The word ‘meme’ was first popularly used by Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene. The word ‘meme’ has come to mean a cultural accretion of knowledge, a package of several ideas that can be passed onto others. It’s usually more complex than a single idea, and can represent a fashion/music/lifestyle or a belief. It is the mental equivalent of a gene whereby a package of many attributes is passed on.
The science or study of memes in action has come to be called memetics.
A meme has been regarded too narrowly I believe, and I am interested in broadening the definition of a meme. No matter how narrow a definition you give to a meme, sooner or later you have to consider more nebulous or abstract ideas as having acquired enough cultural accretion to have become memes. It’s easy to conceive of a visual fad such as the hula-hoop as having a chartable spread through society and calling it a meme, but surely socialism, futurism or a new political idea are also memes that spread through society.
Memes like these, just as in any fad or fashion, have a zenith before arcing into decline. There will always be a few adherents of any ‘ism’ who may be the actual carriers of the meme, but eventually they may find themselves beached upon a shore that has no tides.
Someone new to the idea of memes might say: why don’t we just call them ideas? The answer is that memes act as if they have a life of their own. Whether they do or not is not the relevant point, but they do replicate and have a dynamism absent from our common notion of a simple idea.
Memes seem to have an arc of existence defying simple replicative models. Indeed, I daresay many memes lie dormant awaiting resurgence, as might forgotten gods that can spread like wildfire. Let’s say a meme like Nazism could be re-established which is why many are so keen to quash it.
On this model, some memes could be likened to a huge bull waiting to be let out the gate and into a china shop.
I suspect memes act as living entities with strategies for survival and aren’t simply replicators. As I use the word meme, I mean it to be an accretion of mental energy that acts as if it has a life of its own. This mental energy can spread through many minds or maybe it resides someplace as yet unidentified. Whether or not this is strictly true is less important to me than the fact this definition allows for insights and explanations previously unavailable.
Once you allow a meme to escape the unimaginative straitjacket that has kept meme theory bound for the last twenty-five years, you can accept new explanations. In human affairs and parapsychology, as well as in ordinary life, we finally have a tool to crack the nut, to explain which was once considered unexplainable.
Memes as I use them are for the most part something that appears independent of self, and shared by several minds. However, we all have a sense of self, an ego or superego that we create as we grow, which could be considered our individual meme.
Many thinkers have a problem with the idea of a ‘group mind’ which is understandable, or that memes can be anthropomorphised as having characteristics to enable their survival. One approach to deflect this criticism is to state they don’t have to be actually like this, but they act as if they do. Same as flocking birds might not actually have a group mind but they act as if they do.
There are experiments that seem to indicate the existence of group minds. I’ll mention Richard Restak’s experiments with bees. His work can be found in the journal Mind (No. 249), and has also been featured in Howard Bloom’s The Lucifer Principle (page 140). Basically Restak showed that bees can anticipate future sources of food despite quite complex mathematical computations. What he did was position food at increasing distances away from the first site according to a mathematical formula. The bees all went to the area they next expected food to be at, but who or what was doing the calculations for them?
Basically a meme is a concept. It can be shared or held alone. Memes can have favoured attachments just like molecules. Certain pairings can be more probable than others. Memes are not just an explanation for the workings of human affairs, but a way for things to find each other. With memes, man can find God, a woman can find her mate, a customs officer can find a smuggler, and a hunter can find his prey.
Another area memes make themselves problematic to academia is we can use them to explain phenomena usually of a non-repeatable type. I think it was Arthur Koestler who postulated the existence of the library angel. What he meant by this was how he often was looking for some information and he’d open a book to the very page with the information he needed. Or he found a useful book shelved wrongly but placed right where he happened to look. People are known to open the Bible at a passage unusually apt to their interest. I’m sure we’ve all had these coincidental experiences, and I doubt we could repeat them for the sake of a scientific study, but memes can explain them.
How do memes work? Conscious and unconscious processes build memes. They aren’t something you can usually identify, and to devolve them (or use them) seems to work best when they happen unconsciously.
