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Memes Gone Wild

June 4th, 2007 · 6 Comments

A public service announcement: Meme is an extremely useful word/concept, and its mainstreaming is all to the good. However, if you’re not specifically calling attention to how some idea, belief, or behavior spreads in the population as an abstract replicator, or discussing the selection processes to which they’re subject, there’s an excellent chance you just mean “idea” or “notion” or some other synonym.

Tags: Language and Literature



6 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Grant Gould // Jun 4, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    If I recall Dawkins correctly, the only requirement is that it is a thing (idea, concept, notion, whatever) that spreads via imperfect imitation (mimesis, hence the name). Ideas or notions that fail to spread through the population very far are still memes, just relatively unfit ones.

  • 2 Jacob T. Levy // Jun 5, 2007 at 12:22 am

    Julian’s not drawing the line at “successful/ unsuccessful.” He’s drawing it at “we have some special reason to pay attention to the mechanism of propogation/ we don’t.”

    Imagine someone describing another person: “She’s beautifu; she’s got the blue eye gene[s], and the blonde hair gene[s], and the fair skin gene[s], and[…]” It’s *true* that those traits are the outward expression of something at the genetic level that has been propogated by genetic means; but there’s no point in talking about it that way in that context.

    Unlike Julian, I think that “meme” is rarely a useful concept and that its mainstreaming is generally a bad thing– there are so few mainstream occasions to use the word correctly that mainstreaming it just guarantees that it will be used incorrectly an awful lot. But he’s surely right to draw the line where he does.

    Special pet peeve of mine: a parlor game or set of mad libs does not become a meme just because it’s played in blogs where one person quite consciously takes a turn after someone else has done so.

  • 3 Ricky // Jun 5, 2007 at 2:05 am

    HA! Your Prescriptivist ways are no match against the power of Description!

    Is this a joke, or are you serious? Since I’m not a memeticist, I thought I’d follow your link to the Wikipedia entry. Lo and behold, in the introduction I find this:

    “Meme theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection… through the processes of variation, mutation, competition and inheritance influencing an organism’s reproductive success.”

    Followed shortly by this sentence:

    “The idea of memes has proved a successful meme in its own right, gaining a degree of penetration into popular culture that is rare among scientific theories.”

    Thus, should not one expect the notion of what a meme is to change as the idea spreads throughout the populace? Or am I being too much of a smartass?

  • 4 Julian Sanchez // Jun 5, 2007 at 12:19 pm

    Well, every complex organism has error correction mechanisms in place to dispense with harmful mutations–consider this post an instance. Obviously language changes over time, but some changes are useful or neutral, while others obscure useful shades of meaning. If “meme” starts to be used to mean essentially the same thing as “idea”, we’ve gained nothing (we already have several synonyms for “idea”) and lost what’s distinctive about the notion of a “meme”. BLIND prescriptivism, which holds that a word must always mean tomorrow precisely what it meant yesterday, is just stupid. But a reflective prescriptivism that asks whether our linguistic tool set is impoverished by a given change is useful, and indeed, part of what helps determine the use a descriptivist is tracking. In other words: Yes, you are being too much of a smartass. 😉

  • 5 Gene Callahan // Jun 5, 2007 at 2:39 pm

    Typical. “Memes” is one of the stupidest concepts generated in the late 20th century, with absolutely no scientific content whatsoever, pure pseudo-scientific babble. So of course Julian digs it!

  • 6 Gene Callahan // Jun 6, 2007 at 3:13 pm

    “Well, every complex organism has error correction mechanisms in place to dispense with harmful mutations–consider this post an instance.”

    Whew! I was looking in the post for “intelligent thought,” and am glad to see that my failure to find it was not my fault, but only because the post was not the result of thinking, but instead the result of “error correction mechanisms… to dispense with harmful mutations.”