Note: the following is an excerpt taken from the middle of an e-mail, which I'm not sure exactly when I received. I'm writing this introductory paragraph in 2016, but I know I got the email sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s. (The last date on the file in my website's directory was 2002, but I know I had the excerpt on my old GeoCities site at least as early as 1999.) I thought I had a printout of the e-mail somewhere, and I might, but for now I am unable to find it, if I do. (So maybe I don't.) I don't remember for sure who even sent me this e-mail, but I think it was someone I only knew online, by the handle Cheshire Cat. (It has now been quite a few years since I last heard from this enigmatic cat.) Then again, there are a number of other internet friends from that era who might have sent it. Anyway, I'm fairly sure it was the first time I ever heard of memes. It would also be the first time I ever heard of Richard Dawkins, who coined the term in a book in 1976. And I wouldn't hear of him again until probably a year or two ago (2014-15), and didn't recall having heard of him in this e-mail until I reread it just now. I still don't know much about him, except that he's an atheist. Which is fine, but I believe some of the people who are involved in the same, shall we say, social justice circle as I am, have mentioned him as someone who is rather problematic. I'm afraid I don't recall any details of that. But I suppose whatever problems he may have, it doesn't change the fact that the concept of memes is an important one. It's an idea that has evolved greatly since he introduced it, so that now an internet meme is a more specific thing. Well, a different thing, anyway. I guess "internet meme" can mean various things, but I (and lots of other people) commonly (and erroneously) use "meme" to refer to something specific that is more accurately called an image macro. I just wanted to make all that clear before you read this thing about memes that my friend wrote, all those years ago. (I really do wish I could find the whole e-mail, so I'd know how much else there was to it that isn't included here. And who actually wrote it.)
Ideas that infect
Let's take a side trip, while on the subject of human thought. To begin, we must backtrack to skim a little biology.
Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, describes how our genetic heritage seems to have resulted from struggles by nearly invisible clusters of DNA against nature and each other. Nearly all of evolution could be regarded as a winnowing of those genes that failed to achieve the central goal of making copies of themselves. Of course, molecules do not contemplate goals. "Wanting" is a human emotion. Still, the effects of natural selection often do look eerily as if different genetic heritages have been striving against one another for niches in the ecosystem.
Put it this way: if, by fortuitous happenstance, a set of genes stumbles onto the right attributes, enabling it to create an organism that, in turn, lives to make and pass on more copies of the genes, then most of those copies will also share the original successful trait and have an improved chance of making copies of themselves. And so on. The process works as well for autonomous creatures, like you and me, as for a virus that invades a host organism and uses it as a tool for replication.
This is but a crude summary of insights Dawkins depicts so well (which led to my story in this volume, "The Giving Plague"). Here it is only a prelude to Dawkin's next step, when he discusses another type of bundle of information with similar traits-not genes, but "memes."
Memes are raw ideas. Pure concepts that, like conquering genetic codes, seem capable of thriving in and via host organisms, in this case human minds.
What would such a "living idea" be like? Well, for one thing it would survive by making its host think about it. In contemplating a concept you in effect keep it alive. For example, some time ago I read a notion-the very one we're discussing now-the notion of memes. You could say this idea was successful at "infecting" me, because I've continued thinking about it, giving it continued existence, or "life."
But a virus or bacterium that just sits inside its host doesn't accomplish much. An effective pseudo-organism must do more. It must reproduce.
How would a living idea proliferate?
By getting its host not only to think about it, but to make and spread copies… by telling other people! And now, if you've been paying attention, you'll realize that's just what I've been doing the last few minutes for one particular meme-the meme of memes! By telling you about it, I am doing the memic equivalent of coughing on you. Infecting you with the transmissible, self-replication notion of these infectious ideas. If it's a successful self-replicating notion, some of you will go out and tell others about it. And so on.
Of course life would be impossibly dull if we didn't share ideas, while constantly mutating and adapting them to our purposes. But let's imagine that some of these self-reproducing ideas pick up more attributes. What if one of them helped its host become prosperous, charismatic, or influential-to spread the meme more effectively. Or what if another meme caused its hosts, or host tribe, to keep other memes out. To expose their children only to old, familiar ideas. What a powerful trick that would be!
Does this sound like some bizarre science fiction scenario?
Or is it, rather, a pretty good model for what's been going on throughout most of human history? Examples abound. Take the dogmatic exclusion rule of most religions, which call competing idea systems "heresy."
One of the Iranian ayahtollahs once said of America-"We don't fear your bombs, we fear your pagan ideas." Why would he say such a thing? Dawkins' theory seems to offer as good an explanation as anything.