Memes Explained!by Don Lacey on Apr. 15, 2013, under Art & Culture, Atheism, Atheist Humor, AZ Politics, Christianity, Creationism, Critical Thinking, Evolution, Freethought, God & Bible, History, Logic, Reason, Religion, Skepticism
Jim Wilson explains what’s going on with “memes” on the internet:
The term “meme” is used largely to describe images like this:
Usually there is an image of some character or public figure (in this case Advice God) with a statement on top introducing the topic and some sort of ironic or unexpected punch line at the bottom. They are quite common over the internet. It is possible that the 2012 presidential election may be the first ever to be influenced by the use of this type of internet meme. More examples can be found here.
“Meme” has a much broader and interesting meaning. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins, now famous for being one of the world’s most visible atheists. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins, created the word with the intent of it sounding similar to gene with its roots in the Greek term “mimeme” meaning to imitate.
Dawkins used the term to describe pieces of cultural information, shared among humans, which are able to adapt and evolve in ways that furthers their transmission. They can be seen as parts of human culture that are analogous to genes. Examples include jokes, popular songs, stories, rituals, fashion styles, ideologies, and a wide range of other cultural information. Urban legends are an excellent example, since they frequently change and often grow with the telling. Often versions that hit listeners closer to home or contain more outrageous elements are repeated and in this way are able to perpetuate their existence.
Blue Star Acid is an urban legend in which it was widely believed that people where giving children LSD soaked rub-on tattoos or stickers. There was no evidence to support this scare but the story continued for decades. There were several versions and the details that were included indicated when a particular version originated. Simply put, details that make a story or a joke more likely to spread get passed on while those that don’t simply get killed off. In this way, cultural information undergoes a form of adaptive evolution though it may bear more resemblance to a Lamarckian concept of evolution than a Darwinian one. Memes are often compared to viruses, in that they cannot exist independently of a host or vector and successful ones are able to change the host’s behavior so that it further spreads the meme to new hosts. Successful memes are ones that have accumulated traits that maximize the likelihood that they will be passed on.
The concept has given rise to the field of study known as memetics which looks at how information is spread among humans and adapts to spread further. Unlike other fields, it is more interested in an idea’s successful spread rather than how truthful it is.
Some of the most influential memes are religious ones. They are often characterized by groups of smaller memes combining together to form larger “memeplexes”. For example, Judaism not only features beliefs about the existence of a god but also dietary rules and stories about its history. Christianity builds upon the previously existing Judaism memes and adds new elements like the Jesus story. When looking at the spread of Christianity from the point of view of memetics, it is striking that the Christianity meme found success after adding such suspect features as promises of eternal rewards for believers and eternal punishment for those who doubt (and will not perpetuate) the meme.
It should be noted that memes are not conscious entities that intentionally spread themselves but rather pieces of information with no self-awareness engaged in an unconscious process of adaptive selection. The notion of memes as viruses of the mind makes a lot of sense. People heavily influenced by power memes such as religions like Islam or Christianity or political philosophies like Nazism or Marxism will do things to help aid the spread of their meme that people uninfected by these memes will view as horrific and morally despicable. More thoughts on the idea of Christianity as a meme can be found here.
Skepticism and critical thinking are essential to immunize us from harmful and destructive memes that are all too common in this world.