Fleeting Memes

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published The Selfish Gene, a breakthrough text in biology. The book illustrates evolution from the point-of-view of a “gene,” essentially a self-interested replicator. To illustrate the concept of cultural evolution, Dawkins coined the term “meme,” meaning a small piece of coherent, transmittable culture, “replicated” through the minds of human beings.

The term “meme” has exploded into popular consciousness in the last decade thanks to global culture. Now memes are emailed and re-tweeted, referenced by late night talk show hosts and news anchors, and generally replicated in a huge number of minds at astounding rates (“Gangnam Style” already had over one billion views by the time I saw it).

The internet is the perfect petri dish for these replicators because the breadth and speed with which memes are broadcast exceeds anything in history. One of the consequences of this is that a “meme” is now seen, like much on the internet, as ephemeral.

As Dawkins pointed out in a later version of The Selfish Gene, the word “meme” has itself proved to be a good meme because of its survival and replication into popular consciousness. The gene/meme metaphor is apt too, since like genes, memes replicate and adapt, and the memes that find a “best fit” for their environment continue to replicate successfully.

(Take the “Grumpy Cat” meme as an example. This is a photo or video of a cat with a face that looks grumpy. Thirty years ago, a photo like this might be shown to relatives, and a good laugh would be had, and there it would end. But now the whole world gets to see it and adapt it for any situation where a grumpy cat face might get a laugh. The meme is so popular that unbelievably, the cat has a movie deal.)

I recently wrote a short science fiction story in which the personalities of the recently deceased were uploaded into a machine, and I used the term “meme-ify,” a take on mummify, as in a form of preservation. I was surprised to receive the story note that “meme” now connotes something less than permanent, almost discardable, the exact opposite of what I intended.

Whatever your views on Jesus, I submit one of his most impressive accomplishments was to “meme-ify” himself in his final moments. He gave up his physical life and transformed himself into a meme. We can now transmit the mystery of Christ to another mind by simply showing them a crucifix, and this meme has persisted for two thousand years.

It’s this sort of permanent “meme-ification” that I was going for, but it seems like the internet has mutated the intended meaning of the word to suit itself. I suppose it’s just natural selection at work; multitudes of fleeting memes are a best-fit for the internet. For the sake of my story, I’d like to use Dawkins’ intended meaning, but I think the new meaning might have reached a critical popularity.

Homo sapiens can’t give birth to Australopithecus. I suppose I’ll have to forgo the elegance of “meme” and come up with another way to say it. Is the old meaning extinct? What does “meme” mean to you?

Santa Claus: Christmas Wizard

MagiChristmas is a magical time of year. The Bible tells us that magi came from the East to see the Christ Child, the “King of the Jews”, but it tells us almost nothing else about these dudes. We can assume they were astrologers, as that was the hot science of the day, and they are purported to have mystical abilities, as they had prescience about Herod’s plan to kill Jesus. They brought gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh and knelt before him as a sign of worship. Then they disappear.

Santa Claus has the ability to travel around the world in a single night, fit down chimneys despite his supergut, and deliver gifts to the children of the world, who he monitors year round. He also wears a typical wizard hat, has a typical wizard beard, is a master of celestial navigation, and lives among elves. The similarities to the biblical magi are striking, and I think I know why.

Clearly the Illuminati destroyed two of the Christmas Wizards some time after 0 A.D., but couldn’t finish off the troika of magical gift-givers. Santa Claus escaped to the North Pole to hide from the Hidden Hand but continues to gain power year after year. To this day the Pope denies the existence of Santa in order to keep him safe. Though the Illuminati tries to destroy Christmas every year by sending Scrooges and Grinches, the magic of Santa has become so entrenched and powerful that nothing can stop it. Not so far.

I recently saw on Fox News that NORAD had been tracking Santa across the globe, but I’m not sure what Rupert Murdoch wants with him. I’m assuming if Murdoch wants Santa dead, we should all prepare for a huge magical war in the near future. Up early this morning to watch nephews open presents, I realized the Christmas Wizard remains strong. And we all know how devious Murdoch can be. I hope I’m not asked to pick sides.