of defense against invader’s evolution.

22. Dawkins, R. pg. 200.

23. In that it is energetically feasible for localized violations of the Second Law of Thermodynamics to arise and compete in the presence of free-energy gradients.

24. Blackmore, S. pg. 79.

25. Penrose, R. 1989. The Emperor’s New Mind. (w/ Longair, M., Hawking, S., et al.) 1997. The Large, the Small, and the Human Mind. Both Cambridge University Press.

26. DeNoma, J. 1997. Neurology of the weird: Brain mechanisms and anomalous experiences (from a talk by Barry Beyerstein). Pro Facto 3(3).

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