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Selfish Memes

Ville Kokko

Posted on April 28, 2019 15:23

0 user

If genes are selfish, so are memes, which is too bad for us as their hosts.

In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduced the metaphor that genes are selfish, meaning that how natural selection works can best be understood on the gene level by thinking of the genes selfishly propagating themselves.

In the same book, Dawkins also introduced the concept of meme, meant to be the unit of cultural evolution subject to natural selection and analogous to genes in biological evolution. Memes are not just things shared on the internet but any kind of ideas that spread – a belief, a tune, a phrase, a method, etc.

Our heads are full of memes, and they control our society too. It's unfortunate, then, that they are analogous to those genes that are so selfish. We have reason to have only good ideas spread widely and affect our societies, but instead, anything that manages to survive in the competition for space in human minds survives, no matter whether it deserves it or not.

One aspect of this is that, as an idea spreads, it tends to get turned into a dumbed-down yet more extreme and black-and-white form.

One reason for this is simple: it's easier to process and remember simpler ideas, so when an idea turns simpler in people's minds, it becomes better at surviving in them. Anyway, failing to process an idea properly is prone to make it understood more simply than it was intended.

Another reason would seem to be that it's easier to remember more emotional content. It's also easier to get people interested in it. Thus, a subtle, complicated idea based on understanding different sides of the issue is just waiting to become turned into simplified shouting.

Besides it being easier to get attention to a dumbed-down idea, there's also the motivation the opponents of the idea have to turn it into a straw man. And besides their doing this intentionally, they may do it because they fail to process the idea properly, because of whom it comes from, or because it contains some aspects they don't like, turning it into a caricature of what they feel about it.

Ironically, one example of a meme getting twisted this way is the idea of the selfish gene. As I wrote earlier, it's a great metaphor for those who actually understand it, but it's problematic in the sense of being so easy to misunderstand.

The metaphor doesn't say anything about evolution making people or other animals selfish. Dawkins even makes it explicit this is not the case. But thanks to what appear to be general principles of memetics, it's just asking to be dumbed down into that form.

The idea that genes make people selfish is a great idea to either oppose, or to use as an excuse and to provoke people. Doing this allows one to avoid having to actually understand anything subtle. It's better for shouting about.

What's the lesson from all this? I suppose that you should be wary of political views, famous ideas etc. that are presented as simple.

Ville Kokko

Posted on April 28, 2019 15:23

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Source: Mashable

Polling memes are great. Don't believe me? There is cultural theory to back it up. Wait, where are you going... Seriously...

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