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Memes

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The Bible says, God created man and woman, and he blessed them, “Be fruitful and multiply!”

Then Darwin said, ‘As we multiply…we evolve’.

Nearly 180 years ago, Charles Darwin, a young English naturalist set out on a voyage on board H.M.S Beagle. From the insights of his 5-year journey, Darwin put forth the ‘theory of evolution by natural selection’- a concept that is commonly encompassed in the phrase ‘Survival of the fittest’.

Today, we know that natural selection is mediated by the differential survival of replicators – called genes. Basically, genes are responsible for the way you are!  They replicate / multiply so that each of your cells has an equal share of all the genes. It is said that the perpetual struggle for existence gives rise to useful genetic variations in some organisms of a species, conferring on them the best chance of survival and procreation, leading to the evolution of the species. Why and how do you think humans survived all the ages past? The answer is Genetic Evolution.

A cultural evolutionary theory was then proposed by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. According to Dawkins, “For an understanding of the evolution of modern man, we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas on evolution”. His hypothesis revolves around the idea that “All life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene happens to be the ‘replicator’ that prevails on our planet. There may be others. If there are, provided certain conditions are met, they will almost inevitably tend to become the basis for an evolutionary process”.

Dawkins believes that a new kind of replicator has already emerged on our planet, which seems to evolve by non-genetic means and at a much faster rate. He has christened these new replicators – MEMES (rhymes with ‘dreams’). Memes are cultural traits such as tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes-fashion, building arches or ways of making pots. Just as genes propagate themselves by leaping from body to body via sperms and eggs, likewise, memes propagate themselves by leaping from brain to brain.

Memes are all around us. They compete for radio and television time, billboard-space, newspaper column-inches and library shelf-spaces.  They replicate just like genes, mostly by word of mouth and/or by imitation. The propagation of memes can be compared to the popular game – ‘Chinese Whispers’. As a meme is transmitted from one brain to another, it undergoes changes or ‘mutations’ contributed by the ‘brain’ it inhabited previously. Analogous to the fact that the ‘biological advantage’ conferred by a gene determines its survival (or rather the survival of the organism it inhabits), the survival and longevity of a meme is determined by the ‘psychological appeal’ it receives.

Let me tell you, this article that you are reading is a meme! It is an idea that I have planted in your brain. If it fascinates you and manages to grab a slot in your brain, you will propagate it to your friends, but surely a slightly ‘mutated’ version!

Finally, I’d like to leave you with Dawkins’ words, “When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. As each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparkling plug; it may live on intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool”.

Sharon Mary John

MMS

Batch 2011 – 13

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