The tragedy of the meme

memesIt 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.


22 responses to “The tragedy of the meme

  1. You do realize that for every faction you pointed out there are oppositions. The anti-vaccination people have just as many, if not more people out there who are fervently shooting them down. Or at the very least trying too. Idiots with guns get arrested all of the time. It’s one of the ways police arrest criminals (because they’re idiots, who post selfies with guns, and sometimes with the stuff they stole…). So don’t fear too much for humanity. It’ll all balance out in the end.

    • You could be right. Maybe if every criminal posts a selfie and gets arrested, and every idiot does something stupid and gets themselves killed, the world’s problems will get fixed. That would be natural selection at work. I’m hoping for that.

  2. Amusing and depressing. But more amusing than depressing.

  3. The meme I remember whenever the subject of memes comes up: “A lie gets halfway around the world while the truth is still getting its boots on.”

    The biggest thing about a meme is that its success usually owes less to the original formulation than to what mutations it picks up. For example, the above quote gets attributed, as most quotes do, to Winston Churchill, Mark Twain, and other pithy wordsmiths. I suspect if anyone ever dug up the ultimate source, it wouldn’t sound nearly as catchy.

  4. Also, I’ve been reading Leibniz’s philosophy of the monad, and you’ve got me thinking about a blog entry on “the meme and the monad.” Wish me luck!

  5. Memes are fascinating. Looked at just as memes, Christianity and Islam have been extraordinarily persuasive and persistent. (In his SF novel, Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson paints Christianity as a “mental virus.”)

    Compare that to how quickly some interweb memes come and go. Those are just idle toys compared to serious memes! 🙂

    Logic (by which you mean: rational behavior grounded in knowledge and experience) doesn’t really apply to anything humans do. But Mr. Spock never seemed to grasp that humans are perfectly “logical” once you understand their value system and judgement criteria.

    Perfectly logical… Rational is a whole other ballgame. 😮

  6. I never realized the word meme had such an intellectual beginning. What a shame.

  7. Pingback: The meme and the monad | shakemyheadhollow

  8. Ok, Steve, my “meme and monad” post is up, with kudos to you. Tell me if you want your name removed from my poor post. In any event, like a sideways Caesar, “I came, I saw, I faltered!”

  9. Reblogged this on Jude's Threshold and commented:

    Here’s an interesting look at memes:

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