The modern theory of information embodies an old concept, that information packets or patterns often take on a kind of life on their own through a process of imitation. Robert Oxton Bolton (1572-1631) said:
A belief is not merely an idea the mind possesses. It is an idea that possesses the mind.
Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins noticed that the process by which this happens has remarkable similarities to the way that biological genes propagate themselves and in 1976 named these persistent patterns “memes”. There is a very good article on memes on p. 88 of the May 2011 issue of Smithsonian Magazine.
Article author James Gleick quotes neurophysiologist Roger Speery on the subject thusly:
Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and thanks to global communication, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce in toto a burstwise advance in evolution that is far beyond anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet.
The fecundity of memes appears to have accelerated with the growth of computer power (Moore’s Law), accessibility of the internet, and the ubiquity of ever-more affordable electronic devices. But with this explosion and with the shortening of the median attention-span it is important to note that memes need not be true, and if you don’t believe that, just check out Snopes.com. Gleick notes:
Truth may be a helpful quality for a meme, but it is only one among many.
Memes can be ideas, catchphrases, or even images. As an example of an image meme, Gleick offers the portrait usually used for Sir Isaac Newton, surely one of the most recognized figures on the planet.
Philosopher Daniel Dennett said,
A meme is an information packet with attitude.
The Smithsonian article got me thinking about memes. The concept is now firmly embedded in the language. The concept itself is a meme and is now firmly wedged in my aging brain (brains are where memes reside).
What would a list of the more-enduring memes look like, I wondered? So I offer a start below. Got any you would like to add?
- A college education is necessary to being successful in life.
- Success is measured by financial net worth.
- War is bad for the economy.
- Buying is better than renting.
- Wearing clothes.
- Making fire.
- The song, “Goodnight, Irene” (stuck forever in my brain)
- Buy as large a house as you can qualify for in a mortgage.
- Always take a multi-vitamin; it can’t hurt.
- Everyone has a right to a college education.
- You get what you pay for.
- Flying is dangerous.
- Everything must have a cause.
- Ivy-league graduates are smarter because of the quality of their education.
- Old people can not adapt to changing technology.
- Southerners are slow-witted.
- President Obama being born in Kenya.
- The fiscal crisis can be solved without changing Medicare and Medicaid.
- Tornadoes never strike at the fork of a river.
- The more TV channels one can have, the better.
- All soldiers (sailors, Marines, airmen) are heroes.
- Bottled water is cleaner and safer than tap water.
- The bible is the inspired word of God.
- The pope is infallible.
- Any chain letter (chain e-mail).
- The American dream.
- The preservative in vaccines causes autism.
- Unions are obsolete because modern employers are socially conscious.
- The president is responsible for the price of gasoline.