Since I’ve been using this term a lot throughout my articles, and since it is central to understand what it means in order to understand what I’m talking about, I’ve decided to write this short article to properly define the word meme.
According to contemporary science we are biological robots, ‘built’ by our genes. Our brain was ‘designed’ to generate these robots’ behavior. It is a biological computer. This computer regulates bodily functions and generates our behavior (whenever I use personification here, it is merely done for the purpose of brevity, to avoid explaining that evolution is basically a result of the interaction of matter according to the laws of physics and mathematics; it has no will, it is not ‘aware’ and it does not ‘design’ anything).
Of course, there is no free will. All our thoughts, ideas, desires, are a direct result of chemical and of electronic processes taking place (mostly) in the brain. The idea of free will is, itself, a meme.
The brain is a complicated machine that operates on many levels. At its top level it stores and processes ideas about reality. These ideas define our goals, they instruct us how to interact with the world around us. They are essential for the operation of the brain.
These ideas, or, rather, the building blocks of which these ideas are made, are these memes I speak of (though the term can be used interchangeably to describe an element of an idea or a of a story, or a complete idea or story).
Stories are also a part of this – we are genetically wired to store and to communicate information to each other in the form of stories. You can call it the ‘natural’ or the ‘primitive’ way of doing so. Every religion’s ideology has a founding myth – a set of stories explaining the origins of the world, of animals and of mankind, and, well, of anything else of importance. There are stories that justify social taboos, customs, practices, cultural and racial biases – in fact, it’s very hard to overemphasize their importance.
Story-memes are made up of building blocks, just like ‘idea-memes’, and these building blocks are also called memes. Much like genes they can mutate, when stored in ones head or when being relayed from one person to another; they can be adopted, usually with some adaptation, from one culture to another, with parts of the story removed, parts changes, parts added – all to serve the ever changing survival needs of the individuals and societies carrying them.
Also, those images-with-captions that circulate on the internet, that are called memes in the common jargon – usually meant to get across an idea, to make clear, convincing, strong and short arguments – are also memes, or, rather, meme-transporters.
And that is all – all ideas we have about reality, all stories we know, and also, the separate blocks of which they are made, are memes. All our knowledge, when processed from raw data, is stores in our mind in the form of memes.
When the term ‘meme’ was conceived by Dawkins, he was thinking mostly about cultural and religious ideas, the building blocks of religions and of ideologies, but, if you think of it, we are not really meant to be able to tell the differences between ideas like ‘fire burns!’ and ideas like ‘you must pray to Marduk every morning or you’ll die of a heart-attack’. Not in our primordial state, for which we have been ‘designed’, and, usually, not even in the 21st century. Subconsciously, we can tell the difference between the ideas that are farther removed from our immediate survival needs – religious/ideological memes – and the ones that are essential to our day to day lives (like ‘fire burns!‘ or the principles of haggling). The latter we hold on to, we live by, for if we didn’t we would not survive. The former we use and re-interpret, creating our own personal versions of those memes, to assist our assimilation in society and our psychological needs, and also to explain our own behavior, when it strays away from what the former are telling us to do, to satisfy the needs of the latter.
‘Nuther words, we do what we need in order to survive, then we rearrange our beliefs – our personal versions of the general, cultural beliefs – to reconcile social memes that dictate proper behavior with our own actions (I use the words ‘beliefs’ and ‘memes’ interchangeably, here). This is done because our ‘ideological memes’, though we don’t always actually act upon them, are very important in determining our behavior, because:
- They put us in the right psychological state so that we can do what needs to be done, from the practical point of view. For instance, if you tribe needs to fight a neighboring tribe over some resources, then believing that the members of that rival tribe – people just like you, really – are the spawn of the devil, makes it easier to fight them more effectively.
- They function as social identification: people who share the same cultural memes will tend to trust each other, because their memes replace the old need that’s wired into us to know someone personally, for an extended period of time, before you can trust them (the way hunter-gatherers and monkeys do it). The things you passionately believe in unify you, as a group.
Groups within society, what we call ‘social classes’, also tend to create different interpretations of the general culture in which they exist – which are similar but slightly different sets of memes (sub-cultural subsets of memes). Those memes are adjusted to the role, in society, that members of the group carrying them are filling. In this regard, there is an interesting observation, an example from medieval Japan: Prof. Ben-Ami Shillony, in his history of Japan, commented that the more powerful a samurai was – ie a powerful landholder as opposed to a small landholder or a simple samurai – the more he tended to violate the sacred principles of Boshido, when it suited his interests.
To sum this all up, the correct definition of ‘meme’, in my opinion, is the more inclusive one, the one I used at the beginning of this article: all ideas we hold in our heads. Just be aware that it’s used more often to describe cultural religious and philosophic ideas than simple ideas that are not much more than observation about reality.