In fact, what are ideas? That’s the preoccupation of this blog. Are ideas divine sparks of inspiration? Are they the accidental by-products of our weird ape-based brains? Are they neuronal fireworks displays that happen to find meaning in our lives? Or are they more than all these things?
One idea that I’ve spent the last two years of my life researching is that ideas are very much like living organisms, alive in their own right. This radical notion suggests that ideas are under pressure to survive (in our memories) and reproduce (between our minds); that they are subject to “adaptation” (gradual change) and “speciation” (splitting into two or more independent ideas when the “selective environment” dictates). Ultimately, this idea is that this similarity between organisms and ideas can not only explain the way in which culture evolves but also the way in which we have evolved over the past few million years. It’s a big idea.
It’s not my idea – it’s been around in one form or another for well over a century – I’m just reporting on it. As an evolutionary biologist and ecologist I’m attracted to it. I can see the sense in it. It has lots of explanatory power. And it’s fun. In my opinion, “meme theory”, as its loose association of advocates call it, has enormous potential to help us understand the sort of creature we are, why we do what we do, and how we may improve our lot on this planet.
So, if it has such potential, why has this particular idea not entered mainstream conversations in all its long life? Why is it still fringe? Why do I need to introduce it at all? Meme theory has historically suffered from a number of complaints. Because, at its core, it relies on an analogy with gene theory, it’s too easily rejected as just an analogy, or in other words, a metaphor, with no serious theoretical intent. Beyond this, its proposed analogue, gene theory, together with our modern, rather full and impressive understanding of biology, has often been used as a weapon with which to beat it. Critics are happy to disable the substance of the analogy before it even gets going. “You can’t split culture into blocks”, they say, as if no-one’s ever puzzled over splitting the characteristics of living things into locks. “If memes exist,” they holler, “then show me one”, as if it wasn’t a century between Mendel’s proposal that genes existed and the moment Watson and Crick actually saw one on strands of DNA.
But, perhaps more confounding than all this direct criticism, is the fact that meme theory doesn’t have a natural home in the contemporary academic environment. It isn’t wholly in the jurisdiction of biology, psychology, philosophy, anthropology, neuroscience, cultural studies or information science. It falls into the gap between all of them. No surprise then that the current cohort of memeticists is drawn from every one of these disciplines. This situation means that there is a PR issue – it’s tough to promote any idea without a solid, unified foundation of support, especially an idea that threatens the solid, unified foundations of so many other well-supported ideas. Indeed, meme theory would predict exactly that! Ideas
must compete and adapt to best fit the existing selective environment. Any species of idea that does not fit will find survival a genuine struggle and may ultimately go extinct – disappearing from our collective minds forever.
I for one don’t want that to happen. For my part, I intend to use this blog to offer meme theory in all its incarnations a plot of fertile ground, a place to grow and thrive, to adapt perhaps, to speciate maybe, to evolve. That’s the idea anyway. Why don’t you check in from time to time to see how it’s doing?