Meme Power, the Evolution of Memes in the Battle for Survival of Ideas

by Lloyd H. Whitling

The interplay between biology and culture: In spite of all the controversy and misinformation, memes are nothing more nor less than ideas that have successfully gotten themselves copied. While ideas may reside in [1]living tissue, they are nothing more than the products of thought and observation that have affected that tissue as instructional and informational memory, not as living objects themselves.

Still, they are real phenomena who initiate actions that can be predicted and their results observed, much akin to computer programs. Their various natures can be observed and described as predictable behaviors displayed by the human hosts (the people who adopt them and perpetuate them). They are as real as any kind of idea, and to call them memes serves to identify their type as distinct from ideas that never get copied.

Memes appear to take on a life of their own because their hosts are alive and active in their perpetuation and spread. Memes that work together in a recognizable thought process are called ‘memeplexes’. Memeplexes that contain instruction sets to assure behavior that serves to perpetuate and spread them are called ‘viral’. Memeplexes that contain instruction sets that require information that can pass rigorous material testing are called ‘scientific’; memeplexes whose instruction sets give rise to inferences that arise from math-like language processes are called ‘logical’; memeplexes that result from thought processes that remain unverifiable in any tangible manner, often to survive while faced against contrary evidence, are called ‘religious’. Most adult humans are aware of all those differences enough to recognize the different types by those or similar labels.

That all kinds of memes and [2]memeplexes are subject to copying gave rise early on to arguments about what constitutes “copying” and “replication” and about whether meme(plexe)s that varied from their source could still be called ‘memes’. Early adopters who supported the idea of memes mistook the physical form in which they supposedly appeared as being the memes, rather than the information those forms presented to the world, as did those who argued (and still argue) against them. What comes out of that is the realization that memeplexes do evolve in a metaphorical sense the same as do real life forms, so that it is about informational and instructional ideas, not physical existences, that the subject is about. Memes could be likened to the events-component of processes to gain a better mental image about them, wherein a description of one set of events could lead to attempts to duplicate it as faithfully as possible.

Descriptions of one set of events could be copied in new processes and errors become corrected or adopted in processes to follow, just the same as memeplexes become adopted and varied by interpretations and needs of their new human hosts. In this manner, memeplexes adapt to better fit whatever circumstances may prevail over their new hosts. Some memeplexes, however, are better suited to the evolutionary processes than are others.

What seems to drive memes toward becoming viral is their tendency (or lack if it!) to inspire their hosts to “show them off” in some manner. Memeplexes with a huge component for generating disgust, outrage, indignation or intolerance in their hosts serve a better chance of driving them into speaking about their reasons for displeasure and for demanding change in whatever unsettles them and to aim for replication in the demanded changes. Memeplexes that result from advanced knowledge or hard experience generally allow their hosts to feel relaxed in the face of what they will see as naivety or ignorance, and allow them to appease their own mental responses by reminding themselves that everybody does not get the same opportunities to advance in life. Memeplexes that require study to gain the privilege of hosting them, then, have diminished chances of “going viral”.

So, how does something like atheism, with no inherent doctrine and no driving force behind it (except for rare but notable instances) get to survive for all the generations of humanity? Science, for a comparison, gets taught as a necessary part of the educational process, where one generation passes down what it has learned to newer generations. For the most part, it is not viral, even when fueled by technology, but it does have a method to insure its survival, against which hosts for truly viral memes often vie for dominance in the evolutionary battle for survival.

Atheism, being creedless and informationless but for the writings of past atheists, has no driving force to perpetuate it. In spite of that, and that most of such writing remains hidden from most people, it can be found in the midst of opposing forces that threaten its hosts with extinction but for their silence and the secretiveness such conditions force their hosts to endure. That seems the opposite of what is necessary for its survival. So, how does it spread or, at least, find hosts to perpetuate it?

As a memeplex, atheism appears to suffer from malnutrition. With no body of information and no instruction set to give it substance, it can barely be perceived to have existence. In spite of there seeming to be nothing much to it beyond what gets best described as ‘absence’, almost every religion recognizes it as something evil about which to give sermons of condemnation and revilement. Here, we see an example of evolutionary competition, in which the religions seem to have the upper hand, and yet atheism persists in spite of all the negatives that prevail against it, even though atheist hosts have been and, in some places, still are killed off by the religious. Is it the very ghostly nature of atheism that enables its persistence in spite of all attempts to remove it from existence, to wipe it out? Does its absence of substance enable atheism to persist in a sort of supernatural state, beyond touch and sensibility, in the kind of domain religion reserves for only the gods in their domiciles?

As the purveyors of religious creeds issue their dire warnings against each other, and against their common enemies, they spread awareness that such entities exist. The original definition of atheism, as a reference to all the world that does not believe in a given religion, grew as knowledge about the world’s cultures became more common, to now refer to anybody who does not believe in any of the religions or their gods. The enemies they all regard as such in common are apostasy and atheism, about which information grows easier to find on the Internet as they gang together to promote avoidance of those twin evils, the one of which leads to the other as faith gets increasingly abandoned by those who fail to work for its maintenance, or have become apathetic as they realize the emptiness of religion’s premises.

By their constant decreeing of it as evil all through the ages of mankind’s ability to communicate with language, and their constant failure to show the skeptical how such declarations hold much of any truth, religions have kept atheism alive in their midst. By playing the devil’s advocate against science, religion furthers that by spreading awareness of scientific concepts, and also drives scientists to speak out in defense against what they see as ridiculous and dangerous. By that effort, religion serves to further promote knowledge that leads to apostasy when those of their congregants with a real curiosity and drive to know the truth about any subject actually bend to the task of investigating their claims.

Their eventual discovery of misinformation and errors that inhere to those claims results in declining trust in those they previously may have regarded as accurate and authoritative. The very bragging statements the various religions make in ongoing fashion will serve to bring about their own eventual downfall with little effort on atheism’s part, because the evolutionary forces pushing religious memeplexes to compete drive their hosts to make those claims and to vie for religion’s supremacy in the midst of all human cultures.

Human emotions generally play a huge part in the development of a memeplex. Wikipedia quotes Susan Blackmore: “It was just over thirty years ago that I had the dramatic out-of-body experience that convinced me of the reality of psychic phenomena and launched me on a crusade to show those closed-minded scientists that consciousness could reach beyond the body and that death was not the end. Just a few years of careful experiments changed all that. I found no psychic phenomena – only wishful thinking, self-deception, experimental error and, occasionally, fraud. I became a sceptic.” Disappointment can be as effective as any emotion to steer a person away from a viral memeplex to adopt one less aggressive but more sensible.

Atheism’s secret is now revealed. The best I can hope for is that no one will believe it and convert the idea into a portion of a viral memeplex.


[1]from THE SELFISH GENE BY Richard Dawkins.

[2]MEMEPLEX: (from Susan Blackmore) A group of memes working together. (from wikipedia) Like the gene complexes found in biology, memeplexes are groups of memes often found present in the same individual… …because memes will copy themselves more successfully when they are “teamed up”.