Memes and Viruses

Memes are ideas, practices, techniques, superstitions, delusions, etcetera that pass from human to human (or animal to animal) and are capable of evolution.

As stated in Wikipedia:

"A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures."
Viruses are non-living packages of genetic material that are passed from animal to animal (and plant to plant) and are capable of evolution.

Memes, genes and viruses are all incapable of spreading independently of their hosts.

Memes have been called mind-viruses. I am certainly not the first to liken memes to viruses, but perhaps I can give a different point of view?

Of course memes were not invented by humans and are not confined to humans. Animals inherit many memes from their parents and other animals.

This page written 2018/04/12, last edited 2023/10/20
Contact: David K. Clarke – ©

The idea that animals have rights is a meme.
Live exports 2
Photo from veterinarian Dr Simpson's submission to ASEL (Australian Standards for the Export of Livestock)
If animals have rights then they should not have to live in conditions like this on a live cattle export ship.
While viruses have a physical existence (and can be seen under an electron microscope) memes exist only in the minds and cultures of animals.

Apart from the physical, one of the greatest differences between memes and viruses is that a great many memes are beneficial to the hosting animals while viruses are usually harmful (but not always, some are quite beneficial, and many memes are harmful).

Curiously, neither memes nor viruses set out to reproduce themselves or to multiply, it is the animals that reproduce them. Should a meme or virus that spreads and multiplies very effectively be called successful? How does one define success in this context?

Memes have been with us for millions of years, yet surprisingly I believe that they were only fully recognised for what they were, evolving entities passed from one organism to another within a culture, by Richard Dawkins in the second half of the twentieth century.

Language is perhaps the meme we use more often than any other. Language is passed on from parent to child and variations in language are passed from person to person.

In the recent past it has become common to start a sentence with 'so' without any need. It has become common to say 'backflip' to mean a complete difference in a person's standing on some matter (of course when a person executes a physical backflip he/she finishes facing exactly the same direction as he started; about-face would make far more sense). In Australia at least, the word 'developed' has largely been replaced with the much less suited-to-the-task word 'unfolded'. It is the trend to make a 'road map' rather than a plan (even though the thing being made is a plan and does not remotely resemble a road map). All these are memes; the evolution of memes does not have to be rational.

Darwinian evolution has long been summarised as 'the survival of the fittest'. This certainly applies to viruses, but it would seem, to judge by the examples above, that this does not entirely apply to memes?

Religions, delusions, self-deceptions and superstitions are other examples of memes that have survived for long times while having very questionable advantage to the hosts. How much effort has been wasted drilling water wells on sites that have been chosen by diviners when there is no evidence that divination has any value and there are preferable ways of deciding the best place to drill.

A wind farm in South Australia
Wind farm
The absurd belief (or meme if you like) that has spread in a few English speaking nations that wind turbines can cause illness has slowed the desperately needed change from fossil fuels to renewable energy. This meme has slowed action on limiting climate change, ocean acidification, ocean warming and sea level rise and the huge number of deaths and illnesses due to the air pollution resulting from the burning of fossil fuels. Fortunately the 'wind turbine syndrome' meme had a fairly short life, from around 2009 to 2014.

Of course climate change is a physical process while the concept of climate change is a meme.

Related pages

Links to related pages on this site are scattered through the text.


Smithsonian What Defines a Meme?

On this site

Organelle, procaryote, eucaryote, organism; Is a human an organism or a cooperative of a quadrillion organisms?