Memes 101: How Cultural Evolution Works

We are what we are because of genes; we are who we are because of memes. Philosopher Daniel Dennett muses on an idea put forward by Richard Dawkins in 1976.

Daniel Dennett: Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. And what he proposed was that human culture was composed, at least in part, of elements, units that were like genes in that they were copied and copied and copied and copied and copied. And it was the differential copying, the differential replication of these items, these memes that accounted for the excellent design of so much in human culture. And this is a very repugnant and offensive idea to many people, especially in the humanities. They wanted to hang onto the idea of the God like genius creator who out of sheer conscious brilliant comprehension makes all these wonderful things, whether they're poems or bridges or whatever. He was saying in effect well yes people do make amazing things, but if you look at the projects in detail you see that they couldn't do that if they hadn't filled their head with all these informational things, which are like genes, which are also information. But they're not fast down through the germ line. They're not passed down through the sperm and the egg. You don't get them with your genes. You get them from the ambient culture, from your parents, from your peers, from the society in which you're raised. It requires perception.

Now a lot of people think we'll wait a minute there's a huge disanalogy here. Genes are DNA. What's the DNA of memes? And the first thing you have to appreciate is; no genes aren't DNA. Genes are the information carried by the DNA. Genes are no more DNA than poems are made of ink. I mean you can send somebody a poem that's written in ink or you can say it aloud. There's many different ways of transmitting that poem or saving that poem from one place to another.

The same thing is true of genes. Once you get used to thinking of genes as not DNA but the information carried by the patterns of the nucleotides of DNA, then you can see that there really is a nice parallel. Well then what's playing the role of DNA in the land of culture? What are the physical implementations? Well, they are wonderfully various. There is ink on paper. There's lines carved into stones. There's lines drawn in the sand. There's skywriting. And, of course, there's what we're doing right now – there's audible language.

And one of the great features of language, not sufficiently appreciated by those who aren't linguists, is that what makes language a potent medium for the transmission of information is that it's digitized in the same way that DNA is digitized. It's composed of fundamental elements, in the case of DNA it's ACGT, four different nucleotides. In the case of language it's 20 to 30 phonemes. We are designed to pick up the phonemes of our native language and then automatically we categorize incoming utterances by correcting them to the norm of whatever the phonemes in our language are. And it doesn't matter whether I say doooog or dog or doog or dog or dog, it all comes out as a dog. It doesn't take any effort to recognize that these are all tokens of the same type. That's digitization. And that's what makes it possible to transmit information from one person to another to another and the person in the middle doesn't have to understand what it means. All they have to do is copy the sequence of phonemes and the message will get through.

It looks as if we're pretty stupid. We're just walking breathing vectors that are carrying all these memes around in our heads sort of like having a cold, like viruses. And they are like viruses. And the first memes were even more like viruses because they weren't particularly useful. They were just habits that were catchy in one way or another and they spread or not and they didn't have to do any good they just had to be not too harmful. As long as their vectors stayed alive and spread them then they could spread, they could thrive just like the cold virus. The cold virus isn't for anything except for making more copies of the cold virus and early memes were just like that. 

But eventually competition for utility arose. And now memes, whether they were words or other ways of doing things that actually were of benefit would spread differentially because there were better ways of doing things that could be not even recognized it's just that those who adopted them fared better than those who didn't. And before you know it you have competitive differential replication of cultural items and that's what does all the heavy lifting and design work in getting human culture off the ground.

It's only very recently that we've had people who style themselves as meme creators, as designers of memes. Think about coined words. You have a vocabulary 50, 60, 70,000 words. Very few of them were deliberately coined by anybody, yet they're all useful and they are all robust enough to survive until they go extinct, words go extinct all the time. And so it is with culture much more generally. It's composed of elements which have histories. They have lineages. They can combine in ways that genes normally don't but can. And the result is this tremendous creative stew of differential replication, creating ideas that people latch onto and benefit from without having to understand why they're good or how they're good and they never would have invented them themselves. That is a brilliant piece of engineering and nobody invented it.

