Sunday, March 4, 2012

A Memes to an End

Dangerous Memes can spread like a Pandemic:

Above is a picture of the 1918 influenza pandemic. A pandemic differs from an epidemic in that an epidemic is an outbreak of an infectious disease at a local level while a pandemic is one at a global scale. Thankfully, pandemics have not occurred often in the past century, but we have all seen this archetypical movie or book plot: A dangerous virus is caught by an unsuspecting victim in the dank depths of a humid, bat-infested jungle. It quickly rots away human brain tissue. This decaying of the brain is unknown to the victim for a period of time, just long enough for the unfortunate sufferer to make his way out of the jungle into a teeming metropolis where he rides many modes of public transportation, resulting in exponential spread of the dreaded virus. The original victim, of course, dies gruesomely in a large pool of their own bodily fluids. In fact Wikipedia has a list of fictional diseases that have been unleashed upon humanity ad infinitum. (View Wiki's List of Fictional Diseases).

Most of these books and movies assume that we will see symptoms of the disease shortly after being infected. What if this is not the case? What if the virus spreads silently, the carrier being infectious yet asymptomatic for many months if not years or decades? Those of the “mimetic persuasion” would argue that these potentially dangerous diseases already exist, yet they would say that these deadly infections are not made up of pathogenic DNA, but of ideas. How can something as simple as an idea be deadly?

Dan Dennet’s TED talk  “On Dangerous Memes” lists several infectious and potentially deadly ideas that have occurred in human history, including freedom, justice, truth, communism, capitalism, Catholicism, and Islam to name a few. You can view Dan Dennet's talk on dangerous memes here.

Dennet an American philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University, is of the “mimetic persuasion” or the belief that ideas or memes can replicate throughout the human population like a virus. Memes are simply units of information that can be passed from person to person. To survive and evolve memes need three simple things:

1.     Replication: Spread or transition of and idea through the population.
A baby texting while driving. This kid has obviously observed this behavior from her parents since she probably can’t read yet and therefore doesn’t understand the concept of texting. Yet this meme has spread throughout the population.
[Image Credit: Baby Texting while Driving]

Ok, this dog doesn’t know that it’s replicating a meme, but the photographer does.

2.     Selection: May the best man win:
Yikes! I meant to type in “May the best meme win” not “May the best man win” into google image search. But, we could say that the meme of Arnold has been selected for more times than the second place man next to him.

3.     Evolution: Humans are constantly adding onto ideas of others:
I think I like the chandelier best.

Dennet classifies different types of memes into different “species”. For example a word is a “meme species” that can be pronounced whereas a dance is meme that must spread by a person mimicking motions. While a word or dance is a simple “species” of meme, other memes could be more complex such as religions, political parities, or ideas of truth and justice. Dennet addresses the argument that some might say that religion and politics are not memes, but how are they spread if not through ideas? A book or video is a meme in and of itself. Why not the Bible, Torah, Koran, or a broadcasted political speech?

The reason that memes of religious and political nature are dangerous is that in the course of human history, these memes have consistently been touted as a “higher cause" for which to die for. The list of religious wars is a long one including the Thirty Years’ War (1618-1648), the French Wars of Religion (1562-1598) between Protestants and Catholics, the Second Sudanese Civil war (1983-2005), Crusades (1095-1291) between Islam and Christians. Many others including the conflict between Palestine and Israel, Pakistan and India, the Sikh Programs, the Abyssinian-Adal War, the Buddist Uprising, and the Chinese conflict demonstrate the consistency of religious conflicts.  Read more about Religious Wars here. In addition, wars have some type of political component associated with them. In our present day, the idea of a “country” has come to define the basic package of a political entity, while before it was a specific region or culture (Vikings, Romans, Ottomans).

Evolutionary History of Memes
A technical paper titled “The mimetic transition: a simulation study of the evolution of learning by imitation” by Paul Higgs, describes the evolutionary costs of developing the ability to have memes. In terms of energy required, the brain is at the top of the list. This means that the amount of food needed to maintain a gram of brain tissue is higher than your liver, kidneys, muscles, and every other tissue in your body. In other words, it is a “metabolic costly organ”, and so it is hard to imagine how it evolved. Along with the high-energy requirement, having a large brain necessitates having a large brain case which causes difficulties during childbirth, making the costs of evolving a large brain relatively high. This means that a large benefit or payoff would need to balance the costs. In Higgs’ paper he argues that the evolution of memes in humans did just this. The payoff for being able to manipulate the environment is large enough to promote the evolution of large brains capable of supporting many memes at once and that this evolution happened over a relatively short period called the “mimetic transition”.
You can see how learning ability evolved over generations in humans exponentially. The steep increase in learning ability around 3200 corresponds to the mimetic transition.

