Hitting the Books: How memes spread through society like a 'mind virus'

·Senior Editor
·6 min read

The struggle for survival is not always limited to animate objects. Ideas can be expressed just as biological genes are, compete for attention-based resources, replicate themselves through discussion, and be encoded with the written word. In The Ascent of Information, award winning New York Times author Caleb Scharf explores humanity's unique penchant for maintaining stores of information outside of ourselves and the steps we'll soon have to take if we want to hang on to the 20 quintillion bits of data we produce every day. In the excerpt below, Scharf examines the surprisingly lifelike ways that ideas evolve, compete and spread.

The Ascent of Information cover
The Ascent of Information cover

Excerpted from The Ascent of Information by Caleb Scharf. Copyright © 2021 by Caleb Scharf. Excerpted by permission of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from 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 “mind viruses” —to use Dawkins’s provocative description — are ideas that are not just readily spread but can also induce new behaviors in their carriers. Indeed, the spreading of a meme is itself an induced behavior, whether it’s through a human conversation or a share on social media.

Dawkins’s term crystallized thinking on a phenomenon that had long piqued people’s interest. Back in 1880 Thomas Huxley (known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his support of evolutionary theory) wrote “The struggle for existence holds as much in the intellectual as in the physical world. A theory is a species of thinking, and its right to exist is coextensive with its power of resisting extinction by its rivals.”

Memes can also act as if they are selfish, because sometimes they’re detrimental to their carriers. Humans are prone to becoming obsessed with ideas that can lead to disadvantage or even death. Starving artists, impassioned protestors, religious zealots, thrill-seekers, and political ideologues can all seem to be on a course to self-destruction because of ideas that they nurse and propagate throughout the world.

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

This vision is intriguing, disturbing, and enormously contentious. To this day it’s borderline unacceptable in many scientific circles to treat memes as anything worthy of scientific analysis beyond their bearing a superficial similarity to what happens in biology (and to be clear, Dawkins never really suggested otherwise). This is especially true when it comes to ascribing mutualism to memes and genes — speculating that the evolutionary fitness of genes might be impacted by memes, and vice versa. That hasn’t stopped a lot of ink being spilled on memes (filling up a corner of the dataome, with some irony), with certain scholars proposing formalisms of so-called memetics, and a central role for them in cultural evolution.

I’m not going to jump very far down that particular rabbit hole here. The main reason for scientists’ conservatism toward memes is that it is enormously difficult to separate out cause and effect in a complex, inter- twined, messy set of systems like life and minds. Finding the phenomenon at the root of things, the fundamental actor, is supremely difficult. That doesn’t mean that a simplifying approach, or a universal rule, can’t be the answer. But proving that to be true is why most scientists still have jobs: it’s a long road.

With that cautionary note in mind, there is such an appetizing resemblance between the notion of replicating, evolving information encoded in genes; the existence of memes; and the characteristics of the dataome, that we have to take a look.

Previously I’ve said that I don’t think the dataome is just a collection or consequence of memes; instead, memes represent a subset of entities working across the border between the dataome and human minds. A popular catchphrase will bounce back and forth between minds and dataome. By contrast, a bus ticket or a database of winter cloud cover in Belgium, while definitely a part of the dataome, probably doesn’t spend much, if any, time in human minds.

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 (like the Quran, the Bible, the Vedas, the Tripitaka, the writings of Karl Marx, or Hobbes’s Leviathan). Memes have more access to hosts and hosting media in a species with a dataome. Therefore, the better that dataome is — in ease of access, efficiency, larger size — the better it is for those memes. There are intriguing similarities between this arrangement and the arrangement of genes and organisms. As we’ll discuss shortly, a gene can’t go it alone in the world. It both relies on and contributes to the entirety of a biological system, be it a cell or a population of a species. The better those biological systems work, in terms of reproduction, repair, and diversity, to withstand changing environments, the better things are for the genes.

Today, in a way that has not really happened in the past, the information represented by genes also finds itself represented in the dataome. For instance, a very stable set of genes in terrestrial biology are those that code for some of the structures of ribosomes in single-celled organisms. Ribosomes are large molecular machines that are vital to the production of proteins. Consequently, these genes and sections of their codes haven’t evolved much at all over millions, even billions of years. A particularly well-studied set are called 16S rRNA, and thanks to genomic laboratory analyses we have decoded thousands of 16S rRNA gene sequences from different species. Those reams of data now exist within the dataome.

In other words, the information represented by 16S rRNA genes has found its way into an entirely new storage and replication system — that of books, electronic media, and countless computers and data servers across the planet. You might object that this has no significance — the 16S rRNA information is no longer really doing anything, it’s not resulting in new ribosomal molecular machines that churn out proteins in the world. It’s not exerting its original capabilities. But the point is that, in the framework of selfish genes, those outcomes were never anything more than a means to an end. If the sole reason for the existence of genes is that they can continue to be, to exist in the world, then whether the information they represent sits in an organism or in your hard drive doesn’t matter.

Of course, the dataome might struggle to continue to exist without its biological minders... In that sense, the original function of 16S rRNA in the organic world is still critically important. But now so too is its function as an object of intellectual curiosity for human minds, for scientific research, and perhaps for future genetic engineering. All of which select it for maintenance and replication within the dataome.

There’s an argument to be made that none of this should be surprising because the processes of gene replication in biology, and the ways in which genes actually evolve, are already far from simple.

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