On Memes

One of Kevin Drum’s commenters asks whether “meme” isn’t just an unnecessarily fancy way of saying “idea.” Kevin responds, more or less, that memes are “ideas that filter into a community rapidly, spread like a virus, and then just as rapidly die away. A meme that survives becomes something else: a concept, or an idea, or a principle.”

That may be one usage of the word, but it’s not the original one from Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene. To call an idea or other cultural unit (e.g., habit, practice, phrase, genre, value, norm, joke, style) a “meme” isn’t to evaluate it as transient, or to evaluate it at all; it’s to consider it as a self-replicating unit and think about how it does, or doesn’t, survive and expand in the face of competition from other cultural units.

Dawkins was trying to invent a form of cultural analysis analogous to population genetics, in which the focus is not on the validity or other intrinsic characteristics of the cultural unit in question but rather on its “fitness” for its cultural environment.

The best recent example I’ve seen of this form of analysis was Matthew Yglesias’s insight that consequentialism, while in many ways an attractive form of moral analysis, has difficulty flourishing within the enviornment of professional philosophy because it downplays the importance of the sort of thinking philosophers do, as opposed to the sort of thinking economists, engineers, scientists, and administrators do. Therefore, a philosopher who talks himself into consequentialism is going to have a hard time publishing philosophy papers about it, and will either cease to be a philosopher or work on topics other than ethics. Like a mutation that kills its host, an idea that incapacitates the person who has it from communicating it isn’t likely to spread.

So in calling an idea, or a style of painting, or a phrase, or a social practice such as negative campaign advertising a “meme” I’m announcing that I intend to consider it, not on its merits, but strictly as a competitor. I can reasonably say, “That’s a dumb idea [or “an awful thing to do” or “a silly way to paint”] but an extremely powerful meme.”

To evaluate whether Dawkins’s proposal tends to be fruitful, or to say how close the analogy with genetic competition turns out to be, would be beyond my competence. But “meme” at least expresses a coherent idea. If we need a word for an idea or other cultural pattern that is spreading merely on momentum and that we predict will soon fade away, how about “fad”?

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com