 

 

Ever wondered where the word ‘meme’ comes from? Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett explains the term, coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, and its effects on our lives and history. How did we, as a species, become what we are – or more relevantly who we are? Natural selection and genetic evolution have made our physical bodies, but we are so much more than a collection of cells. We are also a conscious community, with language, music, cooking, art, poetry, dance, rituals, and humor. Dennett explains how these behaviors are the product of our cultural evolution. Memes are cultural replicators that spread like viruses, and only the most advantageous – or "the fittest" – of them survive. Daniel Dennett's most recent book is From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds.


Are we really addicted to technology?

Fear that new technologies are addictive isn't a modern phenomenon.

Credit: Rodion Kutsaev via Unsplash
Technology & Innovation

This article was originally published on our sister site, Freethink, which has partnered with the Build for Tomorrow podcast to go inside new episodes each month. Subscribe here to learn more about the crazy, curious things from history that shaped us, and how we can shape the future.

In many ways, technology has made our lives better. Through smartphones, apps, and social media platforms we can now work more efficiently and connect in ways that would have been unimaginable just decades ago.

But as we've grown to rely on technology for a lot of our professional and personal needs, most of us are asking tough questions about the role technology plays in our own lives. Are we becoming too dependent on technology to the point that it's actually harming us?

In the latest episode of Build for Tomorrow, host and Entrepreneur Editor-in-Chief Jason Feifer takes on the thorny question: is technology addictive?

Popularizing medical language

What makes something addictive rather than just engaging? It's a meaningful distinction because if technology is addictive, the next question could be: are the creators of popular digital technologies, like smartphones and social media apps, intentionally creating things that are addictive? If so, should they be held responsible?

To answer those questions, we've first got to agree on a definition of "addiction." As it turns out, that's not quite as easy as it sounds.

If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people.

LIAM SATCHELL UNIVERSITY OF WINCHESTER

"Over the past few decades, a lot of effort has gone into destigmatizing conversations about mental health, which of course is a very good thing," Feifer explains. It also means that medical language has entered into our vernacular —we're now more comfortable using clinical words outside of a specific diagnosis.

"We've all got that one friend who says, 'Oh, I'm a little bit OCD' or that friend who says, 'Oh, this is my big PTSD moment,'" Liam Satchell, a lecturer in psychology at the University of Winchester and guest on the podcast, says. He's concerned about how the word "addiction" gets tossed around by people with no background in mental health. An increased concern surrounding "tech addiction" isn't actually being driven by concern among psychiatric professionals, he says.

"These sorts of concerns about things like internet use or social media use haven't come from the psychiatric community as much," Satchell says. "They've come from people who are interested in technology first."

The casual use of medical language can lead to confusion about what is actually a mental health concern. We need a reliable standard for recognizing, discussing, and ultimately treating psychological conditions.

"If we don't have a good definition of what we're talking about, then we can't properly help people," Satchell says. That's why, according to Satchell, the psychiatric definition of addiction being based around experiencing distress or significant family, social, or occupational disruption needs to be included in any definition of addiction we may use.

Too much reading causes... heat rashes?

But as Feifer points out in his podcast, both popularizing medical language and the fear that new technologies are addictive aren't totally modern phenomena.

Take, for instance, the concept of "reading mania."

In the 18th Century, an author named J. G. Heinzmann claimed that people who read too many novels could experience something called "reading mania." This condition, Heinzmann explained, could cause many symptoms, including: "weakening of the eyes, heat rashes, gout, arthritis, hemorrhoids, asthma, apoplexy, pulmonary disease, indigestion, blocking of the bowels, nervous disorder, migraines, epilepsy, hypochondria, and melancholy."

"That is all very specific! But really, even the term 'reading mania' is medical," Feifer says.

"Manic episodes are not a joke, folks. But this didn't stop people a century later from applying the same term to wristwatches."

