All Memes Are Weapons
Where the genetic metaphor breaks down
Memetics, the study of how memes spread and replicate, was first popularized by an evolutionary biologist in the 1970s. A strident atheist, the scientist meant to show how human culture evolves by the same set of rules as any other biological system: competition, mutation, and more competition. Nothing special going on here.
It turns out there is something special going on here and that there are a few things missing from this simplistic explanation of memes and genes alike. Neither genes nor memes determine everything about an organism or a culture. DNA is not a static blueprint but acts differently in different situations. Genes matter, but the expression of those genes matters more. Expression is entirely dependent on the environment, or the “protein soup” in which those genes are swimming. It’s why a tame grasshopper can, under the right conditions, transform into a rapacious, swarming locust.
Genes are not solo actors. They do not selfishly seek their own replication at all costs. Newer science describes them as almost social in nature: organisms get information from the environment and one another for how to change. The conditions, the culture, and connectivity are as important as the initial code. Likewise, memes are not interacting in an ideological vacuum. If we truly want to understand cultural contagion, we must place equal importance on the memes, the viral shell around those memes, and the ideological soup in which those memes attempt to replicate. Early memeticists saw memes as competing against one another, but that’s not quite right. Memes trigger and exploit our untapped fear, anxiety, and rage in order to manipulate us. They are not attacking one another; they are attacking us humans.
It’s not the meme that matters but the culture’s ability to muster an effective immune response against it.