I’ve been introduced to a lot of new concepts through role-playing games. I myself don’t play them but I have always found them to be interesting in that they are often a treasure-trove of ideas. For example, I learned about space elevators from the 2300 AD role-playing game, specifically the module called Beanstalk. Memes I learned about from a game called Transhuman Space, which is set about 90 years from now and incorporates Artificial Intelligence, bioengineering, disembodied human intelligences, and other such weirdness. Much of it I’d seen or heard about before, but memes were a new concept, and an entire book for the game was written by Jamais Cascio, who I’d been following since his Worldchanging days.
Memes are not something I see examined very often in the international security community. Indeed, I don’t see it in business, international development, or anywhere but by futurists and some science fiction fans. Although some might associate them with propaganda or advertising, they are much more advanced and powerful than either. They will surely be a force to contend with in the future, and it would be good for people to be aware of them and know something about them.
So, what IS a meme, anyway?
Let’s start with a quote from Richard Dawkins, who came up with the name in the first place:
“Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. he mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.”
In Cascio’s book, he references the sources he used to create the sourcebook for memes. One of these sources was Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society – The New Science of Memetics by Aaron Lynch. Lynch has passed on and this is an older book, so sadly, it is hard to tell how his theories may have changed over the intervening fifteen years.
In the first chapter, Lynch notes that memes are “a self-propagating idea” that “proliferate by effectively ‘programming’ for their own retransmission.” He then notes that there are seven ways that memes can be spread:
a) Quantity Parental – The idea causes the host to have more children than normal and so there are more possible hosts in the next generation. Just like compound interest, growth can be exponential. The Amish are an example.
b) Efficiency Parental – The idea has characteristics that make it so the children are more likely to adopt it. A cult is an example as children are indoctrinated from birth.
c) Proselytic: For example, Mormons. This can lead to fast growth but there are diminishing returns as the number of hosts goes down. In turn new memes may arise and old ones may return.
d) Preservational: People retain the beliefs longer.
e) Adversative: As a meme meets resistance, more aggressive variants develop that attack or sabotage competing memes. The Inquisition was an example.
f) Cognitive: These are logical and spread passively, such as scientific ideas.
g) Motivational: This is also passive. People believe in these because they expect the benefits will be higher of they do than if they don’t.
Of course, memes can have more than just one of these characteristics. A “propagative profile” can be done for a meme that shows its advantages in each of these areas.
Note that memes are not always negative – “Love your neighbor” is a positive meme. Memes can also build on other memes. Judaism was a meme, and Christianity was an outgrowth of it. Another way memes can arise is through the recombination of ideas. The Apocalypse + Christianity combination has led to the success of the “Left Behind” series.
Population memetics is, of course, “the study how proliferating memes combine and separate in a population.” Unlike with genetics, hosts can die or drop the belief. The most aggressive memes are most likely to succeed and will often result in new combinations or updated versions. The memes, in other words, evolve and the fittest survive in the realm of ideas, which Lynch refers to as the ideosphere.
Obstacles to the spread of memes include secrecy, competition, information hoarding, resistance to marketing, age and more. Age is a factor because older people tend to proselytize less as opposed to young people who are enthusiastic about spreading new memes.
In chapter 2, Lynch notes that the success of a meme is based on how much of the population believes it, and that if it doesn’t deliver on its promises (the world will end in 2000 AD!) it loses credibility and appeal and will be dropped. This also means that it doesn’t matter if the meme benefits the population or not, only that a majority believes it. Our modern world has also made it easier for this to happen due to the increases population (hosts), urbanization and communication. More people are living in proximity and are in touch with people from around the globe, not just their small village. He suggests that “Memetic self-awareness” can help prevent the spread of negative memes.
Lynch also compares memetics to other social sciences such as sociobiology, which is critical of memetics; evolutionary psychology, which overlaps with memetics in the areas of family life and reproduction; Politics, where memes are key. He notes, furthermore, that fashion depends on the fact that memes are diluted as they spread and die out and so new ones (new fashions) can take their place. Urban legends are also memes, and the most successful ones are the ones that mutate into a more interesting story.
He also examines how innovations can be propagated. Complexity will slow the spread of a new innovation but it helps if they are compatible with existing values, simple, and have increased benefits over the old ways of doing things. It’s also very useful if they can be tried out before adoption. Finally, Lynch notes that memetics and Asimov’s Psychohistory from the Foundation series are similar in the short term but that memes aren’t necessarily useful for long term forecasting.
In the rest of the book, Lynch applies his theory to various areas such as family structure, sex preference, evangelism, firearm ownership, and drug abuse. He develops hypotheses of how those memes are formed, spread, and die. I should note that I disagree with many of his explanations and in many cases I got the impression that he didn’t know the belief system well. Interestingly, modern Evolutionary Psychology theories differ from his explanations as well. In conclusion, the first two chapters do an excellent job of explaining the theory of memes and are well worth reading. The rest of the book is mere speculation and opinion on Lynch’s part.
What are some memes that you have encountered?