Indeed, an 1889 piece in the Newcastle Weekly Courant declared: "The watch mania, as it is called, is certainly excessive; indeed it becomes rabid."

Similar concerns have echoed throughout history about the radio, telephone, TV, and video games.

"It may sound comical in our modern context, but back then, when those new technologies were the latest distraction, they were probably really engaging. People spent too much time doing them," Feifer says. "And what can we say about that now, having seen it play out over and over and over again? We can say it's common. It's a common behavior. Doesn't mean it's the healthiest one. It's just not a medical problem."

Few today would argue that novels are in-and-of-themselves addictive — regardless of how voraciously you may have consumed your last favorite novel. So, what happened? Were these things ever addictive — and if not, what was happening in these moments of concern?

People are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm.

JASON FEIFER HOST OF BUILD FOR TOMORROW

There's a risk of pathologizing normal behavior, says Joel Billieux, professor of clinical psychology and psychological assessment at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland, and guest on the podcast. He's on a mission to understand how we can suss out what is truly addictive behavior versus what is normal behavior that we're calling addictive.

For Billieux and other professionals, this isn't just a rhetorical game. He uses the example of gaming addiction, which has come under increased scrutiny over the past half-decade. The language used around the subject of gaming addiction will determine how behaviors of potential patients are analyzed — and ultimately what treatment is recommended.

"For a lot of people you can realize that the gaming is actually a coping (mechanism for) social anxiety or trauma or depression," says Billieux.

"Those cases, of course, you will not necessarily target gaming per se. You will target what caused depression. And then as a result, If you succeed, gaming will diminish."

In some instances, a person might legitimately be addicted to gaming or technology, and require the corresponding treatment — but that treatment might be the wrong answer for another person.

"None of this is to discount that for some people, technology is a factor in a mental health problem," says Feifer.

"I am also not discounting that individual people can use technology such as smartphones or social media to a degree where it has a genuine negative impact on their lives. But the point here to understand is that people are complicated, our relationship with new technology is complicated, and addiction is complicated — and our efforts to simplify very complex things, and make generalizations across broad portions of the population, can lead to real harm."

Behavioral addiction is a notoriously complex thing for professionals to diagnose — even more so since the latest edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), the book professionals use to classify mental disorders, introduced a new idea about addiction in 2013.

"The DSM-5 grouped substance addiction with gambling addiction — this is the first time that substance addiction was directly categorized with any kind of behavioral addiction," Feifer says.

"And then, the DSM-5 went a tiny bit further — and proposed that other potentially addictive behaviors require further study."

This might not sound like that big of a deal to laypeople, but its effect was massive in medicine.

"Researchers started launching studies — not to see if a behavior like social media use can be addictive, but rather, to start with the assumption that social media use is addictive, and then to see how many people have the addiction," says Feifer.

Learned helplessness

The assumption that a lot of us are addicted to technology may itself be harming us by undermining our autonomy and belief that we have agency to create change in our own lives. That's what Nir Eyal, author of the books Hooked and Indistractable, calls 'learned helplessness.'

"The price of living in a world with so many good things in it is that sometimes we have to learn these new skills, these new behaviors to moderate our use," Eyal says. "One surefire way to not do anything is to believe you are powerless. That's what learned helplessness is all about."

So if it's not an addiction that most of us are experiencing when we check our phones 90 times a day or are wondering about what our followers are saying on Twitter — then what is it?

"A choice, a willful choice, and perhaps some people would not agree or would criticize your choices. But I think we cannot consider that as something that is pathological in the clinical sense," says Billieux.

Of course, for some people technology can be addictive.

"If something is genuinely interfering with your social or occupational life, and you have no ability to control it, then please seek help," says Feifer.

But for the vast majority of people, thinking about our use of technology as a choice — albeit not always a healthy one — can be the first step to overcoming unwanted habits.

For more, be sure to check out the Build for Tomorrow episode here.

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