Memes are a Meaningless Metaphor. Discuss.
This essay will review evidence to refute the statement that ‘memes are
a meaningless metaphor’ and ultimately reach the conclusion that memes should
be more highly regarded as an important aspect of human evolution
The term ‘meme’ is defined, by the Oxford English Dictionary, as ‘an
element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non – genetic
means, especially imitation’.
There are currently vast amounts of speculation as to whether memes
actually exist, or whether they are merely a metaphor used to explain pieces of
human behaviour that, for some reason, get passed down to other generations.
The truth is, some form of memes, whether you believe in them or not,
have played a major role in the evolution of the human race in the most recent
stages in evolution and continue to do so, particularly with regards to the ways in
which we behave within our cultural groups.
Richard Dawkins (1976) first introduced the concept of memes in his
book entitled, ‘The Selfish Gene’. Here he introduces the meme as a new and
improved ‘replicating entity’, much like the gene, which, despite being very much
in its early stages, is achieving evolutionary change at an astonishingly fast rate
in comparison with the humble gene.
When Dawkins first discussed this idea, he was contemplating the
existence of a second replicator. The first replicator, of course, being the gene,
a biological entity which has a sole purpose of ensuring its own replication and
survival down the ages. For many years now, it has been accepted that genes are
responsible for evolution, as genes are passed on and tweaked each time in order
to maintain its fitness. The meme, as suggested by Dawkins, is a psychological
entity which in the exact same way as a gene. Both share the sole purpose of
ensuring that they are replicated and passed from person to person.
Memes come in many forms such as stories, morals and values and musical
tunes. In fact, music is a good example of how memes spread themselves. If
some one hears a tune that is catchy, they will remember it. If they remember
it then they will sing or hum it aloud. Another person hears this and also thinks
that the song is catchy so they remember it and so on.
Religion is also an excellent example of the sheer longevity of some
memes. How can it be that stories from so long ago are still prominent today?
The answer is, in fact, memes. It can be argued that religion, in its essence, is a
collection of ideas, many of these ideas are socially desirable. We, as humans,
perceive it to be socially desirable to treat others, as we would expect to be
treated ourselves. As a result of this the stories are remembered, retold
through various mediums, they are printed in books, represented in art, music,
movies, all of which enable religion, as a meme, to be passed down through the
Memes like these have been described by Dawkins (1976) as ‘viruses of
the mind’ in the sense that they travel from brain to brain like a virus would,
with the sole purpose of being passed on to as many other brains as possible so
that the idea can live on and carry on replicating. Memes like these carry with
them the promise rewards and punishments dependent upon whether you agree
to pass on the meme. For example the religion says that if you pass on their
teachings to a friend, then you shall be rewarded. This is in place to reinforce
the follower from passing information on to others.
Dawkins suggests that just as genes spread themselves in a gene pool by
leaping, biologically, from body to body, memes spread themselves in the ‘meme
pool’ by leaping from brain to brain through imitation. Therefore imitation is the
way in which memes replicate themselves, much like the way in which genes
replicate themselves through reproduction.
It is commonly accepted that some memes are more likely to successfully
replicate than others, just as the stronger genes in the gene pool survive to
successfully reproduce. This is where the idea of a catchy song or a good idea
comes to light. Here, the more successful memes are the ones that are more
likely to be remembered.
In her book, ‘The Meme Machine’, Susan Blackmore (1999) suggests that
our minds are made up lots of memes all working towards their own ‘selfish’
agenda, this being to replicate and be passed on.
Paul Davies (2004) suggests that memes are the mental equivalent of
genes; they replicate and compete in very much the same way as genes. He
suggests that the idea of memes can be a rather dangerous piece of
information, the reason being that the implications of such a find may be
enormous. If it is the case that these ‘viruses of the mind’ determine our
behaviour, there may be a danger of them being over simplified in order to
explain more extreme types of behaviour like violence or crime. In its most
extreme scenario it may lead to the belief that violent or criminal behaviour is
some kind of biological anomaly that may be treated or even cured, this would be
a drastically large claim, especially if there is possibility that it may be
It may be for this reason that the idea of memes is looked upon with
much contempt, as the ideas may be too radical for many people to accept and
also because of the potential dangers of a society that may believe something
they are told about their own behaviour based upon a possibly inaccurate
explanation along with their own interpretations.
