Memes

Microscopic photo

Way back when our prime common forbear lounged in a tide pool of tepid water, this blob of snot became upset by the windy to and fro that whacked it repeatedly and decided to hang onto a good sized pebble to fend off whatever dizziness it was capable of. The rock was an uncomfortable perch with its angular edges and after a few brief millenniums it figured it could do better than the pebble and fabricated, from drifting bits of calcium carbonate, a more appropriate support that, with the experience of time and many unsuccessful attempts, it fashioned our skeletal structure.

Richard Dawkins conceived of the athletic idea that leaps from human mind to human mind to colonize and dominate cultures. This intellectual abstraction or meme can be something as innocent as a catchy tune or a motivation with darker implications like political and cultural ideas with wide and frequently violent effects on human life. He assumed that the proper environment of an idea was a thinking mind and that an idea must have a brain to squat in. But it seems to me that ideas abound outside of minds and that thinking is an activity that is a natural function of the several fundamental forces that diddle with raw matter.

Intellectually capable people who are fond of coddling their fantasies continuously point to the sophisticated engineering inherent in all biological structures and ridicule the idea that the raw push and pull of forces weak and strong plus electromagnetism and gravity could produce both Mickey Mouse and Einstein but an unprejudiced, thorough and honest look around reveals nothing else.

So once you grant that this ingenious universe does not stalk time’s corridors in a beard and a white Mother Hubbard but is an invisible coalition of its components in infinitely varying proportions acrobating itself through its eons, the concept that its creative processes are somewhat along the same lines as that of human efforts seems not too far fetched.

One of the more intractable and cockeyed memes that stooges around in many human heads is the idea that nature is a hierarchy. We graduate from Grimm’s terrible tales to the incorrect evolutionary concoction that the little four legged rat increased its status and metamorphisised into a tree-climbing squirrel type. Thence it worked out grasping hands and evolved from a heavy browed stooped hairy redneck to Fred Astaire in a top hat and tails. And this is proposed as progress. But nobody asked squirrels.

Anyway, those happy amoeboids that started the whole business are still frolicking all over the world and, no doubt, being whacked by other like creatures. And, of course, so are we. And when our clever tricks come back to fry us or freeze us the amoebas will probably still go on playing in their ponds.

So memes, in the same manner as our organic selves, evolve in the sense that they are modified by their environment. Just as mammals are variations on a theme so tunes branch out and acquire families. Anybody who has listened to folk music is familiar with how they hang on to their melodies and change their words through time. Similarly the words that our politicians use once had concrete and sensible meanings but, as George Orwell has vividly described, they can twist around and bite themselves in the tail or explode into gaseous nonsense. Again, this could hardly be construed as progress. And the success of these misbegotten memes in politics and advertising and personal relationships may benefit their existence but they are not particularly kind to humanity.

So you’ve got to be careful to notice whether you’ve got an idea or it’s got you.

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