It was the geneticist, Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, who first proposed the idea of the meme. Dawkins defined the meme as a unit of cultural transmission, an idea, pattern or concept that could be passed from person to person, changing or evolving as it propagates, such that successful memes or their variants spread rapidly, and unpopular memes die out. Dawkins, a scientist and an atheist, no doubt had in mind the notion that scientific and rational memes would steadily gain acceptance, and that religious and superstitious memes, when exposed to the harsh light of analysis and debate would gradually fade away. What a tragedy then, that the memes that seem to spread like wildfire are trivial nonsense at best, or ignorant bigotry at worst.
The internet is to the meme like the petri dish is to the gene – a crucible where ideas, jokes, infographics and idioms can breed, mutate and spread like an outbreak of the ebola virus.
If humans were intelligent, then subjecting memes to the scrutiny of the crowd would accelerate the Enlightenment process of overturning bad ideas and replacing them with the truth.
And yet the internet is the medium that Islamic State uses to convince young Europeans to travel to Syria to engage in Holy War. It’s the network where a search for “cat videos” returns 500 million results. And it’s the technology that recommends “Extreme idiots compilation 2016” to me as the YouTube video that I would most likely want to watch.
Other memes that thrive online are anti-vaccination, anti-free-trade, selfies with guns, car surfing, self-harm, skinny pills, and other stupidly dangerous and dangerously stupid activities.
If Dawkins was dead, he would be spinning in his grave. As it is, he is probably feverishly working on his next book, in the vain hope of teaching science and reason to the masses. It won’t work, of course. If he wants to spread a really popular meme, he’d better start learning the language of the internet meme. MLG, Swag, YOLO, Illuminati confirmed, LOL.