Let’s take a meme building activity like a new fashion. Pioneers will wear and parade the new fashion, and the media acts as a platform for others to espouse it. Everyone quickly becomes aware of it, but not everyone adopts it unless it fits in with the zeitgeist. Instead of a fashion we can view, imagine this applying to a new philosophy or belief. The longer this meme is built, the more it accretes levels of meaning and spreads to include lifestyles, food, clothes and outlooks, all of which can indicate a particular meme.
For example, consider the meme of an artist, or what it would mean to be a beatnik, hippy or a rasta. A meme that started as a fashion can soon be taken to include preferred foods or political viewpoints and philosophy. The views held by a person can now be deduced, simply by looking at the hat they wear.
Like a plate resting upon a table where there are only a few disparate molecules in direct contact, or a brain where an idea can lodge in one of several areas, a meme could be said to lodge in some of many possible minds. It may change minds often and doesn’t have a constant localisation.
Transmission of Memes
When I first read Richard Dawkin’s book a quarter of a century ago, I had already formed a nebulous theory of mental energy. Living in what seemed to be a vast population of like-minded people, where everyone similarly reacted or used the same expressions, I envisaged a gigantic group mind. Similar to ants or bees or flocks of birds, it seemed to me we all acted in a predictable manner linked to the group. I’d started to consider this a gigantic psychic generator that could be tapped in some way.
Another thought was there would be nodes where you could find certain phenomena like a very lucky person or someone that could do no wrong. When I discovered the word ‘meme’, I realised this was a descriptive term I could utilise. It took a couple of years to simmer before I knew how to use it, and about 15 years before I suddenly realised the further implications of memetics. The mechanistic model of building and devolving memes wasn’t the crux of the matter, though undoubtedly this is what hooked people in the first place.
Consciousness seems to be a factor in the transmission process, though not an absolute. It’s just that memes seem to operate better the less aware we are of their operation.
Unaware as well as conscious effort build memes so they can have a growth period, and once built, are able to be devolved by others often unconnected to the building process. This devolvement works best by unconscious effort and is a process for knowledge to become distributed in ways once thought to be science fiction. The potential of telepathy, although fantastic, can be explained in memetic terms. Similarly, memetics enables unconnected people to have a shared knowledge or belief system. Thousands of years ago, when scattered cultures on different continents built pyramid structures, there was a memetic diffusion of similar goals. This is exemplified by the phenomenon known as the 100th monkey effect, to which I’ll come back to later in this article.
Animals can share memes. As their consciousness is taken as being more simplistic, they act alike. When flocks of birds and schools of fish turn, feed, or flee all at the same time, it is difficult to explain this as a totality of separate, independent decision making. Are they all plugged into a group mind or acting in an identical way just for being biologically similar? And it’s not just animals that act identically. Human children can act and react in the same way. Are they similar for being closer to the mould? Are they more telepathic for being more similar?
This is the real advance of memetics. By looking at memes as a potential indicator of both group and individual consciousness, we can unseal some previously closed mysteries.
In the last section I mentioned nodes as a place where memes could be better able to be devolved. To posit such nodes is only helpful to explain why some people are vastly better in attracting phenomena than others. Like a very lucky person or vice-versa. Another illustration would be a really good artist. Many people assume a successful artist simply has the right idea at the right time, but world class artists appear to have more than this simple formula working for them. A good artist tells us something we recognise as truth in an original way, and a great artist draws on something that makes their work and originality speak to other times. They draw on a muse with many strands and are often at a loss themselves to explain how they weave it into art. They are distilling the essence of the zeitgeist. Somehow, they are devolving the spirit of the age and telling us something we recognise as a truth. Something we knew all along without having enunciated it. When this happens, we call it a masterpiece.
Could it be the artist has positioned themselves on a node that devolves this
creative energy? Their brains are a receiving medium for something they have
unconsciously sought. It certainly seems there have been geographical
distilleries of genius like in
I’ve noticed a similar thing happen with music. I know the success of one local band can fuel the aspirations of others, and certain places seem to throw up on occasion not just a singular bloom but a whole bouquet. Most bands, unlike artists, seem to make a handful of distinctive rousing music and then atrophy. They never better their first original work, and plough the same furrow making their later compositions just variations on a theme. Yet there are rare artists who define an era, and their work both embodies and propagates memes.
