Memes and Motifs: Living Memories

One of the trickiest tasks of a textual critic is to figure outwhy scribes do what they do -- that is, why they make theconscious and unconscious changes they make. We don't really havean answer. This article can't give a definitive answer, either -- butit may offer a new way of looking at the question.

In 1976, Richard Dawkins published a book, The Selfish Gene.Most of it is about genetics, and argues that genes, not populations,are the basis for species survival and behavior. This is to someextent controversial (beyond the relatively mundane controversy overevolution, which of course is not controversial in scientific circles),but one concept in the book --- the "meme" -- has developeda life quite beyond the community of those interested in biology.

Dawkins does not explicitly define the meme, but he gives a derivation:on page 192 of the revised (1989) edition of The Selfish Gene,he offers it as a shortened form of Greek-influenced "mimeme,"from the root for imitation.

So what is a meme? In simplest terms, it is a self-replicatingunit of culture -- anything which is passed on from person to personrepeatedly by behavior rather than genetic influence.One might almost say a meme is a "brain virus," savethat many memes are unquestionably positive. The analogy is in fact togenes -- what Dawkins calls "replicators." Just as genesreproduce so as to yield more copies of themselves in living organisms,memes reproduce so that they are remembered and transmitted by morepeople.

As examples of memes, Dawkins cites popular melodies, catch phrases(as an American youth will say "whatEVER" to mean "maybe,but the details don't matter to me and they shouldn't matter to youeither"), and fashions in architecture or clothing or almost any otherwidely disseminated object. Fins on cars, by this definition, were ameme. Or shoes with pointed toes. Or "White Christmas." Orpatterns on china plates.

We note, incidentally, that the word "meme" is a meme. Justa minor point for the set theorists out there. But it is a successfulmeme -- the term has been accepted into various dictionaries, and at leastthree books have been written about it by terms other than Dawkins. Oneof them, The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore, points out theinteresting fact that memes seem to be largely a human (or at least aprimate) invention: Children imitate from a very early age. Few otheranimals directly imitate. They learn, certainly,and they learn by guidance, but not really by imitation (see Blackmore,pp. 3-4, or the example of the can opener below). It ishumans who have developed the meming ability (and gone on to create variouseven more precise meme-preservation tools, such as books and computers).So strongly is the meme implanted in us that I have never heard any proposalfor a society, or even an intelligent species, based on anything other thanmemes.

The key is that memes survive and spread. Some memes I find ratherunconvincing; the fins on cars (not cited by Dawkins, I should note)were failed attempt to create a meme -- the equivalent of an extinctspecies. But the meme "Toyota" is going strong at the moment --say "Toyota" and most hearers today will think of quality andfuel economy, despite the fact that Toyota, in addition to its small,efficient, high-reliability cars, makes small trucks with relatively poor gasmileage and reliability little better than their American-designedcounterparts.

Some memes, in fact, are demonstrably false. Blackmore, p. 176, mentionsthe meme of Aliens Breeding With Us. Now it is possible that there are aliensamong us -- unlikely, given the constraints of relativity theory, but possible.What is not possible is that they are interbreeding; if they can breedwith us, they are us. That's what makes a species. So this isn't happening.But the story apparently is widespread enough to have a certain amount ofmedical literature about it. It's a contrary-to-fact meme -- and the factthat it's common would seem to demonstrate its memehood: It's breeding despitebeing absurd. Indeed, it's arguably increasing in popularity as meme transmissionbecomes more reliable. (Blackmore, p. 204, argues that memes, in theirattempts to reproduce more accurately, are encouraging replicating mechanismssuch as books, recordings, computers, the Internet. This I think does notfollow -- it would be more effective to make people's memories better, and thesedevices in fact make their memories worse. But they do let memes spreadfaster, which is another desirable goal if you think memes have a "purpose.")

What makes memes memes is their transmission by imitation. Blackmore(pp. 44-45) notes how this is different from other sorts of learning. Ifyou hear a story and retell it, it's a meme. If you hear it and forgetit, it's not. Nor is it a meme if you learn it by conditioning, as oneconditions a pet ("stand on your hind legs and I'll give you a doggytreat"). Passing on the behavior is the essence of the definition.On page 51, Blackmore notes three essential attributes of a meme: Heredity(the behavior is copied/imitated), variation (not every imitated versionexactly matches the original version), and selection (not every copysurvives; some are retained, some discarded). This surely will soundfamiliar to textual critics!

