Hitting the Books: How Memes Spread Through Society Like a “Mind Virus”


The struggle for survival is not always limited to animated objects. Ideas can be expressed just like biological genes, compete for attention-based resources, reproduce through discussion, and be encoded in the written word. In The ascent of information, award-winning New York Times Author Caleb Scharf explores humanity’s unique penchant for keeping information stores outside of ourselves and the steps we will soon need to take if we are to hold on to the 20 quintillion bits of data we produce every day. In the excerpt below, Scharf examines the surprisingly realistic ways in which ideas evolve, compete and spread.

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Extract of The ascent of information by Caleb Scharf. Copyright © 2021 by Caleb Scharf. Extracted with permission from Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without the written permission of the publisher.


In an effort to provide another example of the phenomenon of selfishness, Dawkins gave a name to the now-familiar concept of memes, which I briefly mentioned at the start of this book. These “viruses of the mind” – to use Dawkins’ provocative description – are ideas that not only spread easily, but can also induce new behaviors in their carriers. Indeed, the diffusion of a even is in itself induced behavior, whether through human conversation or sharing on social media.

Dawkins’ term crystallized thinking about a phenomenon that has long aroused the interest of people. In 1880, Thomas Huxley (known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his support for the theory of evolution) wrote: “The struggle for existence is as much in the intellectual as in the physical world. A theory is a species of thought, and its right to exist is coextensive with its power to resist extinction by its rivals.

Memes can also act like they’re selfish, as sometimes they harm their carriers. Humans are prone to become obsessed with ideas that can lead to disadvantage or even death. Starving artists, passionate protesters, religious fanatics, thrill seekers, and political ideologues can all seem on the road to self-destruction because of the ideas they nurture and propagate across the world.

To explain these seemingly irrational patterns, we can say that memes, or ideas, simply use their carriers in the same way that biological viruses hijack their hosts, or genes use vehicles based on organisms. The human mind is a landscape in which ideas can propagate and compete with each other, following rules that strongly resemble those of natural selection. What happens to humans, good or bad, is mostly of secondary importance in relation to the continuation of information, its subsequent replication.

This view is intriguing, disturbing and extremely controversial. To this day, it is bordering on unacceptable in many scientific circles to treat memes as something worthy of scientific analysis beyond their superficial similarity to what happens in biology (and to be clear , Dawkins never really suggested otherwise). This is especially true when it comes to attributing mutualism to memes and genes – assuming that the evolutionary ability of genes might be affected by memes, and vice versa. This hasn’t stopped a lot of ink spilling over memes (filling a corner of the dataome, with a certain irony), with some researchers proposing so-called memetic formalisms and a central role for them in cultural evolution. .

I’m not going to jump very far into this rabbit hole here. The main reason for scientists’ conservatism towards memes is that it is extremely difficult to separate cause and effect in a complex, intertwined, and messy set of systems like life and mind. Finding the phenomenon at the root of things, the fundamental actor, is supremely difficult. That’s not to say that a simplifying approach, or a one-size-fits-all rule, can’t be the answer. But proving it’s true is why most scientists still have jobs: it’s a long way.

With this caveat in mind, there is such a mouth-watering resemblance between the notion of replication and evolution of the information encoded in genes; the existence of memes; and the characteristics of the dataome, which must be looked at.

Previously, I’ve said that I don’t think the dataome is just a collection or a consequence of memes; instead, memes represent a subset of entities working across the boundary between the dataome and human minds. A popular slogan will bounce between minds and dataome. In contrast, a bus ticket or a database of winter cloud cover in Belgium, while they are certainly part of the dataome, probably does not spend much time, if at all, in the human mind.

The dataome also amplifies memes and aids in their survival. In a human culture, beliefs or values ​​are more easily shared and resilient because they exist as commonly accessible information – in physically manifested data (such as the Quran, the Bible, the Vedas, the Tripitaka, the writings). by Karl Marx or the Leviathan). Memes have more access to hosts and hosting media in a species with a dataome. Therefore, the better this dataome is – in terms of ease of access, efficiency, larger size – the better for these memes. There are intriguing similarities between this arrangement and the arrangement of genes and organisms. As we will soon see, a gene cannot stand alone in the world. It both relies on and contributes to an entire biological system, whether it is a cell or a population of a species. The better these biological systems function, in terms of reproduction, repair and diversity, to withstand changing environments, the better things are for the genes.

Today, in a way that hasn’t really happened in the past, the information represented by genes is also represented in the dataome. For example, a very stable set of genes in terrestrial biology are those that encode some of the structures of ribosomes in unicellular organisms. Ribosomes are large molecular machines essential for the production of proteins. As a result, these genes and sections of their codes haven’t changed much over millions, if not billions of years. One particularly well-studied set is called 16S rRNA, and through genomic analyzes in the lab, we have decoded thousands of 16S rRNA gene sequences from different species. These reams of data now exist in the dataome.

In other words, the information represented by the 16S rRNA genes has found its way into a whole new storage and replication system – that of books, electronic media, and countless computers and data servers across. the planet. You might argue that it doesn’t matter – the information in 16S rRNA doesn’t really do anything anymore, it doesn’t lead to new ribosomal molecular machines that produce proteins in the world. He is not exercising his original abilities. But the point is that, as part of the selfish genes, these results were never nothing more than a means to an end. If the only reason genes exist is that they can continue to be, to exist in the world, while the information they represent is in an organism or on your hard drive does not matter.

Of course, the dataome might find it difficult to continue to exist without its biological guardians … In this sense, the original function of 16S rRNA in the organic world is still of crucial importance. But now also, its function as an object of intellectual curiosity for the human mind, for scientific research and perhaps for future genetic engineering. All this selects it for maintenance and replication within the dataome.

There is an argument to be made that none of this should come as a surprise because the processes of gene replication in biology, and the way genes actually evolve, are already far from straightforward.

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