The theory of memetics, which many think is relatively new, is quite possibly as old as civilization and our species itself. This is the concept of mental content based on an analogy of Darwinian evolution. This was popularized by Richard Dawkins in the late seventies and early eighties, but actually carries its origins back to the times of the ancient philosophers. According to Merriam Webster, he root of this term “meme” means “an idea, behavior, style, or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture”.
Another definition of the term “Meme” by the Oxford English dictionary states that a meme is “an element of culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means”.
Many of us are familiar with the term meme in the context of social media and web sites such as Facebook and twitter. This happens when someone disseminates something on the Internet, and this begins a transmission vector to other people. There are times in which this individual item can cross the globe in a matter of hours.
This is frequently done through mimicry and humor, but with the advent of the Internet for social and recreational use, it has spawned through memetic means, and entirely new sub culture and with it a new language and social hierarchy.
This language often takes on the form of acronyms or the shortening of phrases and concepts in to a series of letters that can resemble emotional expressions, called emoticons. An example of the acronyms would be the use of “LOL” to indicate that a person is “laughing out loud”, or typing “j/k” to indicate that one is joking.
Another technique of this is indicating volume of voice by typing either in small letters or in all capitals. Additionally, when dealing with emoticons, one can “wink” at another person without actually seeing them simply by typing “;-)”. Through the use of memetic transmission, this new language has become commonplace in a little less than a generation, faster than any other cultural language before it.
In order to further expand on this point, it is necessary to explain the concept that this is based on which is Universal Darwinism. This theory states roughly that genes are not the only things that experience Darwinian evolution, or “evolution of the fittest”. The analog referred to here is that most often of cultures.
If you apply the elements of Darwin’s theory which are “replication, variation, and natural selection” to man made constructs such as civilization and societies, it becomes far easier to see this supposed practice in action. Indeed, not only can we apply it to these things, but also to culture and religion.
If under this principal, memetics is the spread of an idea from person to person, then consequently, one of the biggest purveyors of memetic assimilation must be the religion of the world.
Based on a study done in 2005 by the Pew Forum and published in “Global Christianity in December 2011, approximately 84% of the world believe in a higher power of some sort and/or belong to a religious group. To expand on this a bit, according to a survey, in 1910 the global population of self-identified Christians was approximately 600 million. Another study performed in 2010 listed this number at approximately 2.2 billion Christians.
That means in the last 100 years the population through ministry and proselytizing increased in the world by 1,600,000,000 people. This is one such way that an idea can be shared and grows through memetics.
According to Dr. Susan Blackmore, a graduate of St. Hilda’s College, Oxford, and the University of Surrey, “memetic evolution is a vast process of ideas, legends, and stories, and things competing to get into our brains.” And continues “everything that gets copied form person to person is memes”.
This laymen’s definition on memetics is but one example of how vast this process is. To expand on its impact on human civilization, Dr. Augustin Fuentes, graduate of UC Berkley, and professor of anthropology at Notre Dame believes that increased social complexity was necessary for our interaction with the environment and within our own social groups.
In other research, there have been developments on this concept as well. One such development is known as the memetic algorithm or “MA” introduced by Pablo Moscato in 1989.
The memetic algorithm is, put simply, a method of measuring and tracking memetic evolution in a closed social system such as a community or city. This is more commonly used in a computational sense, where the data can be more appropriately captured and analyzed and is called memetic computation or “MC”.
This leads us into a newer and largely unexplored territory, which is known as memetic engineering. This can be done through a variety of methods and techniques, but put simply it is the practice of deliberately passing on the afore mentioned element of culture, which has been specifically created for transmission. In short, what we know today as marketing and advertising is one such example.
Applying the concept of memetic engineering and marketing, the conclusion can be drawn that through effective marketing, an idea of the superiority of a product or view point can be passed from person to person through a carefully targeted and crafted message. In marketing circles, commercials that do this are known informally as “evergreens”.
A commercial with this label will never entirely die off and will come back year after year much like its arboreal namesake. An example of this can be the time honored and loved Cadbury Egg commercial featuring several types of animals attempting to make the chicken sound that it eventually achieved by a bunny, the company mascot.
The endurance and proliferation of this message hinges upon its enjoyability until you only connect it to the company as the author of a welcomed message. Because this message is so enjoyable people begin to discuss it with one another and the company’s name begins to spread in a logarithmic fashion.
This is only one example of course; the use of persuasive marketing exists in almost every media outlet and format. This, however, does not exist only in production, but also in what has been dubbed “associate marketing”. This form of advertising is older than one might think, going back as far as the civil war, and continuing on throughout the economic depression and into today.
Professions such as door-to-door sales have existed now for over a century and from a memetic stand point, seek to spread the idea of the superiority of their product. They also seek to have the consumer spread the word of the product as well.
While this can also easily be applied to other scenarios such as pyramid schemes and so on, it is safe to say that memetic evolution can be found in almost all phases of human culture and life, and to some degree even among our primate cousins in the ape family.
Simply put, the theory is that when one learns something of importance, that information is shared in such a way that other members of the community do not have to learn the same lesson through experience.
It can only be wondered, when Charles Darwin published his work on the origin of species, whether he was even remotely aware of the subsequent fields of study, even in other disciplines, that he would help to open. The principals of memetics are helping to shape, not only individual live, but through those lives, entire cultures and indeed our entire species.