Sunday, 31 May 2015

The evolution of the "meme" meme

I described the recent evolution of the term "meme" in a 2010 article.

Recently Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have attempted to characterise this evolution. Dawkins wrote:

Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity

Daniel Dennett recently stated:

Dawkins introduced memes to be evolvers, to be things that evolve by natural selection but internet memes are the creations of presumably intelligent designers. There's competitions on the internet: who can design the meme that goes viral best. An intelligent designed meme would seem to be a contradiction in terms. And I admit: for a while I thought so too and I deplored the fact that Dawkins' wonderful word and concept was being sullied, was being cheapened by being transformed in this way into the word it is on the internet... and then I suddenly realized: no! no! maybe this is a contradiction in terms - so what. After all the splittable atom is also a contradiction in terms. The word "atom" initially meant "unsplittable thing". Now we have splittable atoms.

The idea that memetic engineering makes the term "meme" less appropriate seems like pure nonsense to me.

We still call genetically engineered genes "genes". I see no reason why we should not call memetically engineered memes "memes". No definition of gene or meme that I am aware of excludes the use of engineering techniques.

The idea that internet memes are engineered is also an incorrect characterization of the way the meaning of the term "meme" has changed. Plenty of memes were memetically engineered before we had the internet - and plenty of internet memes were not memetically engineered - for example most "fail" videos.

The real difference in meaning is the one I mentioned in my 2010 article: that internet memes must be popular. The difference is well illustrated by the "Millhouse is not a meme" meme. Internet meme experts seem to agree with the sentiment expressed by this meme, while enthusiasts for the Dawkins meme think that the idea that "Millhouse is not a meme" is ridiculous: of course Millhouse is a meme. You got it by from someone else via human culture - and it has been copied millions of times all over the internet.

The new meaning of "meme" as an abbreviation for "internet meme" - referring to things that spread in massive numbers on the internet - is all very well, but it takes the term "meme" away from its origin as a unit of cultural inheritance. Scientifically, all culture should be made of memes. Memes that only account for some parts of culture are not a general enough concept to do very much useful scientific work. Meme critics have already had a field day with the idea that memes only explain culture that is copied with high fidelity. Soon we will probably be hearing the equally ridiculous objection that memes only explain popular culture.

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