Friday, September 4, 2009

Genes, Memes, and Rick Astley (part 1)

I couldn't think of anything to say about today's Dinosaur Comic, so I'm going to post the first part of a thing I've been working on. Enjoy.


The word "meme" has been tossed around on the internet quite a lot, at least since the year 2001. 2002. Something in that area. I'd like to discuss what they are, what they aren't, and what they mean. After I've done all of that, I'll dissect all of the memes at work behind "Rick Rolling."

What a meme is has its roots in genetics. That sentence might make it seem here that it's "turtles all the way down," and you may be right, but I'm trying to start with the lowest interesting turtle here. Genes contain instructions for doing stuff in your body, and they are turned "on" and "off" as the need arises. Some of them are only "on" while you are growing, and some stay "on" all the time.

Some years ago, Richard Dawkins started to make popular the idea that genes are inherently selfish. (See his book "The Selfish Gene," if you want to learn more.) We tend to think of ourselves as organisms that spread ourselves by using genes, but it is equally true that genes use us to spread themselves. The idea has been very useful to biologists, because some mysteries of evolution made a lot more sense when they started thinking of things the other way around.

Within the same work, Dawkins is credited with inventing the word "meme" to refer to a unit of cultural transmission. Whether a meme is successful enough to get passed on can depend on a lot of things. To give one example, "You should care for your children" is a fairly successful meme, because it encourages the survival of those children, who can grow up to be vectors for the "care for your children" meme. But the seemingly harmful meme "it is noble to die for Christianity" survives because it brings a lot of attention to the religion, and the people of the religion talk in glowing terms about their martyrs. The meme only works because of all the other positive benefits people got from being Christian in the first three or four centuries of the religion.

In the next installment: "snowclones," and how internet memes fit into "traditional" memes.


Jessica Nicholas said...

But the first few centuries of Christianity were pretty crappy.

Sophasaurus said...

Oh, most definitely. But the martyrdom was free advertising! For some interesting reading on how Christianity's memes got it to become the dominant religion, I recommend Rodney Stark's The Rise of Christianity.