The Meme-ing of Life: An Evolutionary Perspective.

Let’s face it. Our lives are infested with memes. One would say it’s a new cultural phenomenon that has revolutionised the way we communicate. Facebook feeds festering with relatable captions accompanied by an obscure picture where the comments section merely functions as means to tag your mates and say “omg us” are all the craze these days. But memes are not new. They’re not revolutionary. They’re evolutionary. I recently attended a fascinating psychology lecture discussing the evolution of culture and how memes, as they accumulate changes over a period of time, adapt features to fit into their respective niches and compete to be the most propagated, can be explained easily with the analogy of being a rapidly evolving cultural parasite.

Let's take it back to when people used to post letters to each other around the 1960s. Propagating themselves through the mail, came the rise of an archaic meme – The Saint Jude Letter- i.e chain mail. Failure to inoculate ten of your friends resulted in threats of bad luck or ghosts appearing in your bathroom mirrors. The stakes were high. People had no choice but to re-write, ten letters that were to be sealed, stamped and posted to their unsuspecting peers. Meme spreading became easier with the arrival of Email – I’m sure your twelve year old self dispersed a myriad of chain mail to the contacts in your list out of fear of spending the rest of your life alone. Memes are now able to harness the ease of tagging and sharing to spread themselves across the internet. Nobody is safe from STIs- Socially Transmitted Infections.

Consider the evolution of memes from a Darwinian perspective. For meme evolution to occur, there are three fundamental criteria to fulfil. The first being phenotypic variation. The need for differences in a population. From Krabs to Kardashian, memes are definitely not lacking in variation. Secondly, there is difference in fitness. The differences in phenotypic expression produce a difference in survival success. Some memes are transient; they fail to stabilise within a population and undergo “drift” through chance events (anybody here still remember Nyan Cat?). Other memes are successful, relatable, and are well established in our population. They never give up. They never let you down. They never turn around and desert you.

The final criterion is heritability. The fitness advantage that the differences in traits have can be passed down from generation to generation. A successful meme with high fitness will be more likely to be liked, shared, reposted and tagged. The waves of memes we see every day are a collection of competing variants and the ones that we see more often on our feeds are the ones that have successfully outcompeted the others and can best exploit our brains to self replicate and propagate. Whether it be early 2000s chain mail or late 2010s social media frenzy the winning memes are the ones that have the most hosts.

The meme, defined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, is essentially a unit of cultural transmission. This means we shouldn’t be isolating our perspective of memes to just the internet. What aspects of our environment are socially propagated, how do they spread and why? The meme criteria can be broadened to our language, traditions, and beliefs and how they accumulate “mutations” over time and are passed on. By the end of the psychology lecture, things had gotten pretty deep and existential with the whole concept of a cultural parasite analogy. Nonetheless, it was a refreshing perspective and gave new meaning to the saying “memes are life.” Because they seriously are!

I hereby leave you with a challenge: Reflect upon yourself as a petri-dish of growth media unique to your own thoughts, your experiences and your environment and subsequently what meme-cultures have colonised your life.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect that of Chiasma's as an organisation.