Bubba Sparxx once rapped, “Rhyming chose me”.
As with art, science and theory leaps forward from singular people or places that seem truly inspired. There are often people working on similar things but only one gets the credit and is remembered. If it could ever be shown radical ideas and advances come from on high, it must be a scattergun approach where several people are simultaneously trying to establish it, and it doesn’t really matter who will win the race – just that one will.
Passing on Learned Behaviour Via Memes
The above are speculative asides. My main thrust is that ideas, fads or philosophies can be transmitted without local contact. These are memes that can be devolved and spread within limitations or throughout all society.
Consider personal experience. Haven’t we all done something for the first time and then discovered how natural it seems? Like riding a bicycle, it can take a few moments and then seems like we always could do it.
Don’t we all know someone who did something by chance and then it became a life’s work or career? Let’s consider a body of knowledge, a recently evolved meme such as ‘heart surgery’.
A new or trainee heart surgeon consciously learns the craft, but he/she is also memetically guided by the prior experience of others. Like acting or any trade, this memetic devolvement is best felt to be working when the subject is relaxed and has ‘let themselves go’. The examples of those that did it before us are like invisible spirit guides once we are ‘in the groove’.
Great men are said to sit on the shoulders of others before them, and so it is with all activity, whether it be carpentry, mothering, lying or fighting. No matter how harmful or mundane, others have built tramlines of the mind. In careers, apprentices or trainees can experience this as an arbitrary choice ‘fitting like a glove’. They have discovered an aptitude or somehow ‘picked it up’ without really being able to explain how. In animals of lesser consciousness, this becomes a pure instinct in which all eat, fight and sleep in practically identical ways.
Is there evidence learned behaviour is carried to others? One example would be when a rat finds its way through a maze. A second rat seems to find its way through the maze even quicker. In experiments, rats have been killed (to prevent telepathy) or identical new mazes substituted (to prevent scent trails), yet despite this, rats are progressively able to get through these mazes faster than the earlier ones. Where does this knowledge reside? They are accessing a meme that is being built, a meme of knowledge about the maze.
I doubt a meme is entirely independent of living things, but the crucial thing is that it acts as if it is. A meme has an arc of existence that, like the life of a living organism, is a self-contained pocket of energy.
Perhaps the best analogy of memes in the world is they are akin to numbers. The fantastic science of mathematics has enabled us to go to the moon and inspire computers. But we wouldn’t be able to point to a number or say, “this is a six”, we could just say there are six of something. Like memes, we use the concept of number to find linking commonalities and to make something have sense for us. To grasp that which has no obvious handle.
One of my favourite examples of memetics in action is that referred to as the 100th monkey effect, which is the result of studies from 1952-1958 of monkeys living on a string of Japanese islands.
What happened was that one monkey started washing the sand off sweet potatoes, and then others started doing it. At some point, a critical mass was reached and monkeys on other islands, though there was no obvious contact, started washing their food to remove the sand. This is almost a perfect example of a meme growing and then becoming accessible to all. A way for knowledge or learning to transmit to others not in physical contact. In human affairs, this is best seen in fashion, whereby there seems to be zeitgeist (spirit of the age) sweeping through disparate and otherwise unconnected populations.
The 100th monkey effect was first popularised in Lyall Watson’s book Lifetides. Another book by Ken Keyes simply called The Hundredth Monkey further propagated this novel idea. There have been a few articles that ‘revisit’ these experiments (e.g. one from Elaine Myers) but they miss the point.
Pseudo rebuttals to this theory usually harp on that not all monkeys adopted this new way of washing sand off potatoes. Ken Keyes clearly says in his foreword this phenomenon included “almost all” the monkeys, so he wasn’t claiming a universal spread.
