What is a meme?
We most commonly recognise the term ‘meme’ as a viral phenomenon on the internet – a ‘lulz’ inducing, captioned-image found on the was interwebs. Grumpy cat, socially-awkward penguin, More Cowbell, and Doge, are just some of the million examples of memes that are transmitted from person to person, The intention is always to make an idea, behaviour or style go viral. While the internet is fertile land for the distribution of this content, internet memes have hijacked the original idea behind the word, whose etymology lies in the discovery and work of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’ ‘The Selfish Gene’, written in the 80’s.
Existing as the smallest units of culture, memes are perhaps humanity’s greatest tool.
Memes are a nod of agreement in a conversation, the joining of hands in a namaste, or the instinctive bless you when someone sneezes. Memes are catch-phrases, gestures, tunes and ideas. Memes are the fashion that we wear, or the technique derived to carve tools out of stones. Simply put, all data that isn’t coded within us genetically, is fundamentally memetic data. Like genes, memes also replicate themselves, and this process is known as imitation.
Why memes exist
As carbon-based life forms, the hardware of our human bodies are very slow to evolve. Our current, natural-selection based, agency-less evolution allows for only incremental genetical change across generations. However, transmission of culture through human creativity has allowed us to evolve rapidly from one generation to the next. So, how is it that we can evolve in the short term, if our hardware is so slow moving? Perhaps the answer lies instead in regularly updating our software. This software is memes.
The biggest differentiator between humans and any other life form is the prefrontal cortex. The human prefrontal cortex is thicker, bigger and more developed than that of any other animal, which gives us the edge to consume, retain, and compute data in a way no other species has ever been able to do.
This is not to say we’re the only species that can do this. Pattern recognition is crucial to survival. For example, imagine a monkey on a tree in the middle of the forest surrounded by beautiful yellow grass. In the distance, he sees a brown dot, and then another brown dot. Now, he suddenly sees 5 more dots emerge in the thicket. Now, in isolation those dots don’t mean anything. But when those dots move together in unison, the monkey’s ability to consume, store and correlate that data with past genetic experiences allows it to identify the pattern as a threat from a pack of hyenas. However, the identification of this threat allows the money to stay safe on the tree. This ability comes from the monkey’s genetic – and not memetic – data.
In our lifetimes, we intake a lot of such data and process it, store it and attempt to pass it on to our kin not only in the same generation as us but also to the generation below us. We train our offspring in a way that genetic data cannot. And that is why memes give us an evolutionary edge over any other life form.
For example, we know that skinning a wolf or a bear and using its hide will allow us to survive extremely cold weather conditions, because basic insulation is a meme we have inherited. Over thousands of years we have perfected this understanding to allow us to stay warm and survive in the harshest climates. When we have units of cultural transmission thanks to memes, genes no longer need to adapt to ensure survival.
Memes help us communicate in ways that are not genetically possible. In the simple act of writing this, I am communicating hundreds of years of research by illuminating RGB pixels on a screen, and you are able to draw precise meaning from it. The fact that I can tell you about my day, or ask about yours, or ask you not to take a particular turn while navigating and save you three hours of traffic is an ability unique to our species. Humans can take ideas, concepts, memories, insights, and emotions and translate them to each other with very little loss of information.
Some memes, however, are better than others. They are more effective and serve their purpose better. To be effective, a meme must do 3 things very well:
1. Ease of consumption.
It’s very important for communication between people to be in a language that is accessible and understood. Simply providing instructions on how to create a Sorcerer’s Stone in a language of your choice might as well be gibberish to a person who doesn’t understand the codified communication system being used. For most civilisations, an exclamation mark means danger, while for others civilizations, the meme is useless at best and dangerous at worst.
Most memes are not meant to be ambiguous. If I give you an inaccurate statement that you could interpret in another way, and it does not gain by a lack of interpretation (unlike truisms, which tend to flourish because they’re ambiguous – think fortune cookies) then that memetic system is weak or flawed. If I say something, and you understand something else from that statement, then that is an ineffective meme. A strong memetic system does not compromise on accuracy.
It would be futile to spend 20 years gathering knowledge, and then another 20 years to transmit all that knowledge. Instead, I should be able to impart that wisdom in just a few sentences. Be it E=mc2 or the blue line on Google Maps conveying where you need to go, a good meme is one that can be communicated in a quick and lossless manner.
The need for transcendence
But why does any of this matter in the big picture?
To say that the fundamental purpose of life is to replicate, is tautological. However, natural selection is ruthless towards any kind of frailty, physical or behavioural. Unless completely genetically optimised for survival, these physical or behavioural traits are eliminated from the gene pool. But if a life form does not want to replicate and pass on its genes, then that life form will die out and cease to exist. The inherent desire to reproduce is what keeps us living, that’s what life means. How do memes help us do that? They do this by fundamentally aiding that process, by aiding the process of immortality in a way that was not possible before.
As humans, we can strive for immortality in more ways than one. Shakespeare’s ideas are now immortal. The soldier that died on the border is immortal. Memes hijack our need for immortality by creating an non-biological way of achieving it. You may not want immortality in the genetic sense but creating a meme of what you stood for, of what you died for, of what you spent your life doing gives you a sense of purpose and transcendence.
Art is an attempt to achieve a powerful memetic structure. When a painting, a note of music or a motif in a performance packs a large and disproportionate amount of data we achieve a sense of awe, wonderment and beauty. But why do we perceive beauty and as a life form, what advantage does the perception of beauty give you?
