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.

Viruses are non-living packages of genetic material that are passed from animal to animal (and plant to plant) and are capable of evolution.

Both are incapable of spreading independently of their hosts.

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

This page written 2018/04/12, modified 2018/04/28 – ©
Contact: email daveclarkecb@yahoo.com (David K. Clarke)

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The idea that animals have rights is a meme.
Live exports 2
Photo from veterinarian Dr Simpson's submission to ASEL
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 culture of animals.

Apart from the physical, one of the greatest differences between memes and viruses is that a great many memes, quite probably the vast majority, are beneficial to the hosting animals while viruses are almost always harmful.

Memes have been with us for millions of years yet surprisingly they were only recognised for what they were, evolving entities passed of 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'. 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 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 has slowed action on limiting climate change, ocean acidification 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

Smithsonian What Defines a Meme?