How the concept of ‘memes’ can help us restructure our thoughts.

Jul 30th, 2011 | By | Category: Featured Articles

That there is such an entity as a ‘meme’ is a meme in itself. Although the term meme itself was popularised by biologist Richard Dawkins in 1989 in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’ as an abbreviated form of mimene, an ‘unit of cultural transmission’ or imitation, the idea has been around for considerably longer. (The OED points out the first use of the analogous word mneme in 1921).

Whether ideas within religion, politics, science, economics and philosophy can be ever reduced to simple transmissible units like memes remains the cornerstone of debates arguing against the idea of memes. However memes are not defined by any particular size or criteria for irreducibility, unlike quanta or musical notes; they essentially represent core ideas we ‘buy into’, inherited from our culture, parents or even by reading magazines or peer pressure. Central to the idea of transmission of memes are ‘memeplexes‘ or clusters of memes that are often transmitted together, almost like clusters of genes that are transmitted en bloc from generation to generation, which is why we often resemble our parents. In the context of memes, the memeplex called orthodox Christianity for instance, is a conglomeration of ideas (memes) accumulated with the aid of the ‘official’ meme-validator, the Catholic Church. By insisting on the ultimate authority of book that contained memes from even earlier cultures, like the Sumerians or Babylonians for example, the aim is to transmit this memeplex unchanged, or as unchanged as possible. The persecution of scientists in the medieval Church was a classical example of an attempt to preserve the ‘purity’ of the ancient memeplex, which however classically failed too, as the forces of evolution to a large measure shapes memes too.

In the sky, there is no distinction of east and west; people create distinctions out of their own minds and then believe them to be true.
– The Buddha

In our personal lives, this concept can have profound implications if we examine the bigger picture. Examining the flow of thousands and millions of memes through our own lifetimes leads us to question the appropriateness and relevance of certain memes within broader memeplexes allowing our natural psychological development to continue, it is important to be able to Get out of a rut when you see it. If we refuse to examine the context and relevance of certain ancient memes like ‘God created life and Universe within X number of days’, we are essentially blocking out allelic or competitor memes like ‘life evolved through natural selection’ or ‘spontaneous mutations are an important factor in how change happens leading to evolution of newer forms of life.’ We often refuse to question ourselves who are we being ‘loyal’ to in maintaining a so-called purity of orthodox traditions ? A label, a memeplex or to group of people who we share such memeplexes with ?

Science too, unfortunately can share some of the memetic blindspots as the history of science repeatedly shows. Materialist and reductionist paradigms, socio-economic theories (e.g. centralised deregulated banking or globalization of markets) based on such unquestioned memetic paradigms can have profound  effects on human lives and livelihoods. Blaming religion for all of mankind’s problems is as unscientific as regarding science as the ultimate benefactor to mankind.

Rather than constantly dividing ideas as scientific or unscientific, religious or pseudo-religious, memetics (the study of memes) offers a far more elegant solution to the essential problem in perfecting our thoughts over our lifetimes. Its perhaps broadening the awareness that thoughts and ideas have no permanence on their own, all en bloc systems that we call systematized areas of knowledge, are themselves collections of memes and memeplexes undergoing constant evolutionary shuffling and modification. To define ourselves through total alliegiance and loyalty to such memetic systems, we essentially force a spiritual dead end on ourselves – refusing to restructure our understanding over our life time any further.

The more desirable alternative is perhaps to liberate ourselves through restructuring our thoughts by utilising the full potential of the memes.

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The Editor
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