Written by Jinwan Cho
When we think of memes, we usually imagine poorly drawn frogs with varied facial expressions, syntactically error-prone shiba dogs, or, for Berkeley students, the UC Berkeley Memes for Edgy Teens Facebook page. For most of us, memes are just some random facebook posts on which we tag our friends for a few laughs. Illustrative of this view, a satirical article from the Northwestern Flipside that claimed the university was offering a major in meme studies was bombarded with aggressive comments that attacked the modern generation for pursuing disciplines that have no real world implications, without understanding its satirical nature.
Angry Pepe the Frog vs. Smug Pepe the Frog
However, contrary to popular belief that memes refer solely to juvenile internet images that serve no meaningful purpose, memes have a far more profound definition as units of cultural transmission. Defined by Merriam-Webster Dictionary as “an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture, the term “meme” traces its roots to The Selfish Gene by famed evolutionary biologist and author Richard Dawkins, who uses it as a cultural analog to biological genes and created the word from the Greek word “mimeme” meaning “to imitate”. In fact, Dawkins believed that memes were similarly subject to evolutionary pressures like genes were and that they evolved through replication and proliferation under the influence of natural selection. Just as genes responsible for the most reproductive success go on to spread and change over time while other, counterproductive genes head for extinction, popular memes flourish, spread, and ultimately mutate, whereas unpopular ones fade into obscurity and effectively suffer cultural “extinction.”
Delving a bit deeper, there are three basic requirements to meme evolution. First, there must be a variation in memes - biologically akin to animals with varying genetic characteristics surviving in the wild. Second, just as the longevity of one animal does not dictate a gene’s reproductive success, memes cannot be reproductively successful confined to a single host; rather meme must be transmitted fundamentally through imitation - replicating from one mind to the next - as well as interaction with other memes. These memes collectively form the meme pool, which is the memetic equivalent of a gene pool, or populating of interbreeding genes. Finally, there must be a differential reproductive success among memes within the meme pool; crucially, successful memes do not necessarily benefit the mind in which it resides, but rather survive in of itself. The easiest example for illustrating this idea is rhymes - a meme that contains rhymes are generally more successful than those that do not, but this does not necessarily aid the survival of the host human and only enhances the longevity of the meme itself. Another example is chain mail that places curses on the well-being of you or your family members, which compels receivers to forward them to other contacts even at the risk of appearing irrational or stupid.
The above information derives from the academic discipline known as memetics, or the study of memes. Any further discussion into the field is rather complex, involving discussions of cultural artifacts, computational algorithms for meme evolution, and even neuroimaging. Furthermore, the entire field of memetics is mired in controversy, resulting from those rejecting the core idea of a replicating, transmitting, and mutating unit of culture or those considering memetics as a outright pseudoscience with no evidentiary basis. So while I have briefly explain the mechanism of meme evolution, be aware that the very validity of this field is still debated, and anyone wishing to look further into the subject should look to other, more detailed sources for a more comprehensive understanding of memes.
The aforementioned explanation of meme evolution does not do the contentious field justice, but I think it still manages to highlight the fact that memes are not just funny photos found online, but rather complex cultural mechanism that warrants serious academic debate. Particularly, I draw your attention to the concept of memetic reproductive success. Among the most common mistakes that early evolutionary biologist made was assuming that evolution is a path toward some mysterious higher purpose, that there was some theoretically perfect final destination we are heading toward. However, we now understand that natural selection dictates evolution, such that the driving force of evolution is the capacity for survival within the given external conditions. Similarly, the evolution of memes rely only on its capacity to survive in the current cultural context, often disregarding the factual accuracy of the meme content. That is to say, a meme without any factual basis can spread, flourish, and mutate if it has more potential to “go viral,” whereas a fact-based meme may easily suffer extinction if it just doesn’t have the same flashiness.
This is perhaps the most quintessential lesson we should take away from memetics, whether we fully subscribe to its academic merit or not. The claim that Earth is flat, or the belief that vaccinations induce autism, or the ridiculous notion that any one race is genetically superior than another is, in essence, a meme, and a quite successful one to boot. (Before I go on, I must mention that the claim in the above meme is based on gross misinterpretation of warning labels which lists all adverse events regardless of proven causal link to vaccines. The one academic paper supporting the autism-vaccine relationship was retracted in 2010 following a lengthy investigation, which concluded that no evidence exists to correlate vaccines. But the damage was already done, hence this meme exists.)
In today’s world, none of these memes neither impart any advantage in fitness to their hosts nor rely on factual evidence but nonetheless thrive and continue to replicate, spread, and mutate. On one hand, I suppose these memes must possess some qualities that enhance their fitness; one research suggest that the uniqueness of internet memes is directly related to the success of the memes, so I suppose the absurdity of these ideas give them some level of originality and thus fitness in the meme pool. On the other hand, their success also illustrate our long-held disregard for empirical evidence, our continual enabling of memes that just satisfy some inner need at the expense of facts. In this age of increased connectivity and use of internet memes as a propaganda tool, at least understanding this characteristic of memes is essential for us to understand that memes are not all fun and jokes, but representation of what we culturally value. Perhaps this conclusion is far too serious for an article about memes, so I will leave you with one of the progenitors of the modern internet meme, one that we can all be truly proud of:
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