Sunday, March 4, 2012

Memes & Cultural Evolution: Can Humans Control the Spread of Ideas?

Memes and Cultural Evolution: Can humans control the spread of ideas?

By Ashley Bateman, Biology Graduate Student, Institute for Ecology & Evolution at the University of Oregon-Eugene

Culture and Evolution
Early tool use by humans was pretty darn important.

Culture has long been thought of as one of the primary ways in which humans differ from the rest of the animal kingdom, and some would argue that humanity's sophisticated societies that have been built on the foundations of culture have been a major contributor to the undeniable success of our species’ survival. One could easily imagine a time in which a particular early human was ingenious and creative enough to invent a new tool or new hunting or agricultural technique, liked it so much that he passed this idea to his family and friends, then within the immediate community, and if successful enough, eventually spreading the idea to more distant communities. The development of the wheel is one such example. According to our best estimates,the concept of the wheel first appeared in the mid 4th millennium BC relatively simultaneously in Mesopotamia, the Northern Caucasus, and Central Europe, and spread from these areas across Eurasia, first reaching the Indus Valley by the 3rd millennium BC, and China and Scandinavia by 1200 BC. One can easily understand that the acquisition and mastery of an idea as fundamental to industrialized progress such as the wheel would provide a substantial survival advantage to those who possess it. This spread of ideas at the dawn of human civilization could be thought of as one of the important moments of human cultural evolution.

Significantly, this birth of cultural development can be correlated to the evolution and development of the cognitive ability to imitate, to learn, and to teach these new ideas to others. In 2000, Paul Higgs authored an article in the journal Proceedings: Biological Sciences that modeled the relationship between imitative ability and the mean fitness of the population. In other words, Higgs elegantly demonstrated a model under which the human brain evolved in the way that it has, because of selection of the ability to imitate, and that this phenomenon in turn drove selection for humans‘ unusually large brain and high cognitive ability. Selection for "good ideas" that enhanced survival, drove selection for our big brains, while our big brains drove selection for these "good ideas". Almost looks like a co-evolutionary arms race, doesn't it?

The Selfish "Meme"?

 In his book “The Selfish Gene” written in 1976, Richard Dawkins first coined the term “meme” to describe what Higgs is now modeling in a much more concrete way. Susan Blackmore (her TED talk you can find at the end of this post) has been fundamental in popularizing the idea of a meme as a pseudo-biological entity with characteristics that we can conceptualize under the umbrella of "Universal Darwinism". (I owe her much for this project). Very similar to the concept of an idea, a meme is a discrete unit that is imitated and passed from one person to another, or perhaps more specifically and significantly, from one mind to another. I emphasize the word "imitated" because that is truly the most important characteristic of a meme. At their core, memes are simply replicators, they are "that which is imitated" and therefore transmitted using the human mind as its incubator.

Memes can take many forms, from the seemingly useless (like current fashions or trends), to memes that have killed millions (e.g. anti-semitism), and also to memes that have changed the trajectory of our civilizations (i.e. vaccinations, internet). There are some memes (like “Tebowing”) that have been able to spread so quickly and so far, that we see their imitation in the remote regions of the African continent all the way from their origin on North American football fields.

Memes can be transmitted, or replicated, vertically from parents to offspring, or horizontally from peer to peer. Whether the recipient learns and imitates the meme, depends on the various features of attractiveness of that meme. We all hear thousands of new memes every day, and we make both conscious and unconscious choices as to the memes that we decide to learn, imitate, and thus spread to others. This is selection at its most basic level: memes vary, more memes are “created” than can “survive”, and those memes that pass on traits that enhance survival for the host are passed on. Furthermore, these memes change along the way. Memes are selected for both at an organismal level (the individual brain) and a population level (societal pressures). However, it is possible that certain memes will actually
May the best meme win!
have a detrimental effect on the host, and yet they still continue to selfishly spread for their own benefit of survival. How can this be? We know from models of population genetics that there are ways in which detrimental genes are maintained in populations, in spite of the effect on the individual host; it seems likely that an analogous mechanism is at work in the case of detrimental memes. (See Holly Arnold's post for further exploration of detrimental memes). 

Furthermore, it seems clear that some memes cannot coexist, and that these memes would actually be in competition with one another, in much the same way that interspecies or intraspecies competition occurs within an ecological context. We are beginning to understand that Darwin’s theory of natural selection can be easily applied to the evolution of memes, and more generally, cultural evolution in humans.

Viral Memes

Can we think of memes in even more concrete terms? I would argue that memes can be modeled like a virus; people are susceptible to receiving a meme, people can be infected by a meme and thus capable of transmitting it to others, or people can be removed from either of those groups (either they have chosen to ignore the meme, or they have forgotten about it and the specific meme has been replaced by others). Thinking about memes in a viral context shows the true nature of memes; that they can be thought of as efficiently infective organisms that use humans as a host to replicate and spread throughout the human population. It is hard not to use "viral" language to describe memes in the first place. Memes are spread through populations, they are transmitted from one person to another, or to multiple people, they cannot replicate on their own, but need a host to do so. The comparisons seem endless.

Over the past 50 years, memes have changed significantly in the way that they disperse. The internet has become an especially important way in which memes are communicated from one person to the next, eliminating the need for face-to-face contact like never before. Sites like Failblog and IcanhazCheezburger are wildly popular, and new “viral videos” are born every day. In fact, there is a website that is completely
Examples of IcanHazCheezburger memes.
devoted to hosting a variety of these sorts of images and memes, called (I wouldn't look at it if you have other things to do, however, as it is infinitely entertaining.) 

