Memes and Genes – Transition of Cultural and Social Identities Beyond the Physical Realm

On holiday the last few weeks in the town of my birth with my young children got me reflecting on memes and their role in maintaining personal and cultural attributes across generations and time. We have lived through more than half a century where in science the ‘gene era’ has dominated, perhaps because of the remarkable breakthroughs that have occurred in genetics and molecular biology since the discovery of the nature of DNA and how it replicates in the last half of the previous century. In the gene model of life, everything we are and do is encoded in our genes, and these genes are physically transmitted to our children, who become a copy of ourselves (blended of course with our spouses genes) and who propagate our DNA further through their own children and then on to future generations of offspring.

This gene model makes mostly sense for our physical makeup, but the problem with it is of course lies in the behavioural and social realm, which are intangible and cannot be directly related to specific genetic activity, and which also appear to be both propagated and ‘passed down’ through generations in a manner similar to genes transmission. In the last few decades such ‘heritable’ social behaviour have been described as memes (also described in the past as ‘culturgens’), which are defined as an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture, and which act as a unit of culture, idea, or practice that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable or mimicked behaviour. So in the analogy of my children, looked at from a meme perspective, it would be that they pick up behaviour I am exhibiting, or have exhibited in the past and exhibit it themselves in their own future lives. In the analogy of my old hometown, social routines or behavioural actions and potentially prejudices that occur in the time of one generation who lived there will continue to occur in the following generations – for example having Christmas lunch with ones extended family, singing Christmas songs each year on Christmas day, and even taking a holiday break at this time of year as a regular occurrence – all of these behaviours we do as ‘routine’ were done by out parents before us, and will likely be done by our children after we are gone, given they are experiencing these activities as seminal occasions of their early youth and are therefore memes – so memes such as these are in effect ‘propagated’ across generations in a similar manner to how DNA is propagated, but exist as a social entities, or as behaviours, which are external to our own existence and have a ‘life’ of their own. In extreme versions of meme theory, humans don’t exist to propagate their own DNA but rather to ensure the propagation and maintenance of the memes of which they engage with, although of course social and behavioural memes cannot exist without human life and interactive activity. There are also of course different ‘sizes’ or levels of complexity of memes – for example Christmas lunch would be a relatively simple meme, while religion in its entirety would be an example of a complex meme.

Like physical genetic based evolution, where advantageous traits are maintained and develop while negative traits eventually disappear, memes that survive for long periods of time and over multiple generations surely are advantageous to the communities where they exist. However, some memes, such as innate cultural prejudices which exist in communities or cultures over many generations, such as racism or jingoism, can of course be self-defeating and damaging, and one can even argue a case that patriotism for a particular cause or country, which is a another example of a complex meme, can lead to conflict with other countries or cause, and perceptions of superiority in those that are patriotic. Therefore memes like patriotism, let alone jingoism and other prejudicial memes, need to be examined carefully by those who have the power to encourage or enhance their propagation.

Memes are of course of particular interest and relevance to those who move to different places or live in populations with diverse cultures, where one’s own meme experiences may be very different to those around one in a new or culturally diverse environment, or those whose job it is to try and change a particular culture or way of life which is perceived to be either ‘out of step’ with either the ethos of more general / universal social environments, for example society memes which are prejudicial to some of its own society or those of others around them, given that memes by the definition above are self-propagating and potentially conservative / resistant to change.

So going back to the holiday thoughts – when seeing my son or daughter behaving in a way that I realized was a ‘mirror’ of my own behaviour, made me realize how important it is to be aware of memes, and how one’s actions and behaviours can be transmitted across generations. Equally, being in the hometown of my birth made me realize how the more complex social memes are ‘alive and well’ in that place of my youth, and continue of their own will, for good or for bad. Despite many years living in different places and continents, the memes which I noted were still strong and ongoing there had a magnetism of their own, given the memories they evoked of times past from the halcyon days of my own youth, and I realized again therefore how important it is to sift through each meme carefully, in order to determine which memes are positive and which are potentially negative both for one’s own life and wellbeing, and perhaps more importantly, for those around us and in society in general. There is perhaps a need to try and curb the negative both in ones own behaviour, and in one’s social environment in which the memes exist and propagate, in order to attenuate the propagation of the potentially negative memes, either behaviourally or socially. Of course, whether one as an individual has any real control over them, is another story!

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About Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

Professor Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson MBChB PhD MD - Dean of the Faculty of Health, Sport and Human Performance, University of Waikato, New Zealand View all posts by Alan (Zig) St Clair Gibson

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