There are, of course, objections to the theory of memes. Some arguethat they "don't exist." That is, you can't point to somethingand say, "that's a meme." It can be written down, but it, asa physical object, cannot be extracted from its context.

This is true, but not very meaningful. By this standard, a computerprogram doesn't exist, either -- it's just a pattern of magnetism ona hard disk or in a computer's RAM. You can't physically extract a programfrom the computer any more than you can extract the meme from the human.Sure, you can call up the program from the computer -- but you cancall up the meme from the human, too: "Hey, pal, tell us the oneabout the banana, the handkerchief, and the railroad engineer."

Others object that memes aren't alive, even in the limited sense thatviruses are alive, and so can't "reproduce." This is simply nottrue; thing which are not alive can reproduce. As counter-evidence we pointto prions -- the chemicals which cause,among other things, mad cow disease. No one considers these alive, butthey do reproduce -- and evolve. In a strange way, we seem to be seeingmore and more of these non-living reproducing mechanisms -- probably becausethey're all parasitic, so they need life to let them exist. Unlike virusesand prions, at least memes aren't inherently "costly" to theirhosts; it takes effort to maintain a brain, to be sure, but it's presumablyno more difficult to store the meme of a popular song than an unpopular. Itmay even be easier, because something that "fits" the brain willneed less storage space.

Perhaps this can be made clearer by noting an analogy of the brain-and-memecombination. The temptation may be to compare the brain to a computer, and ameme to a computer program. An even better analogy, though, might be to acomputer program and a document -- say, a word processor and the file itcreates. To open the file and make sense of it, you must have the program;the document alone is generally gibberish. And the size of the file is notalways proportional to the actual amount of data. For instance, if a memoconsists mostly of "boilerplate" text from a glossary, the filemay be very small because all the parts are stored in other places. An efficientmeme would presumably be one which can make use of other material alreadystored in the brain.

(There has been, to be sure, some "over-claiming" here, includingan argument that memes are now driving evolution. Blackmore, in fact, argues thatmemes have created our notion that we have a "self," which she considersan illusion. This goes so far beyond the data as to be almost ridiculous. It isa curiosity that most of those who make extravagant claims for memes seem to be rather rabidatheists. I can't see why this should be so. In any case, these issues are for the scientists -- and the mystics -- to argue out. Our concern is not withhow memes may have helped to create human society; rather, it's with how theymight have affected the transmission of the Bible. Memes may or may not influenceoverall human behavior, but that's memes as a driving force, which is anextension of the original concept. We care about memesas survivors -- the ideas and phrases most likely to be preserved andpassed on, whether they are Big Ideas or not.)

There are at least hints of some of the biology behind memes. The reason humanscan imitate so much better than other animals is something called "mirrorneurons," found in monkeys and apes but in much greater numbers in humans.(It has been speculated that the reasons humans have such big brains is so thatthe number of mirror neurons can increase.) What mirror neurons do is allow anobserver to mentally imitate the actions of another person -- if you watchsomeone cutting a piece of paper with scissors, say, mirror neurons willplay back your own actions so that you can "feel" the feeling ofcutting the paper yourself. Your hand won't actually pump up and down, butthey will tense up just a little as if preparing to do so.

It appears that mirror neurons, and the actions they imitate, can bestarted up by either sights or sounds. So you could either see or hearsomeone taking scissors to paper and still imitate the act. This, incidentally,includes facial expressions. Watching someone feel sad, your own musclesstart twisting in sad ways -- which is how you can empathize with the sadness.(It appears that this is one of the problems of people with autism: Thismechanism doesn't work, so they have a hard time imitating and a harder timeunderstanding how others feel.)

The ability to imitate is vital. You've probably encountered dogs or cats whichhave learned the sound of a can opening, and scramble to come and get fedwhen it happens. But the dogs and cats don't try to learn how to open thecans; they just have a Pavlovian response: "I heard a phhs! sound -- that meansfood!" A human child, watching a can being opened, won't necessarily associateit with food -- but will go to the toy kitchen you bought two months ago andwill play with the toy can opener. The dog or cat responds; the humanpractices. This is what appears to make memes a largely human thing.

(Note: Most of the material on mirror neurons comes from the program"Quirks and Quarks" on CBC radio, April 2, 2006. How much has beenpublished and verified I do not know.)

A third objection is less to the concept of memes than to the (potential)science of mimetics. The objection is that there is no unit to measure memes.The standard example of this is Beethoven's fifth symphony and the openingline dit-dit-dit-daaaah. Is this a meme? Is the whole symphony a meme? Thefirst phrase is the best-known part of the work, but the whole symphony isvariations on a theme. Both are widely recognized, and repeated. Both seemto fit the definition of a meme. Does this mean that memes contain memes?

