What You Must Know About the Science of Mind Viruses and Cultural Evolution

Foundations of culture in the human mind: The study of memetics

Idea is to mind, as virus is to body?

People toss around the terms”viral” and “meme” on websites, blogs and in conversation, and we understand what is meant by them.

On the internet, going viral means everybody is watching or reading something, and a meme is an iconic image someone creates. However, did you know that the roots of viral and meme dig into the cognitive and evolutionary sciences?

Memetics is the science that explores brain viruses, memes, and cultural evolution, and many sciences discuss this theme. Yes, a real science, and an important one that helps us to understand how culture and society evolve over time, while it also explains how a tune can get stuck in your mind for an entire day or week.

You must first accept the fact that cultures evolve over time in a way that is analogous to, but not the same as, genetic evolution. It seems obvious that cultures evolve. After all, we are not still riding around in horse and buggy, nor do we live in caves. Our culture has evolved and progressed towards homes and vehicles.

As time passes, cultures retain certain traits and lose others. This is why we have iPods, but no longer have out-houses. Cultures progress, adapt, change, and evolve. Although the foundation of the science of memetics lies in Charles Darwin and natural selection, he did not develop the concept.

Charles Darwin did so well in getting us started with biological evolution, but he did not want to confuse cultural evolution with genetic evolution. Only recently, in 1976, Richard Dawkins brought cultural evolution out of the closet in his book The Selfish Gene. He believed that it was time to seriously consider how and what evolves in culture.

He found cultural similar to genetic evolution, but he lacked the words to talk about it. This was groundbreaking science, and the language itself had not been developed to discuss the science of memetics.

In his book, Dawkins humorously discusses the need for words to talk about cultures evolving. He called genes replicators because that is their sole purpose — to replicate and reproduce. When he turned to culture, he considered what replicators reproduce, compared to the way genes reproduce in the body:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. “Mimeme” comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like “gene.” I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. (192)

That was the precise moment when the term meme was formed, and it stuck. Dawkins used the term meme to indicate a small unit or bit of culture that can replicate or reproduce.

Does the idea sound silly? Bits of culture reproducing?

Well, the term proved useful and other scientists picked it up to explain how a tune like Beethoven’s first four notes in his Fifth Symphony can be so well known worldwide. Those four notes are a meme that he created, set loose upon the world, the tune landing in the ears and minds of humans. The tune did not die out or become neglected by society. On the contrary, the four notes replicated and spread from person to person the way a virus might. Sciences as diverse as anthropology and sociology have taken up the idea of memes.

Beethoven went viral with his Fifth, and the way he accomplished it was to generate a tune, a meme, that, for some reason, stuck with people, reproduced in the hosts, and spread to others through various vehicles (recordings, concerts movies, sheet music, commercials, etc.). Virtually the entire world is infected with this meme or virus, and it continues to spread like a long-lasting cold.

The double rainbow video on YouTube that went viral is an example of a meme, with 38 and a half million views. You can also think of Apple or Google as examples of memes gone viral, to the extent that the entire population of earth (not really) knows who and what they are. Their logos and icons are implanted in our minds, and they spread, infecting others, reproducing and evolving.

A company like Google is a meme, or a large group of related memes. Just consider the fact that Google incorporated only in 1998! That is major evolutionary change considering where it stands today, a mega-corporation, known by the majority of humans on earth. Google has evolved and spread (replicated) in the brains of human beings like a real pandemic of bird flu could spread through bodies. But these are not genetic, they are cultural, and culture evolves much more quickly than genetics.

Memes, then, reside in the human mind but also in other places and things. Other scholars have taken the idea further, and Richard Brodie defines a meme as “a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds” (Brodie 11).

Major memes

The term proved useful in explaining how cultures evolve, and other scientists picked it up to explain how a tune like Beethoven’s first four notes in his Fifth Symphony can be so well known world wide after centuries have passed. These four notes are a meme that Beethoven created, set loose upon the world, landing in the ears and minds of humans. The tune did not die. On the contrary, the four notes replicated and spread from person to person in the way a powerful virus might.

Beethoven went viral with his Fifth, and the way he accomplished it was to generate a tune, a meme, that, for some reason, stuck with people, reproduced in the hosts, and spread to others through various vehicles. Virtually the entire world is infected with this meme or mind virus, and it continues to spread like a long-lasting cold.

Think of Apple or Google as examples of memes,gone viral to the extent that the entire population of earth (not really) knows who and what they are. Their logos are implanted in our minds, and they spread, infecting others, reproducing and evolving. Look at the Google Doodles below to see how distant, yet recognizable Google’s logo is.

Even images as distorted as these are easily recognizable as Google.Even images as distorted as these are easily recognizable as Google.
A small child recognizes this logo as Google.

A company can become a meme or a large group of memes, if it becomes well-known. Just consider the fact that Google incorporated back in 1998! That is serious evolution considering where it stands today, a mega-corporation that the entire earth knows about. Google has evolved and spread (replicated) in the brains of human beings like a real pandemic of bird flu.

Memes, then, reside in the human mind but also in other places and things. The Google pictures are examples of memes outside the mind, on the web, but the important place where memes replicate is in the human mind, where they remain, replicate, and spread to other people in a culture.

The science of memetics is important because it seeks to understand how and why cultures evolve over time, which helps us comprehend the way that human beings, with their complex cultures, operate. The science is especially relevant in our quickly evolving technological world.

Takeaways

  • Cultures evolve in a way that is analogous to genetic evolution, through processes of cultural selection.
  • The basic unit of cultural evolution that is comparable to a gene is referred to as a meme.
  • Memes can take various forms, but ultimately reside in the minds of humans, and their sole purpose (from their point of view) is to be reproduced or replicated.
  • As different memes enter and exit a culture, due to selection influences, the culture changes and evolves.
  • When a meme spreads quickly through a culture, it behaves similar to a biological virus, and is said to have gone viral.

How do you see memes and mind viruses at work in your culture?

Like what you read? Give Darin L. Hammond a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.