Selfish memes: How the natural selection of memes is bad for us

Genes and memes

The term meme seems to be mostly used nowadays to refer to repeated internet jokes. They are memes also, but the meaning is broader than that. The term was originally introduced by Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene to denote the unit of cultural evolution, analogous to genes in biological evolution. A meme is any kind of piece of information that spreads between people —  a tune, a belief, a story, a value judgement, a news story, etc. A culture is made up of a huge number of memes. Memes are analogous to genes in that they spread, mutate and are subject to selection pressures, so that a catchy tune is more “fit” in the evolutionary sense than one that isn’t catchy.

If I’m saying memes are “selfish”, we’ll first have to explain what Dawkins meant by saying that genes are. The metaphor goes like this: Genes naturally have no human thoughts or goals or values. However, they (or their alleles, but let’s not get into that) are subject to natural selection. Natural selection selects those genes to live on in future living beings that are good at making themselves survive. Usually this means that they are good at making their carriers survive and reproduce, though in rare cases they may also do some chemical-level jostling to push themselves forward even though they are not helpful to the organisms’ survival. Thus, what natural selection causes genes to “do” is try to survive, each “looking out” only for itself. This is why they are called selfish: they end up acting, on the level of the whole system, as if they have goals and those goals are exclusively selfish.

An important thing to remember is that it’s the genes that are “selfish”, not their carriers. If it helps survival of the genes, they can develop to give their carrier inborn altruistic, anti-selfish tendencies. The obvious case is when an organism has an inborn tendency to risk its own life to save others who are so closely related to it that they are likely to have their own copies of that gene. It’s more or less believed by now that inborn “morality” has also been selected for to apply to others besides relatives — not necessarily risking your life, but being fair at least, say. Even scientists have got confused about the metaphor of selfishness, though, taking it to refer to the carriers of the genes, and it’s not too hard to imagine why. And when speaking of selfish memes, this is going to be a relevant example.

The following is kind of hypothetical. However, the hypotheses seem to be very reasonable.

Meme selection

So genes get selected by their fitness to live on, and memes are analogous. They are also selected by factors such as what people are interested in receiving and what they are inclined to pass on to others. They can have morally positive, unselfish effects, too; altruism itself is a meme.

Still, memes are selfish. They are selected by survival, nothing else. People can try to help memes survive because of their own reason, but that’s only a part of all the factors affecting them, most of which seem not to be intentional on the part of people. (A tune will spread better due to being catchy than because you want to spread it, unless you have really big resources.) Thus, what information spreads between people may not be what it would be good for them to receive.

An obvious, rather trivial case is the spread of trivial information. It would probably be better if useful knowledge or better art spread so widely instead of something merely kind of amusing like “Gangnam Style”. It’s the old “they know more about celebrity lives than politics” phenomenon, which, I might add, the media emphasize by taking advantage of the perceived fitness of certain memes — and also adding to their fitness thereby, since it grants them the quality “gets spread by the media”.

(As a side note, there’s a related phenomenon that involves not just the selfishness of memes but people as well. People who are selling something will use “memetics” in the sense that they recognise the effective ways of getting people to pay attention and remember things. Thus, you get advertising more effectively persuading people to buy more useless crap, and sensationalist and clickbait journalism spreading more disinformation and distracting people from real issues more. This can also be explained in terms of memes, in that advertising, sensationalism, and clickbaiting are all memes in themselves.)

It gets worse, though.

Consider what kinds of factors affect the spreading and thereby selected fitness of memes. I can think of at least three types of factors:

  • Factors related to the nature of information and communication in general — what kinds of signals spread and what kind of information is retained best in general.
  • Factors related to human nature in general — what quirks of human nature make certain kinds of messages easier to spread.
  • Factors related to a given cultural “ecosystem” (“memecosystem”?) — what the existing ideas in a culture are and how they may affect the success of new memes.