I propose that the internet acts as a repository for memes in the same way that seed banks, or other analogous ecological phenomena, act as a type of holding area for genes. For example, after many years of dormancy, we could stumble onto a forgotten meme on the internet and it would spread from there, much like the "Rick Rolling" craze a few years ago. The internet makes spreading memes in this way to a vast number of minds extraordinarily easy to accomplish. But why are human beings so infatuated with imitating and perpetuating these seemingly useless memes that don’t seem to enhance our survival in the same way as the invention of the wheel did a few millennia ago? I propose that in today’s increasingly growing and simulataneously disconnected society, these memes are a way of group-identification and symbolize group membership. The need to have shared experiences with others is a powerful human drive, and the ability to recognize, imitate, and share these images provides a familiar way to get at fulfilling that ancient need; using memes to connect. Humans have been co-evolving with memes for as long as we have had the ability to imitate and learn ideas, concepts, and behaviors from others around us. The memes use us to replicate and evolve, while we use memes to build our societies and enhance our survival as a species.

Controlling Memes 

Thinking of ideas as living organisms that that spread at many different scales, in small groups, communities, cities, countries, and increasingly at the global scale, as if they are subject to the biological laws of Darwinism, provides a new way to think about the dissemination and spread of important cultural phenomena. If we can better understand how this spread of memes works using ecological and evolutionary theory, could we prevent bad memes from spreading, and enhance the spread of positive memes, like sustainability or social justice? This could be analogous to the way in which we can control (to some extent) the spread of a virus through vaccinations. When Mendel proposed his Theory of Inheritance, he wasn’t aware of what a DNA molecule, a gene, or a chromosome was. He was, however, still able to explain the basic principles of inheritance using his observations. 

I propose that even though we may not completely understand the neuropsychological basis of memes, we can still explain the basic principles of “Mimetic Inheritance”. Through advances in cognitive neuroscience and the increasing power of computer modeling, it seems reasonable that we can begin to understand the spread of memes, what factors facilitate the spread of memes, and what we can do as the hosts of these memes to affect the trajectory or outcome of the spread of memes, both good and bad. Understanding that memes are something we can model, predict, and perhaps control, will be a new meme in itself. Memes have been so important in our past, why wouldn't they be just as critical for our future? 

Look for our TED conversation that will be posted 3/6-3/8 on this topic!

Blackmore, Susan. (February 2008). Susan Blackmore on memes and ‘temes’.
Dawkins, R. (1999). The Selfish Meme. Time, 153(15), 52
Higgs, Paul G. 2000. The Mimetic Transition: A Simulation Study of the Evolution of Learning by Imitation. Proceedings: Biological Sciences. Vol. 267 : No. 1450. pp. 1355-1361.

Images from,,, (in order of appearance)

1 comment:

  1. Lots of interesting ideas (memes about memes!) in this blog. One thing that has struck me about the meme theory or at least the discussion of meme theory, is a certain fuzziness or confusion in definitions. Or perhaps it's just hard to wrap my mind all around it. For instance, it is common to refer to memes as "ideas" and this post, itself, starts out with that definition, but as Susan Blackmore states (to which this post refers), a meme is "not an idea" but simply "that which is replicated." This distinction makes meme theory more parallel to classic Darwinian evolution in that genes are also not objects of creativity but are simply parcels of information that are replicated and changes in genes come about through chance and mutation not creative acts. While a definition of a meme simply as "that which is replicated" makes it a more "pure" theory (my words) parallel to biological evolution, such a definition would seem to ignore the apparent creativity, idea-producing nature of humans, further removing any mystery or spirituality (in the broadest sense) in our production of ideas. That may be the point, but whether humans are creators first or primarily imitators of randomly produced memes is an interesting distinction to consider.

    Another fuzzy area: this post mentions both "vertical" and "horizontal" transmission and "inherited memes," but it seems to me that all meme transmission is horizontal (i.e. through imitation or technology) without a means of true inheritability in the same way genes are passed from parent to child. The analogy of viral transmission (as discussed in the presentation) seems much more apt than inherited transmission. There is no fundamental difference between transmission of a meme from parent to child (described as vertical here) and transmission from friend to friend (described as horizontal here), both use the same mechanism of imitation.

    The final fuzzy area which elicits my curiosity the most is that of scale of organization. That is, are memes most analogous to genes or to species. The other post suggests that memes may be grouped into species. At what point does a group of memes become a species? And what about the individual in between the gene and species? At what scale are memes selected?

    There is a question about what controls the rate of a memes spread... and another questions revolves around why "bad" (or deleterious) memes persist. I keep thinking that if memes are thought of being more species-like in scale, one might postulate that there are essentially two different meme strategies analogous to r and k type organisms. Some memes spread rapidly but have a short life span, the pioneer species of the meme world, think of viral videos, here today, gone tomorrow. Other memes spread more slowly but have greater longevity and competitive ability, i.e. most of the great political and religious ideas, analogous to organisms with low reproduction rates but high competitive ability. It is these memes that are also most likely to be incompatible, their strategy is not to reproduce most rapidly but to occupy and dominate their niche once established. I like this way of thinking about memes, but it seems to work at more of a species scale than genetic scale.