This can be argued in both ways. It is usually said that genes cannot becomposed of other genes. On the other hand, if we look at informationtheory, a set can consist of other sets, and subsets of a set are stillsets in their own right. (And sets, we note, have the same sort ofnon-existent existence as is claimed for memes.) The analogy to computerprograms is also apt. Chances are that your computer has some sort ofstartup script, though the names vary from machine to machine. The startupscript is a program, but it calls other programs. Those programs it callsare programs in their own right -- but are also part of the bigger program.

Even in biology, there are partial analogies -- notably in proteins. Certaincomplex proteins consist of assemblies of smaller proteins, which can performsome function independently but which perform another function when grouped.An example, cited by Jonathan Weiner in Time, Love, Memory, p. 194, isthe process responsible for Huntington's chorea, involving two proteins, oneproduced by the huntington gene and another namedglyceraldehyde-3 phosphate dehydrogenase, a common enzyme. The glyceraldehydeprotein is used for many things (genes with multiple uses are so common that theterm "pleiotropism" has been coined to describe their effects),so the DNA sequence that codes for it isclearly its own gene -- but it is also required by both the good andthe bad versions of huntington (the reason for the disease is thatthe huntington protein grips the enzyme too tightly for it to performits proper role). So we have a huntington gene and a glyceraldehydegene -- but the extended gene which causes or prevents Huntington'sDisease consists of the gene at the huntington spot, plus theglyceraldehyde gene. The glyceraldehyde is very much like a subroutine ina library of computer routines: It's used by many other body processes.Thus, there is no real reason why memes cannot be composed of other memes.

And while the lack of a unit of memes is a drawback, it is notnecessarily fatal to the science. Set theory has no unit except sets.More to the point, a science can proceed without knowing its units. Darwinproposed the theory of evolution without even knowing that there were geneticlaws (which, incidentally, made Darwin's original theory rather different from what weknow now. Darwin didn't really propose a theory of evolution as such;the word wasn't even a regular part of his vocabulary. He proposed thetheory of natural selection, which became the modern theory of evolutionwhen combined with genetic theory). Somewhat later, when Gregor Mendelindirectly completed the theory of evolution by discovering his genetic laws,no one even knew that cell nuclei contained genetic information -- so while therewere clearly things such as genes, they were just black boxes, with no knownmechanism or location. Later, nucleic acids were discovered, butnobody knew what they did. Still later, Crick and Watson discovered thestructure of DNA, but that didn't sequence the genome. Even now, there areplenty of genes whose functions we don't understand. Some sciences startfrom the bottom up -- but others start from the top down. Mimetics, if real,appears to be one of the latter: The big picture precedes the dirty details.

We do note at least one major difference between memes and genes: Memes-- at least, some memes -- have two ways to reproduce. The terms used byBlackmore (p. 63) are "copy-the-product" and"copy-the-instructions." The former reproduces by observation, thesecond by recipe. To take a very simple example, consider peeled carrots. Twopeople who have never eaten peeled carrots come to a party and see the peeledcarrots and like them. One goes to the host and asks how they were prepared;he says, "Peel them with a potato peeler." The guest does so; that'scopying the instructions. Following a reciple or an instruction manual iscopying the instructions.

The other guest says to himself, "peeled carrots -- I can dothat!" -- and peels the carrots with a knife. Same end result,different means. This is copying the product.

Genes reproduce by copy-the-instructions; they make reproductions ofDNA. Most of the time, this produces exact replicas of the original genes. Onthe other hand, if there is an error in the instructions (e.g. if someoneaccidentally writes "peel the carrots with a potato grater" insteadof "peel the carrots with a potato peeler") the result isnonsense and the outcome bollixed. Copy-the-product is much more subject tosmall variation (but also, indirectly, to improvements); my suspicion is that itis less likely to be rendered complete nonsense. This strikes me as rathersimilar to scribes who copy letter-by-letter versus phrase-by-phrase. Theformer may make an error on a particular letter, yielding nonsense but onlyin a very local way; the latter may make a more substantial change but almostcertainly one that makes some sort of sense.

So why do memes matter to textual critics? Because the basiccharacteristic of memes is that they spread. Random ideas generallyare not memes. Memes somehow fit into the shape of our brains, and totend to intrude into other thinking. Think of how many phrases fromShakespeare or the King James Bible survive in English. Those are,emphatically, memes.

