We sleep in a world filled with rick-rolls, dat bois, and grumpy cats. And marketers everywhere want their brand-building ad campaigns to go viral. Memes have gone from being a word you were not sure the way to pronounce, to the bewitching lure that gets us onto Facebook every morning. Nobody wants to miss the dank new memes.
Well, I guess, you almost certainly know what a meme is. There are tons of various ways you’ll define it, but basically, a meme is a cultural idea or behavior that spreads between people without genes being involved. On the web, a cultural idea might take the shape of a grumpy cat or a demotivational poster.
But the word “meme” is older than you would possibly think, it’s actually older than the internet. it was first coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in 1976, in his book The Selfish Gene. in that book, Dawkins proposed that a meme was sort of a gene for information and that our evolution has been driven as much by memes as by our genes.
I’m gonna tell you about that idea, which means I’m spreading a meme right now. according to our current understanding of how Darwinian evolution works, life, altogether of its varied and sometimes super weird forms, turned out this manner as a result of genes competing with others for survival.
A gene may be a set of instructions written in your DNA. Those instructions tell your cells to make proteins. With different combinations of proteins, you’ll find yourself with anything from blue eyes, to a 3rd arm growing out of your forehead. Humans have somewhere between twenty to 25 thousand genes, and 99% of them are all equivalent for everyone. They tell your cells the way to cause you to be an individual , and not a cucumber.
Some people say that things like self-sacrifice, or selflessness, cannot be explained by thinking folks as little meat-machines that only exist to expire our genes. On the opposite hand, self-sacrifice can benefit the survival of other gene-carriers within the family and community. And selflessness doesn’t impair a gene’s ability to spread such a lot that it might be forced out of our DNA.
But one thing that basically doesn’t add up is that the ridiculous size of our brains. Genetically speaking, music, and art, and YouTube are probably pointless. My capacity to wonder about my place within the universe isn’t helping me make babies.
And, the very fact that I have been ready to remember the way to do the Macarena since 1993 isn’t getting to be what keeps me alive. Our brains could probably be way smaller, and that we might be way less intelligent without it being harder to spread our genes in the least. In fact, a smaller brain would help us spread our genes.
During birth, the humongous size of a person’s baby’s head can cause complications that threaten the lives of both the mother and therefore the baby. A smaller head would mean more surviving moms and babies — and more surviving genes. So why can we have such big brains, and behaviors that don’t necessarily affect the genes we pass on?
Here’s what meme theory suggests: we didn’t just evolve to spread our genes, we also evolved to spread memes. once we say that a meme is sort of a gene, we mean that super literally. A meme may be a carrier of data , sort of a gene carries genetic information; it replicates itself across a population and competes with other memes for survival.
Genes compete with other genes because there’s only such a lot room in your DNA for various instructions. Successful genes flourish, while unsuccessful genes die out. Memes compete with other memes because our brainpower and a spotlight spans are limited.
So, if memes are like genes, then you’d think the memes that help us survive are those that get to spread. And that’s kind of true. the primary memes definitely helped us stay alive. About two and a half million years before lolcat, early humans were arising with sick memes like “making fire” and “language.” Yeah — those are memes! They’re information, that spread across entire populations, by non-genetic means. and that they gave an enormous advantage to anyone smart enough to use them.
The thing is, genetic evolution may be a lot slower than memetic evolution. Ideas can affect a whole community in only a couple of hours. But changing our genes takes generations. So you don’t get a gene for creating fire, and a gene for speaking Basque. There are too many memes. They happen too fast. Our DNA can’t continue.
Instead, your genes suit the truth that being carried around in an organism that will understand and replicate memes may be a bargain for them. So genes that cause you to smarter start exposure. Genes that make your brain bigger. Genes that make it easier for you to duplicate information.
Humans have a fantastic ability to repeat one another. If you show me the way to do something enough times, I’ll probably find out how to try that thing. a couple of other animals can do this: whales, for instance, can copy each other’s whale song. and a few species of apes will copy each other’s methods for getting ants out of logs.
