Extract from Neuroecology by Professor George Angel
The Selfish Meme
It is a sad truth that many people who see fundamental truths are not those who spend their lives studying it but those who take inspiration from elsewhere. It was a biologist, Richard Dawkins, who hit upon the idea of memes, self-replicating pieces of information, as being analagous to genes in biological organisms. Many areas of expertise are now so specialised and so deep that this kind of cross-discipline insights is becoming less and less common.
Dawkins is otherwise most famous for his work in understanding natural selection at the level of the gene. That is, that the individual organism does not necessarily matter in the grand scheme of things, only that the genes multiply and progress to the next generation. This idea reinforces ideas behind group selection, eusocial, self-sacrificing creatures and makes sense of a lot of seemingly self-destructive animal behaviour.
An animal though, is not a single gene and a person is not an individual meme, or idea.
Like genes, ideas thrive when they are replicated, whatever the effect on the person who holds them to good or to bad. Some memes are passed on because they’re useful. When you’re taught how to tie your shoelaces you are being ‘infected’ with a meme but it’s the kind of useful meme that improves your life and becomes part of your informational ecosystem because its useful. Other memes might by harmless, wearing clothing a certain way or using a particular slang term and these fall in and out of favour, novelty and ‘tribal’ identification being a big factor. Other memes can be downright dangerous, at least to the individual. The idea of ‘coolness’ for example may lead many a young lad to make a fool of himself or risk his life to impress others and gain social currency. It also might kill him, but even then the idea can and will spread because it’s high risk and high reward.
Few memes live in isolation however, and just as an organism adapts to fit its ecological niche, so these memetic organisms, or memeplexes, made up of many connected memes can adapt and exist across many minds. Take a religion or a political ideology as an example, say, socialism. It is a network of interconnected ideas about how to organise society, what makes a good person, what the state of human nature is and these are all bound together. As a memeplex it is well adapted to the poor and underprivileged, to the young and revolutionary and to times that are economically and socially hard. When the situation fits it spreads and thrives, when the situation changes it withers and its rival philosophies do better.
Just as in biology these memetic organisms survive, die and spread according to how well they fit their niche.
Can a meme be selfish though? Not in the sense that a set of ideas can actually think (or can it, what else is a human being after all?) Yes. A meme can be selfish. A suicide bomber kills himself but dies to spread the idea and the example of his sheer devotion to his cause can convince others through the power of martyrdom.
Like the selfish genes, the selfish memes are all too common.