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  • Parth Pruthi

Meme's Eye View of Culture

Common images that flash in our minds when we encounter the word "meme" vary from popular meme templates to funny gifs or videos one might have come across while scrolling through their endless social media feeds.

Surprisingly, the origin of ‘meme’ has nothing to do with social media or something graphic/funny. Then what was the word coined for?

Culture, precisely.

Uniquely Human?

Culture is a broad term that encompasses the social behaviour and norms found in human societies, as well as the knowledge, beliefs, arts, laws, etc, related to those individuals and groups. The definition is very broad and so is the concept of culture. It's a trait of human existence that truly differentiates us from other organisms in the animal kingdom. Homo Sapiens as a species dates nearly 200,000 years back, and for the most part of our existence, we led simple lives in small bands, hunting, and gathering. What changed in these 200,000 years that our present lives are incomparable to our origins? While the specifics are up for debate, the single biggest reason is that at some point in our course of evolution, we got better at communicating and as a consequence developed complex language and culture over time. Both primitive language and culture are found in primates, porpoises, dolphins, and other species. For instance, different groups of dolphins are known to hunt in unique ways varying from locations, and these techniques are learnt by observing kin. They are also known to show empathy, altruism, and cooperative behaviour. Then what truly sets us apart? Our larger and smarter brains, and consequently, the ability to accumulate knowledge and practices over time. We developed techniques and tools to preserve and transmit whatever breakthroughs our ancestors made. A young aspiring mathematician doesn't have to figure out the details of calculus from scratch, ten year olds have more accurate understanding of solar system than greatest of greek philosophers. Our technological feats stem from this knowledge and cultural accumulation that makes us smarter than our ancestors because, unlike other species, we don't have to reinvent the wheel with every generation.

(Image credit: Marcel Langthim)

Evolution and Darwin's Genius

Charles Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is arguably the single biggest breakthrough in our understanding of life and living systems. Darwin's crucial insight was that some traits are advantageous to the organisms carrying them, hence boosting their odds of survival. This happens due to different selection pressures on organisms and variation of traits in the population. For example, if there are red bugs and green bugs in a hypothetical environment where predators (such as birds) prefer the taste of the red bugs, the green ones are more likely to survive. Soon enough, there will be many green bugs and few red bugs. The green bugs will reproduce and make more green bugs, leading to a reality in which nearly all of the bugs born into this area will be green. Natural selection is just one part of the equation, the others being Sexual Selection (selection of traits that boost organisms sexual success at times at the cost of it's fitness) and Kin Selection (selection of traits that boost the chances of survival of kins, at times at the cost of the organism itself). Another thing to note about natural selection is that it can give the illusion of intelligent design and someone/something directing the process but on the contrary is a mindless and purposeless process - it doesn't deliberately pick traits, rather, is a result of continuous struggle for survival in an environment with scarce resources.

Darwin demonstrated how nature selects for traits, but he was not aware about the exact mechanisms of genetic inheritance which were discovered by another giant Gregor Mendel. Ronald Fisher, a polymath, and father of modern statistics along with J.B.S. Haldane and Sewall Wright, synthesised both of their works to create the field of population genetics and reformed Darwin's idea to accommodate for genetic inheritance and put mathematical footing to the theory of evolution. The central point about the mechanics of natural selection can be summed up as:

Natural selection doesn't select favourable traits, it selects for genes that are good at propagating themselves. Often, those genes do this by helping their owners

to survive and reproduce, or by helping their owners’ kin to survive and reproduce. Sometimes, they may do so by helping their owners’ groups to do better than other groups, even at some cost to their owners. So adaptations don't take place to help the organism survive, they take place because they are favourable for the genes that give rise to them. Animals don't reproduce to keep their genes in the gene pool, rather genes use organisms to remain in the gene pool. It is important to mention that genes do not have any will or motivation, it is natural selection that produces these results and gives the illusion of agency.

One might be tempted to ask why Darwin is being mentioned in a discussion about culture. As we will see, that is the beauty of Darwinian Selection - it not only offers us perspective on living organisms but also enables us to apply the same principles to cultures. More importantly, our capacity for culture is only possible because of our brain, which evolved with different selection pressures during the course of our evolution, hence, some things come more naturally to us than others (fear of lizards and snakes vs fear of teddy bears), and this natural appeal for some things and some ideas can often be the reason that determines whether a culture is found in architectural ruins or in our daily life.

Cultural Evolution and Memes

Anthropologists, sociologists, and biologists alike have long maintained the position that complex culture evolved in human beings not just because our brains have the capacity for it, but because it gave us a survival advantage. In fact, many claim that even though we had some capacity for culture, to begin with, with the survival advantage of complex culture and language, our brains evolved to become smarter, so that we could accommodate more cultural information. The statement that human is a cultural animal is not far from the truth.

Our ability to cooperate at a scale not found anywhere in the animal kingdom is a testament to culture. Millions of us, in collectivity, vote for our representatives or watch sports not because these things are coded for in our genes, but because we have devised these social arrangements to serve ourselves. It's not too difficult to imagine why we evolved to become this way. When our ancestors lived as hunter-gatherers in small tribes of 100-150 people, culture didn't play a significant role in coordination. But as tribes grew larger, culture became the cohesive force that drove cooperation. Tribes with similar cultural and religious beliefs could coexist more peacefully than others, and could engage in trade more easily. Culture not only enhanced coordination between groups but also within groups - people with similar beliefs could get along better than those with contradictory ones, and if some violent clash occurred with other groups, people with better coordination had better chances of coming out of it alive. Evolution in humans hence parted into two ways, Genetic evolution, and Cultural evolution. Just as natural selection favours genes that are good for their owners, cultures and belief systems that are advantageous to humans become popular and spread.