But this type of memetic replication is super rare across the Animalia. And humans are ridiculously good at it. If we were dropped within the middle of the woods, I could make a hatchet by banging some rocks together until you’ve got a blade, use the hatchet to chop down some trees, then use the trees to create a shelter.
After watching me do all that inky one time, you’d just about skills to try to to it, too. that’s wild! And it shows you ways beneficial it are often that we evolved the power to duplicate memes. But now that we’ve that ability, I can draw a frog wearing a dress hat , riding a unicycle, and there’s an honest chance you’ll plan to spread that meme, too.
Which brings us back to internet memes. the power to duplicate memes is so beneficial that our genes have adapted to form us specialized at it. We are now SO good at it, that the majority of the memes we spread don’t benefit our survival in the least . But that’s okay because of the few that do affect our survival structure for the remainder. Like not getting to the restroom in our beverage. that’s a superb meme.
Memes propagate within the so-called “meme pool” by spreading from mind to mind. the foremost successful memes, just like the most successful genes, are those that survive the longest, while mutating the smallest amount . for instance , the thought of using something sort of a wagon to move things from one place to a different, rather than carrying everything around on your back, is so successful that we’ve been doing it since the dawn of human civilization.
By this measure, internet memes aren’t nearly as successful. They spread fast, but they mutate wildly, and most have a lifespan of only a couple of months, or maybe a couple of weeks. In other words, they act less sort of a gene you would possibly find in your genome and more sort of a virus.
When you’re infected by an epidemic, just like the kind that provides you a chilly, the virus doesn’t become a neighborhood of your DNA. The virus has its own DNA or RNA, and it hijacks your cells so as to supply the proteins that allow it to duplicate itself. But viruses got to mutate extremely quickly to stay being effective.
When an epidemic infects a cell, it attaches itself to the cell’s membrane and injects its genetic material into the cell. But your system fights back. It learns the way to identify the virus, attacks it, and blocks the receptors on your cell that allow the virus to bind to them.
That’s why colds usually aren’t fatal. Most viruses that will infect you simply have a couple of days in your body before your system wipes them out. Once everyone in your community has developed an immunity to an epidemic, it can’t replicate anymore, so it dies out. That is unless it mutates. Once an epidemic mutates, your system must learn new tricks to fight it. Internet memes seem to figure an equivalent way.
They’re infectious as long as the will successfully mutate. Once you’ve been exposed to all or any of a meme’s mutations, though, it loses its effectiveness. That’s why memes from six months ago usually don’t seem that funny. Essentially, your brain has immunized you against them. Our genes have turned us into incredible meme replicators. But if we were fascinated by every meme that smacked us within the brain, we’d never get anything done. we’d never get around to breeding. We’d just sit around watching videos on YouTube all day. Like… quite we already do.
So our genes also give us the power to acclimate to new ideas and eventually block them out. once you get uninterested in a thought you’ve seen before, especially a thought that isn’t useful to you, that’s a symbol that your mind’s meme system is functioning. But there are many internet memes out there, and many of those that appear to possess many potential to travel viral, never do.
So what’s it about some memes that make them better at spreading than others? it’d be random. In 2012, researchers at Indiana University published a study describing how virality works on Twitter. They analyzed 120 million retweets made by quite 12 million users, then created a computer model to simulate Twitter — including Twitter users.
The program randomly retweeted things. You’d think that might make all tweets equally popular… but that’s not what the researchers found. Some tweets within the simulated Twitter-verse went viral, while most were quickly forgotten.
The team proposed that this was because the simulated users had a limited span, and will only view a little fraction of the entire number of tweets — a bit like how it works within the world . So once a tweet was randomly selected to be retweeted, that doubled its chances of being retweeted again because more people would see it. Most of the retweets wouldn’t be retweeted again, but a number of them would.
And some of these would be randomly selected to be retweeted again, and again. The further a tweet spread, the more simulated users got an opportunity to ascertain it, and potentially spread it. Literally random chance guarantees that some memes will go viral, while most will die out quickly.
Now, the meme theory remains controversial. It’s hard to actually know if we’ve evolved to propagate ideas. tons of scientists don’t just like the concept, because it’s tough to form predictions with concrete, observable results using meme theory.