Furthermore, the 100th monkey mechanism isn’t negated by this. The sceptics are confusing a hundred monkeys as somehow meaning 100%. Think of a meme such as a fashion. A few people adopt it, perhaps to widespread ridicule, but at some threshold point it becomes widely accepted. Now obviously, not every single person adopts the exact same fashion, but does this detract from the mechanism causing its explosive growth? Of course not. Indeed, there will always be adherents to memes of other fashions or the antithesis of the one currently in vogue. It’s a bit like the scene in the sci-fi movie ‘Fahrenheight 451’ where in a book burning society individuals each keep a certain book alive by reciting it and memorising it.
Similarly, fashions might be kept alive by adherents. Victims of fashion are the one’s gripped by a meme that has no hold on other people.
Critics of memetics similarly miss the point about statistics. I am not asserting twins will all have the same experiences or that coincidences can be statistically explained or expected, like the likelihood of two people at a gathering sharing the same birthday. In fact, memes explain why not everything will be the same in every case and every time.
What interests me are the astronomically improbable coincidences that can’t be configured. The one in a billion chance. The events that deserve some consideration instead of being dismissed as a one-off. These incredible coincidences are amenable to memetic explanation. I’m not claiming fantastical coincidences are the rule. Indeed, they are the exceptions that prove the rule, but these exceptions have underlying mechanisms making them exceptional.
There are other examples of mass learning within species if you don’t buy the 100th monkey theory.
In particular, one was the study done on blue tits pecking at foil on milk bottles to get at the milk. Once one or two started doing it, within a short time, blue tits everywhere were doing it.
Another form of memetics in action would be the phenomenon known as stigmata. In my model, the conscious dwelling on Christ’s wounds by Catholics or other Christians creates a meme which grows like clouds gathering moisture. When it has reached optimum size, then like lightning, the meme devolves or is discharged upon some unwitting subject. This explains why the stigmata phenomenon can appear on people who aren’t religious or even Christian.
Padre Pio, made a saint by the Pope in 2002, displayed the stigmata. Church enquiries couldn’t find any evidence of fraud or deception. Indeed, the profuse bleeding was deemed of unknown origination. The padre was especially venerated as being one of the clergy who rarely display the phenomenon.
Phenomena described as paranormal, unexplainable or baffling in human affairs could have a memetic explanation. Reincarnation can be explained as people devolving memes built up by others. This is akin to the parable of reaping that which others sow.
The reason some people think they are Cleopatra or some famous character is a meme built by people thinking about these ‘larger than life’ historical personages. I suspect the person claiming to be a reincarnation has taken onboard several cultural connotations that were embedded into the personage when the meme was being built.
Because of our memetic nature, whatever mental paths we follow, it will always be amenable to memes. Some memeticists treat memes as an infective virus and although some are devolved unwillingly and unconsciously, I don’t find it helpful to use this model of contagion. Even when we have a meme we identify and get rid of, we still have others at work albeit unidentified.
Whether memes use individuals as entry points or rain down en masse upon numerous subjects, there always seem to be loci, some nodal points of focus.
Correspondence and Echoes
As I claimed earlier, all coincidence is a form of memetic
correspondence. We can see this correspondence in things that aren’t especially
coincidental. I’ll give you an example from when I lived in
Now fast forward several years beyond the gentrification and yuppiefication of the area, where property prices had
Perhaps certain places can attract or devolve a meme that recurs in certain actions? Perhaps certain places are much more amenable to holiness or criminality so that there is an architecture shaping behaviour? Going up a mountain and coming down with a changed memetic reality may have truth. A sense of place may very well be necessary for certain memes to be devolved. These are certain areas that need consideration.
The cycles of life are rarely viewed as something recurring in all generations and times. Love is an emotion intensely experienced by each generation as if for the first time. Only those that can take a step back through wisdom or age may see the constantly recurring tides.
This is where memetics is able to provide explanations for the puzzle. This tide, this governing of life, the recurring of events, is a correspondence echoing through all generations. For instance, we think we might have left the bacchanalian rites of village festivals behind, but all we have done is supplanted them. Package holidays of booze and sex are just an evolved echo of what was and always will be.
Anytime we see an echo or correspondence, especially in things or events that we normally would not consider related, we are seeing the action of a meme.
