MEMES- The DNA of the Soul

By Sailesh Singh (3rd year, ME)
Edited by Shirin Sonali (3rd year, I&E)

Memes. What meaning does the word evoke in your minds when you hear it? Is it the Grumpy Cat GIFs and the Pupper-Doggos in the recurring ‘shooting star’ video, or the latest post from ‘Newton’s Law of Chichorpan’, or the last tweet of Trump or Tharoor? If yes, then my friend, you are looking at only a fragment of the world it inhabits. Because memes are more than just that and restricting them to what we see or hear on the internet and other media will be a dank (no pun intended) understatement to what they truly are, what they truly are designed for.

Memes, in their most basic sense, are a unit of cultural information such as a practice, a belief or an idea that is copied, modified and transmitted from one mind to another like sort of a virulent strain. Just like a bacteria or virus, our ideas, thinking and beliefs are infectious. They replicate themselves, create their own copies that evolve and latch onto our mind and soul until they are passed on in the same way as the information stored in our genes. “The single most resilient parasite — an idea…”, Leonardo DiCaprio said in the movie Inception. Guess he wasn’t far from the truth either. What we learn and teach to the future generations e.g. holding the pencil this way would be easier, driving at high speeds is risky etc., and all our fundamental beliefs and ideals like helping people is good, praying to god is good, are all but memes, the doctrines that transform into what we call as our ‘habit’ or ‘training’. Human memories, forms of skills, fashion, melodies, values — all these memes, all of them govern and shape us to exist in the world subjected to Darwinian natural selection.

The word ‘meme’ (meaning ‘something imitated’) was first introduced by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in the book The Selfish Gene in 1976. He described it as a “form of cultural propagation which is a way for people to transmit social memories and cultural ideas to each other, and not exactly like how the genetic information is transmitted via our DNA”. Genes only describe the stats, our knowledge, our potential of what we are capable of i.e. our ultimate fate. But memes describe much more — how we behave, how we think, what we think, how we walk, talk and do things — these can’t be encoded into the genes as they can’t be measured. It’s all abstract. For example — Can you run faster than a bullet? No. Why? Because we don’t have any superman genes. But will you even try to run faster than a bullet? No. Why? Because we ‘know’ very well we can’t run like that. And right there, that’s a meme. Bounded by genes (bounded by your fate) is one thing, if we wish to believe we have a “purpose in life”, that we are destined to do “that thing” only, but what about the future? What do we wish to leave behind beside our carbon footprints? Genes don’t contain any record of human history, our mark in history can’t be engraved even if we achieve all our goals. So how can others know we ever existed? That’s when memes come in.

But like genes, memes are susceptible to natural selection. The strongest and more powerful of memes replace the weaker ones; the weaker memes fade away gradually. An example of it can be seen in the power-struggles of politicians and world leaders, only the strongest ideas triumph and people follow accordingly. For example, let us the take the curious case of Donald Trump. His demagogic memes, his ‘morals’ trumped Hillary’s memes (both lyrically and literally) as he was able to pander to a large audience. Furthermore, as memes pass from one person to another, they are slightly modified as in the same way a rumor is modified by individual interpretations. This means the elucidation of a meme by Person A will be very different from the elucidation of the same meme by Person Z, and in that sense, unrestrained meme transfer can be dangerous. Ideas and Beliefs can be misunderstood. And conflict arises because memes not only travel vertically but horizontally among us as well.

For example — we are never told that black color is bad, we sort of ‘assume’ that everything black is associated with darkness, right from our childhood (thanks to the innumerable stories and fairy tales where the evil witch wears a black cloak). This belief of our parent shave been passed down to us from their times. But times have changed yet we keep suffering the wrath of these memes. Take racism for instance. No one ‘tells’ us that a certain colored race is different from the majority, that they should be dominated. It’s sort of something that people ‘assume’. But how can they ‘assume’ something like that in the first place without anyone publicly teaching them? It’s the ideas of their parents that have knowingly/unknowingly passed down from the time when Cultural Racism and Apartheid was prevalent.

Another example is — “women are naturally weak and require the assistance of men”. This is a very dangerous meme as this is not necessarily handed down (as in vertical communication) but spreads like a wild fire among us (as in horizontal communication). Men can’t withstand a woman in position of power or a woman who is open-minded because they ‘believe’ that woman should be below them and must listen to them (as was prevalent during the medieval era)! This has largely spun several gruesome catastrophes like sexual harassment (when a man believes woman are just objects), bullying at workplace, partiality in families assets, etc.

This calls for an urgent awareness to check what we are spreading knowingly or unknowingly, and this is more critical when we are in a position of influence (parent, teacher, leader etc.). We have always kept records of our lives through words, pictures, symbols, from books to tablets, so we need to be careful what should be recorded, what we should and shouldn’t be passing on. Memes that are beneficial to us can hamper someone else. This… meme might be the root behind all causes — war, conflict, violence, riots — all because beliefs and ideas clash. We must carefully process and then leave behind our marks. Pass on the righteous torch of our existence and watch it go down the pages of history not as an intron, but as an exon. We’ve got only one life, and we need to make it worthwhile and leave behind a valuable meme for others to follow.