Higgs argues that this mimetic transition increased the “fitness” of humans: because humans had the ability to better manipulate their environment, they could survive and reproduce at a higher rate, and eventually produce high numbers of individuals that we see today in populations. After the end of the last glacial period, cultures subsisted on hunting and gathering. However, around 8000BCE, agriculture was invented, and the world population began to grow at a higher rate. Here is a graph of the world population since 2000BC taken from Worldometers, which estimates population based on data from the United Nations.
Looks like have done a lot of growing in the past 500 years!

Some of the highlights of human memes that have caused the population explosion could be:
-The invention of the wheel
-Domestication of animals
-Domestication of crops
-Invention of plumbing or sanitation systems
-Clean water sources

Coevolution of Humans and Memes
While humans make memes, what is the effect of memes on humans? Susan Blackmore argues in her TED talk that the interaction between humans and memes is not a one-way street, but rather a two way one; humans have influenced the evolution of memes and memes have influenced the evolution of humans. How is this possible? Susan Blackmore lists several examples of this such as the evolution of speech. So, we could look at words as a product of human minds, but we could also look at the way words have allowed the human brain to evolve. So while the initial words produced by humans were simple:

The human brain evolved to support more complex patterns of speech:

But the introduction of technology might change the course of human evolution as well:

Susan Blackmore suggests that the evolution of memes are like “opening Pandora’s box” and that with the invention of technology we have added another “layer” of memes called temes. In Blackmore's TED talk, she defines memes as ideas that spread from person to person like a virus would. Unlike memes, temes can spread via technology and don’t need person-to-person contact. The potential reach is as large as the audience that hears them on the TV, internet or radio. Perhaps we have already seen the effect of temes in Hitler’s war propaganda. By the 1940s most people had radios in their household and some had access to video. This allowed for a faster spread of ideas than was possible before technology, and thus WWII demonstrated the consequences of the rapid dissemination of memes.

What does the future hold?
So, what is the biggest threat facing humanity today? I would argue that the two greatest threats are 1) the threat of war and 2) human culture does not support a sustainable future. Craig Venter would argue that the threat of the destruction of the environment is the major issue facing humanity today. In his 2007 interview with New Scientist he said “We really need to find an alternative to taking carbon out of the ground, burning it, and putting it into the atmosphere. That is the single biggest contribution I could make”. What are memes or temes that threaten our survival?  More importantly, how we can use the idea of viral memes and temes to spread the idea of sustainability and peace?

Links & Image Credits (In order of appearance):

Images (In order of Appearance):


Blackmore, S. (June, 2008). Susan Blackmore on memes and “temes”. [Video file]. Retrieved from

Current World Population. In Worldometers Real Time Statistics. Retrieved March 4, 2012, from

Dennet, D. (July, 2007). Dan Dennet on dangerous memes. [Video file]. Retrieved from

Duncan JJ. (May 21, 2010). Craig Venter Successfully Creates Synthetic Life. Retrieved March 4, 2012, from

Higgs, Paul G. 2000. The Mimetic Transition: A Simulation Study of the Evolution of Learning by Imitation. Proceedings: Biological Sciences 267(1450): 1355-1361.

List of fictional diseases. In Wikipedia. Retrieved March 4, 2012, from           

1 comment:

  1. I thoroughly enjoyed the way this blog was constructed seamlessly flowing from one clear, concise point to another, and the use of the images and cartoons was excellent. In particular, the image of the toddler texting is the perfect example of a picture being worth a thousand words. It clearly exemplified the concept of a meme as something that is imitated with less emphasis on conceptualization and idea-generation since the toddler cannot at that point even understand the significance or meaning of what she is doing, she is simply imitating and if another toddler observed her and was given a cell phone, the other toddler would probably do the same even without having seen parents doing it.

    The idea of deadly ideas versus fitness-increasing ideas is an interesting one. The example of religious ideas (via religious wars) or political ideas being deadly memes as suggested by Dan Dennett seems problematic to me for two reasons. First off, my own philosphical perspective is that most wars, even "religious" ones are rooted in more fundamental causes such as group (ethnic/national) conflicts and competition for territory and economic resources for those groups, a Marxist or Malthusian perspective. This is obviously a huge area of philosophical debate but I think religious motivations for war have simply been a cover, a justification for motives that are more base. In this view, these wars were inevitable regardless of whether religion or political ideology (e.g. Soviet Union-era communism) was added as justification.

    The other thing that seems problematic about the religion or political ideology as deadly meme seems to be the fact that religions and ideology are remarkably persistent. It seems that if they were so deadly, they would not continue to be selected. Perhaps the deadly traits are mixed with fitness-inducing traits for civilization.

    To me, the most puzzling thing about meme theory is the successful reprodcution and apparent persistence of memes that seem either neutral or entirely disadvantageous. While we may get excited about the potential for civilization-and-earth-saving memes such as the concept of sustainability, it seems that the memes or temes that are reproducing most successfully now are completely inane and trivial memes, everything revolving around celebrities and funny videos, the net affect which seems to be the growing apathy and uninformed nature of society as a whole about things that are actually critical to our survival. As announced in the title of Neil Postman's ground-breaking book in the 1985, we may be "Entertaining Ourselves to Death."