Cultural evolution: how memes appeared


Ideas rule the world. They, like viruses, infect the mind.

In one of his lectures, an American cognitive philosopher Daniel Dennett compared ideas to parasites: when a parasitic fungus Cordyceps lopsided enters the body of an ant, it causes the insect to rise to the very top of a blade of grass and hang on it in anticipation of a new host, spreading fungal spores along the way.

Oddly enough, but something similar happens to people, and the parasite does not always need a physical shell.

Truth, freedom, justice are just some of the ideas for which people sacrifice themselves to ensure that ideas or memes survive and spread.

What is a “meme”?

In 1976, British biologist Richard Dawkins wrote a book called The Selfish Gene. In it, he views all living organisms as “gene survival machines” in populations. According to Darwin’s theory, genes spread through competition, replication, and natural selection. Surprisingly, memes do the same.

According to this theory, social traditions that are preserved and spread in different cultures are superior to all others – only the fittest survive. Dawkins also notes that memes spread like viral epidemics and are as real as the neurons they inhabit.

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains what the word meme means and introduces the famous meme theory to the world.

Since a lot of time has passed since the release of The Selfish Gene, the era of digital information has greatly changed the context of the term “meme”.

For the people of the twenty-first century, memes are primarily funny pictures on the Internet, not an academic term. Some researchers even note that the term “meme” itself has become a meme.

By looking at memes (or ideas) from a behavioral science perspective, we can learn some valuable lessons about human communication and culture.

Moreover, memes are an extremely complex form of communication that facilitates the exchange of complex ideas and meanings through a few words and simple images.

How are memes spread?

Originating in the brain, memes spread outward like infectious diseases. In 1965, the Parisian biologist and Nobel Prize winner in biology, Jacques Monod, proposed the following analogy: “just as the biosphere rises above the world of inanimate matter, so the “abstract realm” rises above the biosphere. Ideas are the inhabitants of this kingdom.”

Ideas have retained some properties of living organisms. Like them, they tend to retain their structure and multiply. They can also recombine and separate their contents. Ideas can indeed evolve, and selection undoubtedly plays an important role in this, ” Monod wrote .

Oh yeah! Memetics is a whole science (although quite controversial)

Memes can be stories, recipes, skills, legends or fashion. We copy them, one person at a time. On the other hand, from Dawkins’ point of view, memes replicate themselves and have a major cultural significance.

How are memes used?

So, for an idea to become a meme, it must contain something that will allow its bearers to reproduce it without problems.

For this reason, the Internet has become an ideal medium for the spread of memes – a place where it is never boring. The fact is that the content shared by users is constantly changing, thanks in large part to creativity.

But since everyone uses memes, some of them can be dangerous. Here we turn again to Dennett and his speech about the parasitic ideas that infect most of the people living on the planet.

Memes are regularly used to promote ideologies and political ideas that are very easy to fall victim to.

Memes are an integral part of human culture

In 2019, researchers at the University of Colorado used an epidemiological model to track the journey of scientific ideas from one university to another.

It turned out that ideas from prestigious universities have more viral potential than ideas (mostly the same ones) from lesser-known educational institutions.

And yet, the most favorable place for the distribution of memes are social networks. Hundreds and thousands of articles, videos and comments broadcast both useful memes and absolutely destructive ones.

The COVID-19 pandemic has proven this by activating anti-vaccine and conspiracy theorists of all kinds .

The term “meme” was first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.

Similar to infectious diseases and parasites, harmful memes can be truly dangerous. The reality of magic, religious fundamentalism, and the wild popularity of homeopathy actually have a profound biological effect on us—the subordination of genetic interests to all other interests. No other species can do this.

As bearers of memes, we are responsible for their distribution and possible abuse. The situation is such that it is very easy to turn a relatively harmless idea into reality and completely pervert its essence. This is why ideas can be extremely dangerous. But how do we become carriers of harmful memes?

One of the reasons (perhaps the main one) is how our thinking works. We confuse causal relationships, do not notice numerous cognitive distortions and are looking for confirmation of our own rightness.

This state of affairs would definitely be envied by the cordyceps fungus, the lanceolate fluke and other parasites that live on our planet.

How has the Internet changed people?

The Internet has changed the way we consume information and therefore ideas. Alas, dangerous memes are no longer something to be brushed aside, and humanity is slowly but surely approaching a bleak future.

It turns out that each of us should reflect on our own beliefs. Ultimately, it is they who determine both character and behavior.

And the fewer conspiracy theories we meet on social networks and instant messengers, the less chance parasitic ideas have to infect our thinking.

Each of us should be careful with the information shared on social networks. The ideas and memes we share with others are incredibly powerful.

The Oscars 2022 is now also a meme

As with a dangerous disease, it must be carefully studied – otherwise the chances of recovery are minimal.

Science, education and technological development are our best weapons in the war of dangerous and useful memes, which we are the bearers of.

Do not forget that good ideas that stimulate the imagination and promote creativity make a great contribution to the development of not only world culture, but also life on our planet.

How do you deal with dangerous memes? We will wait for the answer in the comments below.

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