How do memes change how we live?

In a previous post I started speculating about memes and their potential role in cultural evolution. I believe that coming to a better understanding of the way memes operate is an important part of coming to a full conception of habitability. As I argued previously, we can’t fully understand the human niche without seeing it in terms of memes–and therefore we can’t fully understand human niche construction without having a good grasp on memes. This is why I want to think harder about memes. In this post I’ll start with an interesting problem–though I’m not ready to discuss how it bears on habitability.

In his original discussion of the idea (in The Selfish Gene), Richard Dawkins presents memes as equivalent to genes–as subject to the same rules as the biological units, only in human culture. Memes should be able to change (mutate), be passed on (cultural inheritance), and also be selfish. They could be used to manipulate. In human culture they might be able to replace truth with lies. And how might this happen?

I was researching fraud in science for one of my classes, when I remembered this case: in 1998 Andrew Wakefield and several colleagues published a paper in the prestigious medical journal The Lancet linking a vaccine to autism (the paper can be found here). It might have been expected that the paper would have been largely ignored, based on its small sample size, the correlational nature of the data, and lack of scientific rigor. But a message – i.e. the meme it conveyed – that seemed very important had already reached the general public: vaccinations cause autism.

Since 1998 the study has been completely discredited; Dr. Wakefield was demoted to Mr. Wakefield; and he completely lost his credibility as scientist. The Lancet took the step of retracting the paper, and one would think the case is closed. The scientific community has detected a fraud and purged its ranks, and the public should ignore the fraudulent information! (For a full description of the case see the Wikipedia article on Andrew Wakefield.)

But of course that is not what happened, as the recent measles outbreak in California shows. And this is where the meme analogy becomes important. The meme of the supposed link between vaccination and autism has now taken on a life of its own and does not go away. It is deceptive and selfish in nature and continues to live on. It is quite obvious that information cannot simply be taken back once it is in the public arena.

If this is a selfish and deceptive meme it will be passed on at the cost of another meme (the idea that vaccines do not cause autism). But as the Wakefield meme is passed on it should be subject to selection pressure, according to Dawkins. The cost of the Wakefield meme is real and staggering. Children die or get sick with diseases that are totally preventable. So why does the Wakefield meme persist? How long will it be around? And who benefits from its continued existence? And why is it so persistent?

In other cases the answers may be easier. Lies and deception have been used to convince the public that smoking tobacco does not cause cancer, and that burning fossil fuel does not cause climate change (see Oreskes and Conway, The Merchants of Doubt–Stephen Weldon did a post on their book). But these cases are relatively easy to understand, because millions of dollars were at stake. It seems very different for fear of autism to prompt parents to expose their children to other diseases and even death.

I think it is safe to conclude that memes do indeed change how we live. Our picture of habitability needs to take account of that dynamic.

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4 thoughts on “How do memes change how we live?

  1. Neat idea, Ingo! Here’s something that might be an example of a dysfunctional meme that is perhaps more related to habitation than your vaccinations-cause-autism example: the preference in the US for lush green lawns. That preference can be thought of as a meme, probably derived from a vision of British aristocratic grandeur, and imported onto this continent with English settlement. With suburbanization, the lawn becomes a marker for a good life–and stimulates a huge industry for chemicals and equipment, and a huge demand for water, all of which have serious environmental consequences. Though there are places where xeriscaping has become more commonplace (sometimes due to mandates from local governments), I think it is fair to say that the lawn meme is pretty persistent . . . even in the face of well established information that it causes problems. This isn’t an example of replacing truth with lies, I guess–but do you think it follows the pattern you’ve identified?

  2. Zev, thanks for the comment! Yes, I think this is a great example. There might be more dimensions to this: walking on grass is simply pleasant. But you are right, this example highlights the connection to habitability a lot better.

  3. I found this on Facebook today: a long brewing conflict between Lamar Smith and (now) the whole scientific community. Suppressing the findings by climate scientists is an attempt to control a meme, right?

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