Furthermore, it can be suggested that if people believe that forces
outside of their control have the ability to determine how they shall behave,
this may result in the relinquishing of a person’s own free – will, which may also
lead to diffusion of responsibility with regards to acts of violence.
For example people may think that they can be violent towards one
another purely because they believed they are not in control of their actions as
their bodies and minds have ready determined how there are going to act.
We have seen why it may be important for evolutionary psychologists to
refute the idea of memes and regard them as a ‘meaningless metaphor’; this
shall be investigated further later on in the course of this essay. But first it
may be useful to develop more of an understanding of how, as opposed to why,
memes may affect our behaviour without us ever realising.
The term ‘meme’ is by no means the first theory of its kind; there has
been much discussion about the way in which culture evolves differently to
biological evolution. Blackmore (1999) suggests that the notion that ideas and
cultures evolve seems rather obvious, as ideas tend to be built upon over time,
as cultures tend to change and develop through the generations.
It can be regarded as a highly reductionist view that memes are a
meaningless metaphor, especially given that the subject of this essay, memes, by
definition, is a meme within itself. It can be argued that the idea of memes, is a
meme. This is due to the fact that a term once coined by Richard Dawkins
(1976), which has been dubbed a small time bomb (Matt Ridley – Times Literary
Supplement), was read by other, remembered, adopted and passed on with slight
variation and additional research, until it has now become one the single most
controversial subjects in the field of evolutionary psychology. This in itself
shows the vast effects that memes may have, this one in particular may hold
vast implications for the way in which we understand our behaviours and cultural
experiences as humans.
With a small throwaway passage in his book ‘ The Selfish Gene’, Dawkins
has perhaps opened up one of the greatest evolutionary debates of our
generation. If this has been described as a ‘small time bomb’, then Susan
Blackmore has certainly exploded it with her book ‘The Meme Machine’. Within
this book, Blackmore goes on to deconstruct the idea of memes in order to
thoroughly evaluate it.
Blackmore suggests that most of our thoughts are potentially memes
that would die out if we don’t relate them to someone else. This, in fact, the
case for a lot of memes as people do not convey all their thoughts to another
From here, she then goes on to discuss the problem for humans that we
cannot stop thinking, ever. Dennett (1991) suggests that brains with memes have
much more information to store, but can also use the memes themselves as tools
for thinking. With this in mind, it could be that we can’t stop thinking as a result
of all of those memes inside our minds that are desperately trying to get copied.
Blackmore suggests that the best way to successfully achieve this is by
repetition and rehearsal. The goal of the meme is to repeatedly expose you to a
topic and make you keep rehearsing it in your head so that when you have a
conversation with another person, the meme may be passed on during the
Hurley and Chater (2005) go on to use memes in an attempt to explain big
brain theory, they have suggested that human ancestors had the capacity to
imitate. This imitation capacity gave memes a chance do develop and copy
themselves. As some of these memes may have contained survival information,
then this would serve to benefit the genes if they enabled the ability to
replicate memes. Here we find genes and memes working together in an almost
symbiotic relationship as the genes are allowing larger brain in order to improve
imitation and memes are passing on the survival information.
Although memetics appear to be an increasingly prominent area of
research, it remains a taboo for many academics. When reading about memes
you will often find the word ‘memes’ in inverted commas, as if to illustrate that
it is not a ‘real’ term. It also appears that a collection of the most respected
psychologists in this field do have memes featured anywhere in any of their
books, despite these areas being the most appropriate for the integration of
There appears to be a great deal of fear surrounding the introduction of
the meme as a crucial factor in human evolution. Throughout history there have
been many great shifts in the common beliefs regarding life and how it came
about. The last great shift was in 1859 with Charles Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’.
When this was first published, it was met with great hostility and rejection as
up until this point the general consensus was that all living things were created
by god and were therefore divine. Because of this, it is absolutely crucial that as
much research is done as possible to test its validity as many academics regard
meme theory to be the latest great shift that will revolutionise the way we look
at human evolution.
Jeffreys (2000) suggests that to call memes a meaningless metaphor is
somewhat redundant; he suggests that the question we should be asking is
whether or not memes are scientifically useful.