The notion of “memes” seems to grow more popular by the day. We are inundated by those internet images accompanied by text, usually signifying some sort of cultural critique, ideal, or sentiment, daily. We share them. And then our friends share them and on and on and on. We watch as they gain popularity and virulence.
But these internet images are just a small slice of what is really meant by the term “meme.” In truth, a meme is really any idea or behavior that spreads within a culture – from the notion of “innocent until proven guilty” to “liberty” to any of the other millions of concepts humans spread among themselves. The term originated from famous scientist and atheism proponent Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He simply took the Ancient Greek word mimeme for “imitated thing” and styled it after the word “gene.”
Different humans carry different memes. Just as viral internet memes differ among American progressives to cynics to the alt Right, all cultures carry different concepts that inform and reflect their worldviews and values. Americans carry memes that create a strong sense of individualism. Indians in contrast seem to carry more memes that create a sense of family and community identity that background individual needs and interests.
It is critical to realize that there are more memes, or ideas about the world, now than there were ten years ago. And there were more memes ten years ago than there were a hundred years ago. And so on. Memes have an emergent quality. Our ideas and ways of looking at the world expand and grow more complex over time. The first humans, for example, had no idea for “home” or “village” per se. The next wave of humans had no idea of “government” or “law.” The next wave had no concept for “science” or “democracy.” We have continuously invented new memes to create and adapt to an increasingly complex world. We have continuously created new concepts about ourselves and what we are capable of in order to further pursue our highest potentials.
It is also critical to realize that different humans’ minds and behaviors can become dominated by particular worldviews or memes and that the memes humanity has been driven by have evolved consistently over time. At first, the majority of humans were ruled by instinct. Next, they came into a mythic worldview dominated by tribalism, ritual, etc. Over time, they came to be dominated by self-interest and their own individual quest for glory and power. Next, they came to be dominated by appeals to a higher power or authority, usually a religion or their own nation. They soon discovered that science and reason were better windows into truth. And so on.
Though certainly their identities are complex and irreducible, humans today can largely be categorized by the worldviews and memes that most inform their perspective on the world. Those that think that government should provide healthcare for all come from an entirely differently perspective and brain structure than those who believe individuals should not be responsible for other individuals (and thus pay for someone else’s healthcare through taxes). People that think homosexuality is a perfectly natural and ethical part of human behavior come from a different perspective than those who believe it is an abomination before God.
These news ideas about ourselves and our world keep emerging. We keep growing ever more complex and dynamic. This appears to be self-evident. But if we accept that, we must also accept – and better yet embrace – that new memes are emerging right now. Humans 50 years from now will act on different worldviews and values than even the most enlightened and progressive of us do now. We have not discovered everything there is to know about ourselves. No matter our felt sense of moral righteousness and certainty, we almost certainly are acting in ways that generations to come will find self-evidently abhorrent, just as we look back at how our ancestors treated slaves and women, tortured dissidents, etc. and wonder how they could ever have justified such despicable acts to themselves.
This is a good thing. Just imagine all the marvels and discoveries that lie ahead. Just imagine how our societies will change for the better when more and more people jump from outdated memes and concepts to more complex memes that truly deal with the complexity’s of today’s world.