I’ll get back to all of these with examples below. First, a general point: factors such as these don’t automatically select for desirability. They don’t select ideas that are true or worthwhile or practical or morally right. Thus, we have no guarantee that memes that are popular or influential are good, or that they are not downright bad. They could be anything. Now, onto two reasons that this is liable to be bad. The first is:

Ideas tend to spread in dumbed-down, extreme forms that lose the point of the original

This is a known phenomenon. Untrained people don’t understand complicated scientific concepts — and not just ones requiring exotic mathematics like in theoretical physics, but ones just requiring a different perspective than usual, like evolution via natural selection. Still, they have some ideas about them; just partly wrong ones.

It’s more widespread than that. Just one example: Descartes is known for the idea of mind-body dualism. When a lot of people imagine a soul separate from the body, they seem to come up with ghosts that are transparent versions of their old selves, or other wispy spirits… in any case, something that’s just like a physical thing in most ways, most importantly occupying space — you may be able to pass through it, but there’s something through which to pass physically. It’s more natural to imagine things in a more familiar way. Of course, the whole point as philosophers understand it is that the Cartesian soul is not in space at all. It has no length or breadth or location, as you can perceive thoughts and feelings do not. That’s why it’s radically different from the body, not just another body. That’s not all: the traditional understanding is that this soul was, for Descartes, a really separate substance from the body, and thus is immortal among other things. If some people in our philosophy department are right, though, this is itself an oversimplified, exaggerated caricature, and all Descartes was really saying is that the two can be conceived apart, so that, even though it’s not physically possible as it is, God can make them apart and give the soul immortality. (You may wonder why someone would need to prove that an omnipotent being can do something. Well, if the thing to be done were logically contradictory, there’s a good case that even a being who could do everything could not do such a thing because there is no such thing to do — just a description that contradicts itself.)

The above is just one (potential) example that a corrupted version of an original idea can be dominant even among the expert community. Anyway, here’s a much simpler example of a corrupted idea: a piece of news gets distorted and spread in a more exaggerated form, for example that what a politician said gets taken out of context and twisted so that everyone thinks they said something shocking when they didn’t.

We already discussed a third example. Remember what I said about what happened to the idea of the selfish gene? Yes, that.

The phenomenon that memes mutate into simpler and more extreme versions of themselves is easily explained, and we can also refer to the three kinds of factors above. First, simplicity itself is likely an adaptive feature of memes. Complex ideas are presumably, other things being equal, harder to transmit, understand and remember. A meme that is too complex will face selection pressures to become more simple, in that more simple mutations will spread better. It will also face a natural tendency for people to simplify it directly, almost teleologically, because that’s something that happens naturally when the message is transmitted imperfectly.

Secondly, it’s probably easier to remember more extreme and emotionally charged versions of ideas. I don’t think that needs a lot of further explanation at this point.

Thirdly, the cultural ecosystem as it is will make some ideas easier to spread than others, and not in good ways. There are at least two specific aspects to this. First, in general there is simply bias — tied, as always, to power relations. Memes tend to alter in ways that support deeply ingrained assumptions and the status quo, and it’s easy to see how this means the death of the original idea in some cases. Second, in our actual society, is commercialisation. Capitalism has pretty much its own natural selection, a subset of the memetic system, where mostly profit = fitness. (“Profitness”? Clearly, I’m on a roll here.) This can make people alter suitable memes in ways that distract from their actual point and replace it with more excuses to pour money into buying more crap. There’s also a tendency here to fall back on traditional biases, too. An example of both of these is how (so I heard) International Women’s Day has been turned into a commercial celebration of traditional gender roles.

The upshot of all this? People don’t know the original ideas, even when the modified ideas are really important, and the collective consciousness is full of shallow nonsense instead. All of the above are already examples of memes evolving to greater fitness. The second problem is a consequence of their doing this, regardless of the way.

Bad memes may be very fit and difficult to kill off

A Canticle for Leibowitz by Water M. Miller Jr. and the Hyperion quatrology by Dan Simmons are both stories set in a far future where a cataclysmic destruction has faced the Earth. Aside from that, there’s more or less just one thing that they have in common: in both, the Catholic Church is nearly the only thing to survive in its original form. In Hyperion this is more extreme, as while the whole Earth has disappeared in the disaster, the original Vatican still exists, because the whole damn thing was physically transported to another planet.

