Measured Against Reality

Friday, December 01, 2006

I Hate "Memes"

I like Richard Dawkins. I think he’s a bright guy who has written some brilliant stuff. I love The Selfish Gene. But to be honest, I absolutely hate memes. Every time I see the word my blood boils.

If you’re not familiar with a meme, Dawkins coined the term in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene as a term for inheritable ideas. The rest of the book deals with genes as the basic units of selection for organisms, and Dawkins uses created this parallel concept as the basic unit of selection for culture. Memes are transmitted via cultural avenues, and they find a “home” in people’s minds. “Successful” memes are the ones that “infect” the most minds for the longest periods of time. Memes can even mutate, just as genes do.

You can probably tell from that description that this obviously goes on. Any fad ever can be described like this, and with the internet it’s really easy to track (and it has been done). The problem is that this is obviously not what’s going on. Memes aren’t a scientific hypothesis. They don’t predict anything, they just describe the world in a way that doesn’t really add meaningfully to discourse about any subject.

Sure, now we have a new, cute little word to describe fads and trends of all types, but that’s all that memes will ever be, and people need to stop using it as though they’re an actual, concrete thing. I’d love it if people would stop using the word meme and just use trend, fad, fashion, craze, or some other made-up word that doesn’t have the baggage meme does. But that won’t happen, because “meme” is a quite successful meme.

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  • I certainly don't think meme is the perfect descriptor of the movements of ideas in the world. However, I think it's a fair concept different from trend, fad etc. Those concepts imply something temporary, whereas meme's like religious belief find ways to survive inspite of good evidence to dispute them available to most people. I think it would be interesting to have a stronger study into how ideas develop and are carried through societies.

    By Blogger Bill, at 1:08 PM, December 01, 2006  

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