The Selfish Gene was a paradigm-shifting book on the ideas of evolution. Near the end, Dawkins talks about the power of memes and how they play a role in our evolution. Memes turn out to be a significant factor in our development that is often not considered.
When thinking about genes and evolution, the process often seems slow. Our genetic evolution can only happen from one generation to the next. In reality, it takes many generations for any significant change to occur. Most of us will be dead before any meaningful changes can happen.
Evolutionary timelines are where memes become essential. You could even argue that they are a driving force in our collective evolution. Given recent history, memes are what has made us who we are.
Memes Are Like Genes
Genes have a desire to survive, so they do whatever it takes. Survival in this sense means living on into the next generation. Being passed onto offspring and continuing to live is their ultimate goal.
Survival is especially necessary for genes because when their host dies, they also die. Unless they have been able to pass themselves on, they will be gone forever.
The power of memes is like the power of genes, except instead of being in our DNA, they take up space in our minds.
Meme survival requires that they stay in peoples minds. But they can also survive in books and recordings. The memes found in the bible have had a long lifetime. But even those memes are only a bleep when compared to the longevity of many of our genes.
Evolution in Individuals and Groups
Genes, influence the evolution of our species and groups of individuals. Memes do the same, but if you were to see something happening, it would almost always be in the evolution of memes. Genes are slow and can take generations to pass on.
A virus is an excellent comparative example. The spread of the flu is a method of evolution, as it can act as a culling mechanism. At the same time, it pushes genetic information into infected people, who can then pass it on.
Memes can be learnt fast and change a person in an instant, thus acting like a virus.
From this perspective, people change via their ideas. Facebook as a meme has had a significant effect on the lives of many people around the world. It has caused an evolution of behaviour and a substantial change in lifestyle. This change has been in the ways of individuals, but this also affects the groups.
The Layers of Languages and Ideas
As a child it is easy to pick up a language, at least it seems that way. It is in our nature as children to pick up on what is happening around us. Noam Chomsky suggests this is the case because all humans have a built-in universal grammar. Which could be described as structures in the brain that make picking up languages possible.
Later in life if you learn a second language, you build it up on top of your native language. In this sense, every new word becomes a reference to another word. This is in a sense, the power of memes, they make up everything inside of our heads.
When you start learning a language, you think in your native language then translate to the new one. You continue to use these references as you move forward.
As you get better, the new language builds on its own. Developing structures is also how new ideas and memes work. We have base ideas or groundwork for what we know. From there, we build up new ideas branching from the old and creating new structures.
As we learn new memes, they build on the memes we already know. Our ideas and thoughts layer on top of each other. Layering also means that the meaning of a meme comes from the memes that came before it. Evolution, in this case, is an adaption of our cognitive environment.
What we do is a response to the environment, both physical and mental. The physical environment introduces us to ideas, and our minds adapt and respond. As we evolve in a cognitive sense, our minds change and become something new. From here, our new mental framework acts as an influential factor.
Stories Change Actions
Our stories influence our actions. They lead the way even when we don’t realize it. Memes make up our stories, so memes affect our efforts.
A great example of this is our story about money. Money has no intrinsic value and doesn’t mean anything on its own. It is pieces of paper with ink on them. That said, the stories we tell about money are what gives it its power.
The story is what matters. It gets us out of bed in the morning and has us rushing to work. But the story also tells us it is ok to get a couple of drinks after a, particularly stressful day.
In this sense, we could say stories are a sort of virus of the mind. It gets in, infects us and has us doing things we didn’t do before.
If stories can change our lives and lead us to do things, then we can see them as influencers. Ideas and memes are the genes of action. For this reason, the power of memes is important, because they have the ability to change us and our actions.
If you want people to do something, a good story is a significant first step. The better the story, the better the influence. The easier it spreads, the faster that the meme becomes viral.
Ideas Are Contagious
Like the flu during the winter, Pokemon Go spread across the globe in a few weeks.
Throughout time, the speed at which ideas can travel has continued to increase. Centuries ago, it would take years for an idea to spread across a country.
With the printing press, ideas started to move much faster. Now, we find ourselves in an age where ideas can spread like wildfire. According to Marshall McLuhan, this is because we live in a global village.
China is well aware of this issue and has made significant efforts to lock down ideas. The risks of ideas are part of the reason why the great firewall exists.
In the west, we have a so-called problem with fake news. There are calls to control and moderate stories and sources.
With the right environment, ideas can spread and replicate. In time, they become more prominent than they were ever intended. They can even become something completely different. The power of memes is that they have so much potential, often much more then we expect or can understand.
As social networks grow the world will become smaller and ideas will pass around faster. This passage of memes is causing a global evolution.
Ideas Can Change the World, And That is The Power of Memes
Ideas can spread fast and change the world in the process. Like Google has taken over the search world, dangerous ideas can do the same thing. As the technology to spread ideas becomes more available so too will viral ideas.
Unfortunately, with evolution, things don’t always go in the ‘best’ direction. Evolution is about adapting to environments, but that doesn’t guarantee peace.
With our new found power comes a risk, what if a dangerous viral meme comes along. At the same time, we can have optimism as a great idea could bring us to paradise. Unfortunately, we never know which ones will take hold, so we never know what the future will bring.