A cultural unit as big as a whole religion is not one meme. It is, to use an expression I got from Ian Stewart and Jack Cohen, a memeplex, consisting of a large number of memes tied together. The memes still can and probably do work together in terms of survival. I think of it as something like a multicellular organism.

The Catholic Church is known as a bastion of tradition, which in the terms used here means a preserver of memes. Is this bad? I mean, since I’m talking about bad memes and bring up the Catholic Church as an example, I might seem to be saying it’s a bad memeplex. I won’t actually take a stand on that, as I don’t know. I’m sure it does good things as well, and the point that a religion is not one meme should be taken well, in more than one sense. What I can certainly say is that it’s giving a lot of bad memes great protection — especially irrational and immoral “moral” ones, and though it’s less important, I’m not crazy about the religion-based factual beliefs either.

Memes get selected for survival, and especially as parts of memeplexes they can build themselves both reproductive efficiency and protection against being abandoned. All by natural selection, of course. When it’s about time they died, they can resist it this way. Perhaps the worst part of this is that so-called moral norms might well be ones that have especially good defences when they’re part of the system that forms the values of the community. Moral norms are in the habit of getting outdated and really affect people’s lives, so this is a serious issue. Of course, there are also universal moral norms that are resilient memes in their own way and that have been invented way back and should be remembered. Even these are subject to the decay mentioned earlier, though. The basic ideas may not be totally lost, but they may be totally lost on some people, like the Americans who can’t tell Ayn Rand’s values from those of Jesus.


There are a lot of things that make rationality, living right, getting along and even survival more difficult, and we can add selfish memes to the list. This doesn’t really suggest new ways of fighting them. After all, the reason I’m fairly confident saying all this even though I’m not a “memeticist” is that it’s just a new way of organising things we already knew. What we have to do to prevent the damage is the same as in the face of ignorance and lack of understanding usually: increase knowledge and understanding in ourselves and the rest of the world.


2 thoughts on “Selfish memes: How the natural selection of memes is bad for us

  1. TIm Adams says:

    I like your clear style: more books should be like this. One point I don’t agree with is that you talk about ‘bad memes’ and the harm they may do but really there is no objective good or bad, that’s just another meme. So the only thing is success of meme. Truth is not necessarily as successful as conspiracy theory because the latter is more ‘ catchy’

    • “I like your clear style: more books should be like this”

      Thanks. I’ll be writing books soon. I hope.

      “but really there is no objective good or bad, that’s just another meme. So the only thing is success of meme.”

      You think there are memes? No, sorry, there’s only elementary particles, or strings or whatever they turn out to be. Memes are just more arrangements of those.

      Seriously speaking: Whether we talk about memes and their success or what’s good or bad or whatever is a matter of perspective. My perspective here looks at both the success of memes and at what is good/bad for us and the relationship between these. It is a perspective that tells us something meaningful, hence it makes sense to adopt it. If I were adopting a perspective studying only the success of memes, and there was not something pertinent that I would be neglecting to mention in doing that, then the only thing would be the success of memes. When I am, as here, not adopting that perspective and instead adopting another meaningful one, there is no reason to assert that I should be adopting a perspective involving only the success of memes because it is the “only” one.

      Now, you did make a point that questions the meaningfulness of the perspective: that there is no objective good or bad. It is true that, philosophically speaking, there’s need for an explanation just what good and bad are supposed to mean. (Mind you, we don’t have to do that in order to make observations such as that something that causes misery and trouble is “bad” and, even before we can define that, we should probably avoid it.) The meaning of goodness is something I started writing about a long time ago, but I’ve only published the introduction so far: Once (or if) I finish that series of articles, I will have shown how speaking of “good” and “bad” and the like is meaningful, even though it works differently from speaking of observable facts. I know what I’m going to say, I just haven’t written it yet. Maybe now’s the time to continue.

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