It’s a darn good time to be a meme these days, especially on the Internet. The lightning fast transmission of links and videos and funny pictures between millions of people on any number of social media outlets or email means the viral spread and replication of the latest “you’ve got to see this” thing may sometimes occur even more quickly than with, well, actual viruses or gene replication. I know a tiny bit about genes and viruses and maybe a tiny bit more about memes, but had never realized there were such parallels between the biological and the sociobiological. I also never knew that there was any amount of intention behind that commonality, but apparently, that was no accident.
The word “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 in his book, The Selfish Gene. There, he used the concept of memes to help explain how ideas and cultural phenomena like songs, fashion trends or catchphrases spread and replicated between people, like cultural analogues to genes (the name was quite intentional: he wanted a monosyllabic word that sounded a bit like “gene”). Wiktionary defines a meme as “any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.” It’s an evolutionary replicator, information that is “copied” from person to person via imitation. There’s even some contention that, once our human ancestors developed the capacity for imitation, memes and genes coevolved as replicators. Their coevolution contributed to genetic selection for lovely large brains in our human ancestors. Brains especially geared toward propagation of certain types of memes via genetic selection for certain types of behaviors; the replicator and its mode of replication evolving in lockstep.
But the meme-gene commonality doesn’t end there. We humans are great imitators, but we’re certainly not always perfect copiers – we refine, we tweak, we smoosh together, we embellish. So it’s understandable that memes change, or mutate, over time, sort of like the natural selection of genes in biological evolution. Both memes and genes influence their shared vehicle, namely us, good ol’ Homo sapiens. Genes construct a vehicle to enable them to be passed onto the next generation of humans, memes use the mind of those vehicles as a vehicle of their own, by engendering certain behaviors and prompting imitation.
To relay an example, have you ever heard the saying, “Children are a blessing from God?” A more religious meme than something like All your base are belong to us or Rickrolling, to be sure, but it suggests to the listener a values and beliefs-rich reason for couples to have bigger families, even if the economy is tanking, a parent’s health is failing or other negative circumstances are afoot that might otherwise make such fecundity a bit ill-advised. Parents influenced by that meme are likely to communicate that same sentiment to their kids as part of an overall value set, who pass it along to their kids, who pass it along to…you get the idea. The simple phrase engenders behavior, and the genes of the parents who pass this idea on to their kids and instill in them the value of large families are sitting there with their figurative feet up, because this is all going swimmingly. They’ll be passed on to the next generation for sure! It’s genes and memes working together toward the successful propagation of each, and little do we realize we are being skillfully handled, folks. All hail our meme-gene overlords!
Honestly, though, as fascinating as the connection between memes and genes is (at least to me), I hadn’t really intended on touching on meme-gene commonality or coevolution in this post. Just stumbled upon some references to it, quite by accident, and got sucked in. I was initially just planning on writing about Internet memes, since many of them are very fun, and I find their viral spread quite fascinating. That’s the key word there, though, “viral.” Most Internet memes show a parallel not with genes but with another biological entity: viruses. In fact, some of them are even being referred to as “Internet Mind Viruses” (want to read the ultimate one?) And this comparison is pretty correct, too. Both viruses and Internet memes are replicators and exist without specific vehicles, but they still must infect appropriate hosts willing and/or able to transmit them to others to ensure their survival. Viruses have to overcome our immune systems and induce us to sneeze or cough or whatever’s necessary to get passed along, Internet memes have to compete with and usurp other memes in our brains for our attention and induce us to click the “Share” button or send the email that ensures they live to “infect” other people.
So, next time you get an email or see a social media post from someone with 40 questions to answer about yourself that you should then send on to seven friends, or you get a series of cute pictures of dogs in Halloween costumes or a patriotic slide show, or a vitriolic assertion of dubious authenticity about a current political figure, before you click “Share” or “Send,” give a thought to whether you really want to do that. You’re doing the Internet equivalent of sneezing in your friends’ faces.
In closing, how about I sneeze in your general direction with a handful of my favorite Internet memes? These are mostly oldies but goodies, in no particular order. I think now we might call them “classics.” Links all courtesy of Know Your Meme. I can’t promise every bit of all of these is entirely “safe for work,” so watch/listen at your own discretion. And remember the headphones!
- Double Rainbow. Probably the most recent one in this list. Guy loses his head over a double rainbow. It’s SO BRIGHT.
- Charlie Bit Me or Blood or David After Dentist. Kids being earth-shatteringly adorable.
- Badger Badger Badger. An animation with images of dancing badgers…and mushrooms…and then a snake. Why is it catchy? I have no idea. It just is.
- Lolcats. Photos of cats with a funny caption in lolspeak. I can haz kitteh?
- OK Go on Treadmills. The band performs a dance routine across eight treadmills. Stunning.
So, there are a handful of mine – what are your favorite Internet memes?
- Blackmore, S. (2001). EVOLUTION AND MEMES: THE HUMAN BRAIN AS A SELECTIVE IMITATION DEVICE Cybernetics & Systems, 32 (1-2), 225-255 DOI: 10.1080/019697201300001867
- Memes and Genes. Author unknown.
- Top 10 Internet Memes. Squidoo.