Meme – noun
A cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.
Culture – noun
The behaviors and beliefs characteristic of a particular social, ethnic, or age group: the youth culture; the drug culture.
I horrified my 14-year-old daughter a few days ago by suggesting that something as “cool” as memes existed not just on the internet – where she was familiar with them – but in our little family. She suggested that we as a family weren’t cool enough ourselves to have our own memes, but I stand by what I said.
It seems to me that this concept has been around for far longer than 1976 when Richard Dawkins coined the term. When I was in college, we had our own internal jokes which functioned exactly like memes except we didn’t use that term. We called them ‘inside jokes’ and used them on each other whenever we could. We didn’t even really think of the concept of memes back then, but it’s entered the cultural zeitgeist since the advent of the internet, and looking back, I can see clearly they were there.
This proves to me that memes can die. There are many jokes that were around when I was younger – in my family, my circle of high school friends, my circle of college friends – that are gone now. I don’t even remember knowing them let alone remember what they were.
But what about the ones that may be preserved in some way? Say written down on a birthday card or captured on a piece of video. Nobody’s sharing them any more, so are they still alive, or are they dead? Or are they instead like a seed that might someday sprout again? A few folks think memes are a life form, but if they are, the lines are far blurrier than with real life. It’s generally pretty clear when something is dead in physical reality, but not so with ideas. This makes me question if they are really alive at all. I would suggest that they are more like a virus, with some attributes of life, but not all. Let’s review, shall we?
Wikipedia lists seven requirements for life, and most life forms possess all of them. A few possess most of them and are still considered life. The following is a list excerpted from Wikipedia’s entry of life, with my thoughts in [brackets]:
- Homeostasis: Regulation of the internal environment to maintain a constant state; for example, electrolyte concentration or sweating to reduce temperature. [Memes have no need for this particularly, having no physical body. One could argue that homeostasis for a meme is its cultural relevance.]
- Organization: Being structurally composed of one or more cells — the basic units of life. [Again, memes have no physical form, but it’s clear that a meme has a clearly defined boundary. It’s easy in a conversation to tell where the meme starts and ends.]
- Metabolism: Transformation of energy by converting chemicals and energy into cellular components (anabolism) and decomposing organic matter (catabolism). Living things require energy to maintain internal organization (homeostasis) and to produce the other phenomena associated with life. [This is really hard to apply to memes. The only energy they have is that which our brains and computer servers use to record/store the meme. This is a parasitic act if it’s anything.]
- Growth: Maintenance of a higher rate of anabolism than catabolism. A growing organism increases in size in all of its parts, rather than simply accumulating matter. [With no physical form, there is no clear form of growth. A meme doesn’t get ‘bigger’ the more people like it, so this doesn’t apply at all.]
- Adaptation: The ability to change over time in response to the environment. This ability is fundamental to the process of evolution and is determined by the organism’s heredity, diet, and external factors. [This is one of the clearest ways in which a meme matches the requirements of life. Memes are constantly changing their form slightly as they pass into different environments such as different websites and different brains.]
- Response to stimuli: A response can take many forms, from the contraction of a unicellular organism to external chemicals, to complex reactions involving all the senses of multicellular organisms. A response is often expressed by motion; for example, the leaves of a plant turning toward the sun (phototropism), and chemotaxis. [It’s very hard to understand how a meme could respond to stimuli. A concept has no consciousness, not even hard-wired reactions like those found in very simple organisms.]
- Reproduction: The ability to produce new individual organisms, either asexually from a single parent organism, or sexually from two parent organisms. [This is the other way that memes meet the criteria for life. If you see a meme on Facebook and hit ‘share’, then that meme has just reproduced. And I want to be clear, it hasn’t reproduced just by being copied. It has reproduced by entering others’ consciousness. A concept cannot exist at all without a sentient being to comprehend it, and that’s exactly what happens whenever your friends see the meme you just shared.]
It’s clear that meme’s have some of these traits, but not nearly enough for me to feel comfortable calling them alive. Basically, they can adapt and they can reproduce, but even that is not really alive. If all the humans on Earth died, every meme would die with us. They cannot reproduce and they cannot adapt without our brains to do so for them. Based on this, they aren’t really alive.
They surely exist, but they exist as a specific variation of the word concept. So meme is to concept as port is to wine. It’s a specific type of widely transmitted (within a certain cultural group) concept.
The study of memetics is the study of memes. Just to be clear, what they are studying is brains. Memetics is basically a specialized branch of psychology and neuroscience. It’s not a branch of biology, and they aren’t studying a new life-form, unless they are using a very different definition of what life really is.
If it has no physical form (that would include possibly energy and even gases, neither of which memes are made of), can’t reproduce without 100% assistance from another life-form, and have no way of responding to stimuli, it isn’t life.
And that’s all she wrote.