Now think about assimilation of parallels. Not all parallels getassimilated. Assimilation is toward the most familiar reading.In other words, it's not assimilation of parallels. It is, precisely,assimilation of memes.

Is this just terminology? I suppose you could say so -- but theconcept is well worthy remembering. The key point about those assimilatedphrases, like the memes themselves, is that they have survived andpropagated. Why?

I can't help think of folklore motifs. For example, my threefavorite works of fantasy are Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings,Ursula K. LeGuin's Earthsea books (at least the first three), andLloyd Alexander's Chronicles of Prydain. These three stories do nothave the same plot, but they have the same folklore motifs: The Quest,the Coming of the King, the Price (one person paying a high penalty to savemany). The last of those, of course, is familiar to all Christians.

Why do these items appeal to me? Evidently there is some deep psychological"lock" to which they are the key. "The Price" appealsto billions, since Christianity survives to this day. The others aren'tquite as popular, but they have appealed to millions -- e.g. the books Icited havebetween them inspired six movies that I know of, and possibly more, thoughthe movies generally have been much inferior to the books.

Or consider the concept of "magic." Grant that ancient peopleshad no scientific method; they could not explain lightning or earthquakesor hurricanes. But they understood that there was a natural order of things --they had to, to follow the seasons! So why magic? The notion seems to bevery widespread -- and yet it is most unlikely that any of them saw humanbeings perform magic. All the "unnatural" things they saw werewithout evident cause (the work of God, not a human being). There is noreason why a concept of "magic" should evolve, let alone bewidespread. So why do so many cultures have it? Presumably because itsuits our thought processes somehow.

What this says is that some things stick in the brain better than others.Whatever the reason, whatever their nature, they replicate and spread.

As far as I know, no one has set out to study what makes a meme -- that is,no one has done research on what sticks best in people's brains, or whethersome people are more receptive than others. But there are hints. Sound patternshelp -- rhymes, alliteration, metre. There are also indications that non-metricalpatterns can help. The parallelism of Hebrew poetry, for instance. I recently sawan argument (I'm not sure where) that the reason Lincoln's GettysburgAddress is so memorable is its balanced phrasing: It repeatedly uses conceptsin threes ("we cannot dedicate -- we cannot consecrate -- we cannot hallow";compare the second inaugural address: "With malice toward none; withcharity for all; with firmness in the right"). This may explain, e.g.why, when Matthew took out the "to hear" from Mark's "He whohas ears to hear, let him hear," scribes repeatedly re-introduced it.Mark's form is "meme-able"; Matthew's probably less so. This isspeculation in the absence of knowledge, but we have to start somewhere. We often saythat Mark is assimilated to Matthew because the latter is the "stronger"gospel (whatever that means). But it may just be more mimetic -- after all,Mark sounds very Aramaic, while Matthew and (especially) Luke sound moreGreek. To a Greek speaker, those Greek gospels must be easier to remember.

It should be stressed that memes are not necessarily good -- Blackmore,pp. 76-77, offers the suggestion that evolution favoured those who were the bestat imitating successful people. In other words, you can get ahead by being personallysuccessful -- or you can get ahead by aping or attaching yourself to someone whois a good leader. The result, perhaps, is a tendency toward fads -- some of themgood, many neutral, some mildly bad (think, say, the 2005 trend toward pointedshoes for women, which are ugly, uncomfortable, and hard on the feet; or thecurrent trend toward eyeglasses which are too small to allow decent peripheralvision), and some incredibly dangerous (the Nazi party, say, or the Bolshevikversion of Communism). Memetics serves yet again as confirmation that what ispopular is not necessarily what is right -- something veryimportant in assessing, say, the Majority Text.

There has been, to my knowledge, no exploration of memes with connectionto textual criticism. But it seems to me that it is an area that should beexamined closely. If we can learn which stories and phrases stick in scribes'heads, we can much more easily guess how they will change the texts beforethem.

Some other characteristics of memes: They come in clusters. This again is likebiology, where genes are grouped in chromosomes and a full set of chromosomesmake up a genetic code. Words and music of a song can be separated but also gotogether (and reinforce each other). We have bins in our brains for Biblequotes or Shakespeare quotes. Some of these can be of different types -- we can'tquote all of Hamlet, but can outline the plot while quoting "Tobe or not to be" and "The play's the thing" and the like. Is therea pattern to these clusters? And might it affect scribes?

Anybody want a nice interdisciplinary thesis?