A rock, a waterfall, a sunset, a cloud, a typeface. Beauty is nothing but patterns that we agree with. When we see a pattern of green trees or a lush waterfall, our brain recognises the potential for food and nourishment, and hence the very perception of beauty is born out of this genetic requirement. However, the ability to hijack that requirement is memetic in nature.
Here’s an example. The statue Venus of Willendorf depicts a voluptuous woman and was considered beautiful by the ancients. We perceive this as beauty because our brain create markers from the visual data that it receives, and links these markers to the existence of certain ‘fitness’ that is beneficial from the point of reproduction. If the symbols for certain fitness exist (in this case, wide childbearing hips) the inference is that the woman is a healthy candidate to reproduce with. Similarly, if a woman sees that a man has broad shoulders and arms, genetically she thinks he is fit to be able to provide and hunt. This behaviour exists in animals as well. One example of this is the plumage of a peacock, which acts as a marker for the peahen to determine if he’s fit to mate with. Sexual selection is nature’s tool to help individuals select fittest mates for themselves.
Similarly, the presence of a plastic tree in your living room can give you a sense of well-being because it is a marker for abundant nutritional resources, even though the oxygen releasing trait of the tree itself is missing. The scent of rain will make you feel happy because it is a marker for a healthy crop, and consequently, food. The sea makes you feel at peace because it is a marker that you can fish and feed yourself. To be able to see a marker in your environment and perceive beauty because it correlates with being beneficial for your survival, is the very basis of neuro-aesthetics.
VS Ramachandra in his 1999 paper, ‘The Science of Art. A Neurological Theory of Aesthetic Experience’, laid down a very interesting and insightful experiment. A group of scientists showed a rat a rectangle and a square. Every time the rat went to the rectangle, he was given food. Every time he went to the square, he was given a shock. Following this, they exposed the rat to a rectangle and a taller rectangle. And the rat went to the taller rectangle, even though his positive association was with the shorter rectangle. This is a phenomenon called peak shifting. The rat’s brain analysed the data available and deduced that if a small rectangle means food, a big rectangle means more food. In a nutshell, the magnification of the markers of wellness is construed by the brain as more wellness.
Art in every form hijacks this association. This is why the ‘Venus of Willendorf’ was once perceived as beautiful. Art in itself is a coding system that our brain has created and is actively looking for. The same rules apply to things other than art. Why do some fonts look happy, angry, light or heavy? They’re not made of a tangible substance, so why can we perceive their weight? The same neuro-aesthetic that activates when observing insects or materials translates into fonts and determine how we feel about them. We look for the symptoms, the evidence of the trait, not the trait itself.
Similarly, there are things that are good for you but are aesthetically unappealing. Like a child, who doesn’t want to eat broccoli. This is because genetically the child doesn’t know the benefit of the foul tasting vegetable.
This is also why people with “taste” watch documentaries or world cinema, and people without “taste” watch the Bachelor or a superhero movie where the protagonist runs around shooting bad guys. Because to our genetic brain, that looks like an example of a stronger, more virile person.
Our genetic code is vestigial and obsolete. Now we don’t need to hunt a mammoth to feel warm, we just need to flip the heater switch. And that’s why we will never evolve to have fur in cold climates. We have used our memes to shape the world around us to suit our needs. Our genes have become stagnant.
The classical understanding of natural selection as a means of evolution for all effects and purposes is over. It is going to be replaced by our ability and desire to tinker with our genetic code.
Meme’s are an agreed myth. The wave of a hand, the echo of a resounding applause, the ovation that follows are all a common history of experience and understanding we share. Memes are also the only way a species can agree upon a common future, and hence the bedrock of the very concept of civilisation. It is the naturally selected – and devoid of agency – belief that our genes will fail us, that we need a new layer of code to survive that sets us apart from every other known life form. Perhaps, memes might also evolve to a form so refined, that they discard their genetic carrier and set out on an independent immortal journey.
This new journey could potentially be defined by new media. New media is basically old media that hasn’t become old yet. Photography was new media once upon a time. So was painting and sculpting. The purpose of new media has always been to transmit an idea faster, better, and stronger.
The purpose of art until the 20th Century was to archive. It was to store realistically. Artists were celebrated because they could mirror reality better than others. But then something happened – Photography. The artist suddenly became obsolete. A camera could do in 10 seconds, what artists would take over 6 months to do. In the process of reinventing the purpose of art, the artist decided not to archive but to examine, to ponder, to question. To propose a new way of thinking, a new idea, a new perspective. And then art changed.
Now, the next era of art is to give context. Creation has become easy and cheap, so the next era of art is able to tell you the story you want to hear. It’s possible that you’ll tell a story that’s important to you but it may not be very important to me, and for that reason, your story may not appeal to me very much. Because of these dispositions , your Facebook feed and your Instagram feed is getting you a distinct perspective on life – insights on life that are tailor-made for you. All our social media feeds are different no matter the distance. The communicator doesn’t have to repeat the same story over and over again.
Our memes have been collectively agreed upon narratives, codes, concepts and beliefs. But with the ensuing democratisation of memetics creation and distribution, the subset of people that need to agree upon a meme, for it to have meaning, has reduced considerably. Every virtual chatroom, ever subreddit, every fandom, has its own universe of memes that make sense only to its small subscriber base. If we were to agree on Dawkin’s argument that memes function just like genes, what we currently stand on is a primal pool with so much variation and so many reactions, that the timeline of memetic evolution for our society reduces by an order magnitude with each passing generation.
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