On the Origin of Memes

Memes are hot spicy right now. The Wisconsin State Journal recently wrote about all the memes floating around the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus. The Memes for Milk-Chugging Teens Facebook group creates dozens every week. UW–Madison might even have originated the meme — 97 years ago.

So where did they come from?

The internet meme goes back to, well, the beginning of the internet. It turns out that when you connect millions of strangers to one another through instant communication, most of their time is spent sharing ridiculous pictures.

But the idea of the meme — something shareable, some idea that can change over time — has a very specific origin. In his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term “meme” to describe the cultural equivalent of the gene. If the gene was the fundamental element of biological evolution, as Dawkins (somewhat controversially) argued, then the meme was the fundamental element of cultural evolution.

A gene is passed down from generation to generation, spreading through replication if it is successful or winnowing to oblivion if it is not. Evolution through genes is slow. The generation time of the organism carrying those genes might be long, and the mutations necessary to innovate on existing genes are relatively rare. Plus genes can only spread from parents to offspring; they increase in the population only as some parents have more children than others.

By comparison, evolution through memes is blazing fast. An idea can spread not just through reproduction — though certainly parents pass on ideas to their children — but on the merits or stickiness of the idea itself. And in the gigantic game of telephone that is human culture and language, memes can quickly get distorted and altered, providing the raw material of innovation that helps culture evolve.

But when they’re not trollface or doge, what does a meme look like? Let’s ask Dawkins:

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.

Dawkins goes on to not-so-subtly dig at the memes behind religion, deriding belief in hell and coldly dismantling the notion of god. (Dawkins is an avowed atheist, and routinely criticized for his contempt for the religious.) But he also uses the chapter to reinforce the point he makes about genes in the rest of the book: Memes, like genes, do not exist to benefit their owners, but only themselves. While both genes and memes will flourish if the people possessing those genes or advancing those memes do well, that is not their goal. Memes evolve to be successful memes, not to help the humans who spread them. Same with genes.

That might seem uncontroversial, or even trivial. But it’s not. Scientists and philosophers have long wondered about what advantage cultural traits like religion, ritual, tradition, literature, song, dance, poetry and art provide to society. We devote so much time and energy to these pursuits, the thinking went, it must be useful in some way. Some have argued that they are impressive mating displays. Others that they band together large numbers of people toward a common goal.

Dawkins’ point that memes serve themselves to is to say that, while The Odyssey might have bound the Greeks together, it spread far and wide only because it had the elements that made it shareable. Culture doesn’t have to be helpful to humans to exist.

Perhaps the most famous meme is language itself. Language is passed from mother to daughter, but can spread to others on the strength of its cultural influence. Language subtly changes with use, to the point that a word like “meme” can be invented and take off. And it keeps changing. Once a convenient notion for scientific theories about human cultural evolution, the word meme has morphed, quickly, into something else altogether — a funny picture, an in-joke. The word meme has become both a meme itself and a demonstration of memes’ ability to worm themselves into our heads and spread for their own sake.

Do internet memes benefit us? Do they help groups bond? Relieve stress? Maybe. But it doesn’t matter. Memes exist because they’re good at existing — and spreading.