Memes – A unit of culture

11:09 am Hong Kong Education

By Dr. Orville Leverne Clubb, Head of BTEC Centre, ITS Education Asia

This is 2nd in a series from Dr. Clubb. The 1st can be found here.

It is time to stop the mealy-mouthed euphemisms: ‘Nationalists’, ‘Loyalists’,’Communities’, ‘Ethnic Groups’, ‘Cultures’, Civilizations’.  Religions is the word you need.  Religion is the word you are struggling hypocritically to avoid.

-Richard Dawkins

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I was introduced to the meme while having dinner with my son who at the time was pursuing his linguistic degree. As a lifelong learner, after hearing about memes I surfed the WWW to find out what I could about the concept. I learned that the meme was conceptualized by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” (free book downloads on the meme concept). Dawkins conceived  the meme to explain how cultural information spreads in a Darwinian fashion. A meme is characterized by being a small unit of cultural information that is self-replicating and its method of spreading is modeled on the behavior of biological genes.

The meme concept has developed a following and a field of study, Memetics, has been developed for studying the changes in cultural knowledge based on a metaphor of Darwinian evolution. The meme is encoded with the use of a language, ritual, etc.

Since memes are naturally selected from the cultural environment there is little room for us as an “individual” in a vast cultural evolutionary process which we do not control.  Memetics appears to suggest that humans are biological robots fighting for survival of their culture and DNA. This implies free will and consciousness is an illusion, and self is only a complex collection of memes that are copied from ones’ cultural environment.

As with natural selection, the meme concept has shaken the foundations of  theology since the concept suggests we are products of our environment instead of being created as a part of a grand divine scheme, and of course, Richard Dawkins is a famous atheist. Being an evolutionary biologist, he had great difficulty accepting the Christian belief that the book of Genesis was a literal factual account of the creation of the earth.  Myself, being from a Christian background and an American originally from Mississippi, I remember the emotional anti-evolution views of people around me. Fundamentalist preaches in the deep south believe that the King James Version of the Bible is the “sacred law” and every word is the truth.  As I heard a preacher once say: “It is as if the scriptures printed in the book were faxed down from God”.  As an adult I have accepted that natural selection happens.

Darwin’s theory of evolution is iconoclastic and still battling to lose the title “theory” and be considered fact. There was a celebration of the anniversary of Darwin’s 200 birthday in 2009, and yet the fight still goes on. The underlining concepts of evolution have proven to be persistent and are winning over more converts. A great discussion of the battle of divine plan vs. evolution is in the article Why the Feud between Darwin and religion?

Dawkins’ religious views have been labeled by some as Atheist Fundamentalism.  Maybe Dawkins beliefs have been modified by religious memes of his past. Dawkins is now calling himself a “secular Christian”.  In an article Is Richard Dawkins Close to Christianity? we see an explanation by Dr. William Oddie that Dawkins was brought up as an Anglican but turned atheist in his early teens after learning the theory of evolution. Being a retired academic I know that my views have changed over time with each year and new experiences. I have not totally given up my belief that there is a superior being that  bring order to the cosmos. Many of our past beliefs are past memes that stay with us to come back and haunt us.

In my previous blog I stated “In my next blog of this series, I will continue the discussion and go into the operations of memes and explore Virtual Tribalism.”  I will go into Virtual Tribalism and Social Identity Theory  in my next blog.

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