Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Meme, Genes, and BOOK KITTEH!

Not dead, just lazy. In an attempt to sort out things into nice and neat categories...well let's just say I failed. So in an attempt to get this started (and to prevent me from getting burned out again) I'm going to just go through things a few at a time in no particular order...and probably post some random stuff later as well. After all this isn't a class, and practical learning can be interesting.

What is a meme?

First off it rhymes with "gene", seriously!
While many people, at least those computer-savy enough to be reading this, know of internet memes such as lolcats and Chuck Norris facts very few seem to be aware of the word's origins.

The term "meme" was coined by biologist and author Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene .

"We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory', or to the French word meme. It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'."
-Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

Memes are a unit like watts or grams that is used to represent ideas that can be transferred between people. Like genes, memes can replicate through transmission through hosts and spread. Unlike genes however, memes are not constrained to spreading through biological means. A gene (for the most part) can only be transferred if it's host bears young. Memes however can be passed from person to person and can therefore spread through an entire population in no time at all. Memes that aren't very good at getting spread ultimately disappear and go extinct, but I'll go more in depth about selection in a later post.

Like genes, memes can change over time, but again memes can changer quicker and easier than genes. Anyone can easily add something or change a meme, but it's ability to stay around again depends how how well it's able to spread. For instant someone modified the lolcats meme to include ceiling cat and it has spread due to being repeated on the internet and being popular with it's hosts of internet users.

If I decide I want to make a book cat ("Book Kitteh!: Iz always nommin ur bookz!") the success of that as a meme depends on how well I am able to transmit it (how popular this blog becomes) as well as how likely people are to transmit it when they get it (an inherent part of the meme; kind of like a gage of how funny, how cute, ect).

So there you have it. Memes are ideas that act like genes; they are under selection pressures and can evolve. Of course there is some controversy over meme evolution. The difficulty in defining and measuring meme units and how they change can be a problem when wanting to have a meme theory suitable for use in explaining our cultural evolution. Also, while lolcats may not be interpreted in a way other than "lols" many of our ideas can be, and replications of memes like "don't count your chickens before they hatch" can have a variety of different meanings to different people. For example someone can take it literally, some one can take a meaning about not putting faith in something they don't have. Despite this memes remain an interesting way of thinking about the world, and since the word is in such use you might as well understand a little more about it.

Genes do indirectly control the manufacture of bodies, and the influence is strictly one way: acquired characteristics are not inherited. No matter how much knowledge and wisdom you acquire during your life, not one jot will be passed on to your children by genetic means. Each new generation starts from scratch.
-Richard Dawkins

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