Thought Contagion

Thought contagions are beliefs or ideas that "program" for their own spreading--ultimately affecting whole societies. By their strong effects on how we live, such ideas secure self-propagation by inducing evangelism, abundant childraising and dropout prevention. Ideas harnessing these human functions most effectively win out over weaker variants. Evolving like life forms, through evolution by natural selection, thought contagions vie for ever stronger influence in human lives.

When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This “something” can then be passed on again, and again, and so take on a life of its own. We might call this thing an idea, an instruction, a behaviour, a piece of information ... but if we are going to study it we shall need to give it a name.It is the “meme”.

The key to the theory of memes, and what separates it from the traditional theories of cultural evolution, is the advent of a second replicator. The first replicator is of course the genes. The second replicator is the meme and it exists not for culture or any other reason other than its own survival. It can work with or against the genes.

Memes spread themselves around indiscriminately without regard to whether they are useful, neutral or positively harmful to us. A brilliant new scientific idea, or a technological invention may spread because of its usefulness. A song like “Jingle Bells” may spread because it sounds OK, though it is not seriously useful and can definitely get on your nerves. But some memes are positively harmful - like chain letters and pyramid selling, new methods of fraud and false doctrines, ineffective slimming diets and dangerous medical `cures’. Of course the memes don’t care; they are selfish like genes and will simply spread if they can.

Remember that the same shorthand applies to memes as to genes. We can say that memes are `selfish’, that they `don’t care’, that they `want’ to propagate themselves and so on when all we mean is that successful memes are the ones that get copied and spread, while unsuccessful ones do not. This is the sense in which memes `want’ to get copied, `want’ you to pass them on and `don’t care’ what that means to you or your genes.

This is the power behind the idea of memes. To start to think memetically we have to make a giant flip in our minds just as biologists had to do when taking on the idea of the selfish gene. Instead of thinking of our ideas as our own creations, and as working for us, we have to think of them as autonomous selfish memes, working only to get themselves copied. We humans, because of our powers of imitation, have become just the physical “hosts” needed for the memes to get around. This is how the world looks from a “meme’s eye view”.

One of the problems with the idea of memes is that it strikes at our deepest assumptions about who we are and why we are here. This is always happening in science. Before Copernicus and Galileo people believed they lived at the centre of the universe in a world created especially for them by God. Gradually we had to accept, not only that the sun does not revolve around the earth, but that we live on some minor little planet in an ordinary galaxy in a vast universe of other galaxies.

A hundred and forty years ago Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection provided the first plausible mechanism for evolution without a designer. People’s view of their own origin changed from the Biblical story of special creation in the image of God, to an animal descended from an ape-like ancestor - a vast leap indeed, and one that lead to much ridicule and fanatical opposition to Darwin. Still - we have all coped with that leap and come to accept that we are animals created by evolution. However, if memetics is valid, we will have to make another vast leap in accepting a similar evolutionary mechanism for the origin of our minds and our selves.