The meme hunter

A British psychologist prowls for hard evidence that memes -- ideas that reproduce genetically, like viruses -- actually exist. What's one of the prime habitats? The Internet.

Topics:

suppose that every thought you have — including this one — is an autonomous parasite in your brain: a pattern of brain cells that copies itself from mind to mind.

Congratulations! You’ve just caught a meme.

A meme, according to Richard Dawkins, who coined the word in his bestseller “The Selfish Gene,” is anything a human can remember and transmit. Memes are meant to be the brain’s equivalent of DNA. A meme could be an idea or a snatch of music or a dance. So long as it gets copied between brains fairly accurately and competes with other copies for survival, it will do as a candidate for evolution. If memes exist, they have modified the world just as genes have: Genes have made the biosphere; memes have made the memeosphere, the place where human beings exist.

The idea is catchy — the “meme” meme is particularly popular online — but controversial. Dawkins himself has withdrawn from it a little. He said last year: “There are people who take memes seriously and there are people who don’t. I sort of sit on the fence, and don’t mind seriously one way or the other. That wasn’t my purpose in producing them.”

But lots of smart people do take them seriously. Daniel Dennett, the leading philosopher of artificial intelligence, writes as if the existence of memes were an established fact. A human being, he says, is an animal infested by memes.

And Susan Blackmore, a British psychologist who has been the scourge of every sort of paranormal nonsense for the last 20 years, has got memes bad. She is trying to work out ways to find them in the wild.

“I want to do away with the notion of ‘ideas’ and look at brain structures and behaviors,” she says. “The brain structures may be hard to find. They probably consist of patterns of activation, which will not be there all the time. But I have talked at you for half an hour — that’s a behavior. You have written down some of my words. That’s another behavior. And so the memes have been copied. It is a very loose form of copying — but we can study the process.”

Talking to Blackmore is exhausting and invigorating all at once. Ideas fountain out of her like champagne in an intoxicating stream; it hardly matters whether they are bubbles or not.



“If you take a common-sense view,” she says, “humans are units called selves which somehow generate ideas from within. But when you take the meme’s-eye view, you see brains as hosts for memes. We don’t own or generate ‘our’ ideas. Nor are they working for our purposes. We can imagine meaning in them, but really all that’s going on is imitation and storage,” she says.

These ideas fit in with Blackmore’s Buddhism, where the human personality is no more than a swarm of causes and consequences, temporarily bundled in a body. But they also fit with her sense of a crisis in academic psychology: “I’ve spent 25 years in psychology and it’s an absolute mess. We don’t have a decent theory of emotions, or of motivations.”

Meme theory seems to offer a way out of this. If beliefs prosper for their own reasons, and not for the good of the organism that contains them, then this would explain the inexhaustible capacity of the human mind to produce bad ideas and disastrous plans. It does not matter to the success of a belief if the original brain that carries it dies, provided it has been spread to more brains in the meantime. In Daniel Dennett’s slogan: “A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library.”

Blackmore says that a good test for the independent existence of memes would look for “behavior that is not in the interest of the person — but purely in the interest of the propagation of the memes.”

The classic example of this spread is religious: “Martyrdom” originally meant “testifying.” It’s just that handing out tracts or making speeches turned out to be a less effective marketing method than getting chewed by lions in public. “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church,” as the meme has it.

All this leaves out the consideration of what a meme actually is: how you can identify an individual, transmissible unit of culture. And this is a huge difficulty for meme theory, one that has led most people who have considered the idea to attack it. For everything we know about human culture suggests that it is hugely different from the genetic system.

John Maynard Smith sides with Dawkins against Stephen Jay Gould in battles over biological evolution, but has nonetheless expressed very clearly one of the main theoretical objections to memes: “Two features are necessary for any genetic system that is to support adaptive evolution. The system should be digital, and it should not support ‘the inheritance of adapted characters.’”

Genetic copying is digital — the DNA strings code for 20 discrete amino acids, and nothing in between — while cultural copying is analog and fuzzy. Cultural evolution is Lamarckian — ideas are modified by experience before being passed on — whereas it is a central dogma of biology that evolution cannot be Lamarckian. Genes are not selected directly, but as a result of their effects; a gene that makes an animal grow or behave in a certain way will be copied (or not) as a result of the behavior or capacities of the animal that carries it. (The animal’s physical and behavioral characteristics are known in the jargon as the phenotype; the DNA that encodes the instructions to build the phenotype is the genotype, so that biologists say that genotypes are selected for the phenotypical effects.) But meme candidates are selected directly.

Culture appears to be a ladder — especially to a scientist like Dawkins — whereas evolution is a bush. Stephen Jay Gould calls memes “a meaningless metaphor”; virtual-reality pioneer Jaron Lanier thinks they are dangerous nonsense that promotes sloppy habits of thought. Yet it is all too easy for meme believers to dismiss their opponents as people infested with mind viruses — as if they were not in the same situation themselves.

None of these difficulties bothers Susan Blackmore. She takes her strength from a syllogism: If the Darwinian algorithm is the only way we know to generate order and complexity in nature, which it is; and if our minds are full of order and complexity, which they are; then there must be a Darwinian algorithm operating on something inside them, and that something we shall call memes.

“The Darwinian algorithm can run whether you have got digital or analog information,” she says. “It will run better and with higher fidelity if it is digital. But it can run over analog information.”

Language is an analog medium, not a digital one, but Blackmore sees the emergence of language as a prime candidate for memetic evolution. “There is a problem of design in language: not just at the deep level of universal grammar, but at the observable level of the languages we actually speak. Why are there so many languages, and why do they stay so separate?” She cites research to show that after 40 years of mass television, the differing regional vocabularies of Britain are more divergent than before. Something is clearly combating the homogenizing effect of TV, and she believes it is the force of memetic evolution.

“Language allows for more accurate copying of thought as it grows more precise. Writing makes copying still more accurate, and thus will increase the size of the memeosphere,” she argues. The Internet is the most recent expansion of this force.

“What’s driving it? Is it our genes, or is it our individual interests? Memetics says that actually it is all in the interests of the memes. What has happened with the development of the Internet is a huge step toward high-fidelity copying — with just enough errors to make evolution possible. We would expect that to happen because it is in the interests of memetic ambition, and it is completely irrelevant to our happiness. All we’re doing is acting as a selection environment.”

But memes may not need us to survive, any more than our genes any longer need the bacteria in which their ancestors originated. It is not that we will at some stage create artificial life or artificial consciousness, but that it will create successors to us.

“The more inefficient the technology, the more it relies on humans. But as the technology advances, humans become less and less important. Books made humans less important as a medium for the survival of information. We ought to be able to predict from a memetic analysis of what sort of hardware will best propagate the most memes with the highest fidelity — and that is what we will find ourselves building.”

Blackmore and I were both, by this stage, sitting at open laptops, typing and talking in a synchronous overload; and for a moment I suspected that the laptops were using us to communicate, rather than the other way round.

“The point at which it really takes off,” she said, “will be the point at which you have robots which directly imitate other robots in really complex ways. Nothing in artificial intelligence does that now, but when it does, we will have truly human-independent memes.”

Only we won’t have them. It will be the other way round — if they can be bothered with us.

Andrew Brown is a writer and journalist in Britain. His book "The Darwin Wars" is published in the U.S. by Simon and Schuster.

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>