Foundations of culture in the human mind
On the internet, going viral means everybody is watching or reading something, and a meme is an iconic image someone creates. However, did you know that the roots of viral and meme dig into the cognitive and evolutionary sciences?
Memetics is the science that explores brain viruses, memes, and cultural evolution, and many sciences discuss this theme. Yes, a real science, and an important one that helps us to understand how culture and society evolve over time, while it also explains how a tune can get stuck in your mind for an entire day or week.
As time passes, cultures retain certain traits and lose others. This is why we have iPods, but no longer have out-houses. Cultures progress, adapt, change, and evolve. Although the foundation of the science of memetics lies in Charles Darwin and natural selection, he did not develop the concept.
Charles Darwin did so well in getting us started with biological evolution, but he did not want to confuse cultural evolution with genetic evolution. Only recently, in 1976, Richard Dawkins brought cultural evolution out of the closet in his book The Selfish Gene. He believed that it was time to seriously consider how and what evolves in culture.
He found cultural similar to genetic evolution, but he lacked the words to talk about it. This was groundbreaking science, and the language itself had not been developed to discuss the science of memetics.
In his book, Dawkins humorously discusses the need for words to talk about cultures evolving. He called genes replicators because that is their sole purpose – to replicate and reproduce. When he turned to culture, he considered what replicators reproduce, compared to the way genes reproduce in the body:
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. "Mimeme" comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like "gene." I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. (192)