Wednesday, December 01, 2004

Memes explained

Well, not really. But if you think a meme is limited to those silly quizzes and lists that makes their way through blogworld, this interview with Richard Dawkins is a place to start educating yourself.

Another kind of selfish replicator to which Dawkins has called attention are "memes" — things like ideas, fashions, tunes, and so forth that multiply by leaping from mind to mind. When Dawkins introduced the meme concept a couple of decades ago, hopes were raised that the evolution of culture, or even of the human mind, might be explained as a sort of Darwinian competition among memes. But little has come of this project, even if the word "meme" does continue to get tossed around quite a bit by pretentious intellectuals. I asked Dawkins if he had cooled on the meme idea over the years.

"My enthusiasm for it was never, ever as a contribution to the study of human culture," he said. "It was always intended to be a way of dramatizing the idea that a Darwinian replicator doesn't have to be a gene. It can be a computer virus. Or a meme. The point is that a good replicator is just a replicator that spreads, regardless of its material form."

The book Dawkins is currently promoting has little to do with memes, but if I were interviewing Richard Dawkins, I'm pretty sure I'd ask him about memes regardless.

Sitting on my bedside table for about the last 4 years: The Meme Machine, by Susan Blackmore, with a foreword by Richard Dawkins and nicely summarized at the Literary Saloon, so I don't really need to read it for myself. An excerpt is available online.

Part of the appeal of the idea of the meme is no doubt due to the word's etymology. Clearly it is derived from 2 words: "me" and "me." And everyone wants in on a good meme.

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