Richard Dawkins

Memes and Zombies

Daulton Dickey.

In “The Selfish Gene,” Richard Dawkins gave us the theory of “memes,” a word with which most people who use the Internet are familiar. Briefly, Dawkins’s definition of a meme is a self-replicating concept, behavior, attitude, sense of fashion, piece of music, and so on. He argues that a meme is only analogous to genetic evolution, that memes themselves are evidence for an alternate form of evolution, coinciding with, but distinct from, genetic evolution—but occurring far more rapidly than the evolution of genes.

A meme’s success depends on fecundity, the rate at which copies multiply. Mutations and variations occur in memes, which hasten their evolution. Setting that aside, if we concentrate on the fecundity of memes, then we can reach an interesting conclusion.

Say you live in a culture in which concept A is dominant in the meme pool; its ability to replicate means it has “infected” a significant portion of the brains constituting that culture. Concept A then passes from person to person, many of whom adapt to the meme without either conscious awareness or analysis of the meme.

There probably exists a plethora of memes in the meme pool which we accept and propagate without conscious awareness of the logic, or lack thereof, inherent in the concept. To put it bluntly, if we were to analyze twitterheader (2)many of the concepts, i.e., the “ideas,” we hold, then we would realize that we hold them because we were exposed to them and propagated them without “thinking” about them or “understanding” them.

Memes are, in a sense, parasites. Or, as William S. Burroughs once said, “the word is a virus.” They spread from brain to brain, from person to person. If we accept that memes are parasites, if we accept that our concepts, our behaviors, our aesthetic principles and so are transmitted from person to person, some of whom don’t “understand” the various memes they’re propagating, then we can, in a sense, say humans are controlled by such memes, analogous to the way infections in horror movies generate zombies.

Therefore, we can say that, by embracing memes without understanding them, humans are, in a sense, zombies. A dominant meme in popular culture currently speculates about a hypothetical “zombie apocalypse.” We dedicate time to this meme without realizing that we are, in a sense, already zombies, each and every one of us.