Do it for the Meme
Anyone who uses social media will probably recognise the word ‘meme’ as referring to an image, video or piece of text which is rapidly spread across social media platforms by users and designed for humorous effect. However the term was originally coined by Dawkins (1976) in a book entitled the selfish gene. Dawkins suggested that a meme is simply: that which is imitated. Under this broad definition Susan Blackmore (2000) argues that memes can explain all of our cultural evolution. Blakemore suggests that memes are the second replicator (the first being genes) which shape, change and explain our behaviours. Memes may be sounds, actions, expressions, clothes, hairstyles, artworks, songs, ideas etc. Any form of information which can be copied by distinct organisms through imitation.
Indeed a lot of learning and knowledge may be explained by a process of imitation; how do I know how to speak? Well I simply watched and listened to my parents speaking when I was young and I copied them!
However if one commits themselves to Blackmore’s (2000) view that we are all ‘meme machines’ who simply select and pass on memes it appears to flip our everyday assumption of human behaviour. Our behaviour isn’t designed by an intelligent, conscious designer (us) in a top-down process, rather our behaviour is a natural consequence of information (memes) being copied with variation and selection. Behaviour is shaped through a bottom-up process. This is an uncomfortable thought, language wasn’t carefully thought out and intentionally designed but merely a happy consequence of a series of successful meme replication.
‘Do it for the meme’ may be a more sinister phrase than we once thought. No longer does it imply that we, as rational agents, are choosing to create funny images to spread to our friends. Rather everything we do, we do because of a processes of memetic replication. We’re not creating the memes, the memes are creating us!
Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene Oxford university press. New York, New York, USA.
Blackmore, S. (2000). The meme machine (Vol. 25). Oxford Paperbacks.
Blackmore, S. (2008, February). Susan Blackmore, memes and “temes” [Video File]. Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/susan_blackmore_on_memes_and_temes