When the lifestyle aggregation of music, fashion and outlook called ‘punk’
started, it really seemed to spread during 1978. I went to the
How was it possible people had adopted a fashion in advance of widespread media attention? With this phenomena to ponder, I started developing my ‘one in every town’ theory. I postulated that every small town has a drunk, a real redneck, a punk kid etc. As the towns get larger, the cast of characters increase.
Added to this was the strange sense of déjà vu when I met someone who was 90% of somebody else I’d met or the spitting image of someone from my hometown. I was regularly surprised to find a Dave who liked wrangler clothes, drank hard and had a girlfriend called Sue just like someone else I’d already met. I started to make boyfriend/girlfriend name pairings that seemed to recur often enough to seem a standard. If I met a ‘Carl’, I’d guess he had a girlfriend called Sarah before he told me he did. In life, there are all manner of possible permutations or simple juxtapositions, but memes can make them into regular pairing, a temporary bondage.
Each bar I went in had its resident lush (alcoholic) and a ‘Mr can get it’. Each place I went had the same types of people. I’d talk about this phenomenon with friends and claim “there’s one in every town”. Like a hen’s pecking order, I’ve come to realise human types are similarly governed. You remove one and another will take up that role.
Magic, Mystics and Memes
Would be devolvers of memes who don’t really understand how they work are laying themselves open to be used by an amoral force. I’m thinking of occultists who use ceremonies and other inducements as a way to devolve power and affect the universe. Like the energy attributed to a poltergeist, these memetic energies aren’t readily controllable and attempts to do so can result in the demise of the attempter. The inherent contradictions of a meme will disrupt any attempted containment.
Having had some experience at meetings of occultists for my own curious quest for knowledge, I was struck by the disproportionate share of cripples and generally unhealthy appearances at such gatherings. I can only assume those that chant or wave wands to attract a river of universal energy are merely inviting a dissipation of their own. Now I do think you can focus this river of universal energy and you can use memes to power your activities, but this inculcation is subtle and diffuse.
A practical aspect of advanced memetics is divination. The memetic ripples that percolate through our universe are readable to the adept. Astrology operates not by the commonly supposed causal connection but is supposed to indicate a correspondence. Memetics can operate a corresponding system that involves looking for potential ironies. Linguistic irony and fictional foreshadowing are all tools for a memetic prophet. Random and trivial events are all grist for the mill with which to grind out a prognosis and read the signs.
Memetics for Today
This system of memetics, regardless of its origins and outer limits, can be used to explicate all kinds of esoteric phenomena. It can also make sense of some of today’s baffling events. For instance, the spectacular terrorist success in destroying the World Trade Centre towers can be explained by operating on an auspicious date (for them) of 9/11. The meme of calling 911 emergency empowered their goals. I’m sure they hadn’t picked the date for any numeric quality, but just because a Tuesday flight would have less passengers to subdue than a Monday or a Friday. Their bold plan was correspondingly enabled by memetic forces, which they weren’t conscious of. The unconscious energy in the meme of 911 empowered them, but now that everyone is conscious of the date, it won’t work again.
Yet the mental energy, the meme generated by that event, will empower another date and as long as there is no conscious focus upon it, a terrorist or some such could easily find his unselfconscious action empowered. I predict something could happen in September 2011, as it has a 9/11 link which isn’t immediately obvious to most people.
Memetics suggest there are auspicious and inauspicious dates or days for various activities.
The above points show memetics is a unique and universal theory of explanation. Surely more research can develop this potential and make all phenomena, even that once considered esoteric and occult, into an understandable paradigm.
Memetics holds the promise of the philosopher’s stone. By explaining all things, it can be the key to the secrets of the universe. For the philosopher, the theologian, the parapsychologist, it could be the dawn of a golden age.
Jack Hardy is a world traveller and non-academic philosopher. He has written articles and produced celebrity interviews for numerous small magazines and newspapers. The above is abridged from an e-book by the author called Memetics. The book covers other aspects of memes and more detail on the subject matter discussed above, including how memetics theory helps explain unexplained phenomena and the process by which we can predict societal trends. To obtain
the complete text of the book, email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.