Now, how do memes come into this picture? And before that, what are memes?

British Biologist Richard Dawkins in his famous book "The Selfish Gene", coined the term and defined "Meme" as a noun that "conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation." Memes according to Dawkins and many others are fundamental units of cultural transmission. Anything that can be transmitted via social learning is a meme - an idea, behaviour, ritual, practice, anything that can be learnt or grasped via imitation. Memes can be symbolic, may carry meaning, or could be meaningless gestures we tend to mimic. The idea that memes are fundamental units of cultural transmission is a meme in itself, every abstract thought to have existed in any human mind is a possible meme. Social media posts, funny gifs, and videos are just a subset of what memes can represent, yet studying those meme trends can give us powerful insights about how cultures evolve and spread.

The idea of a meme is analogous to a gene, a self-replicating unit that propagates itself. Just like gene replication is not perfect, cultural memes also mutate as they spread. Some of the most common examples of the above phenomenon are funny memes giving rise to similar but different templates, some news spreading like wildfire but the contents of the news have nothing to do with the original happening.

Imperfect replication is a prerequisite for natural selection. Some memes by virtue of randomness might mutate to variants which have properties that make them more common in the population for reasons that can be arbitrary. Prior beliefs, convenience, time and place to name some. How would natural selection play out in the realm of memes? Consider two competing memes, one that there is afterlife and humans end up in hell or heaven after dying, and another that there is nothing but void after one's death. Given an unrestricted environment for these ideas to spread, probably, the afterlife meme will circulate more since it appeals more to our philosophical and religious priors. The thought experiment also conversely explains why the majority of people on earth are religious and why the majority of religions have some concept of afterlife.

(A meme featuring Dawkins himself)

The idea of memes drastically changes how we see cultural evolution and goes above and beyond the claim that cultures exist because they are advantageous in some sense. Meme's eye view of cultural evolution says that memes and culture spread not because they serve us, but because they are good at spreading, a parallel to gene's eye view of evolution. Natural selection favours memes that are good at propagating themselves, sometimes those memes might give advantage to an individual, sometimes to groups, but not always. What better way to illustrate this point than to look at languages. Most words in a language are useful, that's why they exist, not all words though. Some words remain part of the lexicon despite being useless, not because they give us any advantage but because they are good at surviving. Daniel Dennet, a cognitive scientist once introduced this idea to a student, who in turn asked for an example, Dennet replied "Well, like, there might be, like, a catchphrase or, like, a verbal tic that was, like, a bad but infectious habit that could, like, spread through a subpopulation and, like, even go to fixation without, like, providing any communicative benefit at all." To which the student responded, "I got the point; I want, like, an example." The use of "like" serves no purpose but is a catchphrase commonly used by English speakers. It is good at surviving.

Ideologies and Religions

Given enough time, memes start falling into mutually supportive structures known as Memeplexes. These are memes that coevolve and cooperate to propagate each other. The idea of freedom of speech may coevolve with the idea of indispensable human rights, mutually reinforcing each other, and each may flourish in other's presence. As discussed, the ideas of moral sins, afterlife, hell and heaven are more likely to spread together, just like the ideas of free markets, market processes, and other capitalist principles. These Memeplexes compete in the marketplace of ideas. Some manage to get a massive hold on people, while some are only found in history books. When religions and ideologies are seen from this perspective, it becomes less puzzling why some of these are so appealing that groups and groups of people sacrifice their whole lives and choose to propagate a particular worldview. It's not the process of natural selection, but the scale of thousands of years that is capable of honing these Memeplexes to an extent that they almost piggyback on our biology. For example, the idea of gods stems naturally from our ability to ascribe agency to random events and establish causation. But religions are much beyond just belief in god, they embrace rituals, festivals, our place in the universe, our relationship with nature, and countless more things. A religion or an ideology becomes a full-fledged beast in itself that is trying to survive and is continuously evolving. And just like some organisms have traits that help them survive, religions, ideologies, and other memeplexes might possess memes that make their survival more probable. A religion that involves propagating the idea that other religions are fake and that it is the duty of its followers to spread the true word is more likely to spread, just like an ideology that preaches that people who don't identify with it are immoral and insensitive. Large memeplexes can be observed to have adopted memes that boost their chances of continuous survival not because those memeplexes have that motivation but because the observations we make are contingent on their survival i.e. memeplexes that didn't come up with memes that imparted them an advantage are less likely to be common among the populace and are more likely to be found in museums, just like countless religions, practices, and ideologies that were not able to gain a stronghold on their population. It is the classic survivorship bias at play, an illusion generated by just observing things that managed to survive and succeed.

Meme is a powerful metaphor to look at culture and its evolution, it enables us to apply Darwin's ingenuity to cultural landscape and grasp the nuances of why our lives are majorly driven by cultural constructs, unlike other animals. Admittedly, it's not the most intuitive way to look at things, and certainly not the only way, but nonetheless, an important one in our repertoire to understand the complex phenomenon that is culture.

By Parth Pruthi


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