Monday, January 14, 2013

On the Evolution of Memes

Here on the internet, we have things called memes.  They are essentially insides jokes that separate those of us that live in the internet from those of you that don't.

However, every once in an while a ornery old man will come along and point out that memes don't just mean 'stupid internet joke'.  The term meme was actually coined by Richard Dawkins in his book the Selfish Gene in 1976.

The meme was a type of memory gene (hence the name).  The idea being that ideas spread through a culture and evolve over time to more persistent forms.  I seem to recall he gave as an example some song that he sang at his school as a kid that his father had known from his time as a kid and that was still sung, perhaps with minor changes. 

The key point was that in any system where things are copied, but with occasional mistakes, 'better' forms will tend to replace other forms.  Here, 'better' simply means more likely to be copied for whatever reason.  This is frankly, pretty obvious in retrospect, and is the central idea of evolution.

As another example I like to use the line "Luke, I am your father." from Star Wars.  If you are a pedantic nerd like me, you likely know that line never appears in the movies.  This is the exchange:
Darth Vader: Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father.
Luke Skywalker: He told me enough! He told me you killed him!
Darth Vader: No. I am your father.

If you examine the actual dialogue it should be clear why the modified version is more well known.  Simply saying "No. I am your father." might not be a clear enough reference to Star Wars, and people might not get the joke.  By replacing 'no' with 'luke' it makes it clear that it's the Star Wars quote.

Another example is the line "Beam me up, Scotty", which never appears in the original Star Trek Series.  Similar version were used on the show, and I won't speculate as to why that one become most prevalent.  Regardless, the wiki page has this interesting set of examples:
"Beam me up, Scotty" is similar to the phrase, "Just the facts, ma'am", attributed to Jack Webb's character of Joe Friday on Dragnet, "It's elementary, my dear Watson", attributed to Sherlock Holmes, "Luke, I am your father", attributed to Darth Vader, or "Play it again, Sam", attributed to Ilsa Lund in Casablanca and "We don't need no stinkin' badges!" attributed to Gold Hat in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. All five lines are the best known quotations from these works for many viewers, but not one is an actual, direct quotation.
It doesn't matter why any of these are used instead of the originals.  What matters is that they are all examples of ideas evolving to more persistent forms.

If you were alive prior to 5 years ago, you are probably aware that the word meme is a recent addition to most people's vocabularies.  This, despite the fact that we know it has existed for close to 40 years.

The point I'm getting at here, is that the word meme itself is a perfect example of memes in action.  Originally it had a specific meaning with respect to this idea of cultural evolution, but now it has evolved to simply mean 'repeated, sometimes modified joke'.  This form is clearly better adapted to flourish in culture.  Those who oppose it in favor of the original meaning clearly never understood the point.

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