Thursday, May 10, 2012

What Do We MEME in Anthropology

A recent article in the Atlantic  "Are LOLCats Making Us Smart?," describes the popular fad of LOLCats and how this phenomenon is drawing the attention of academic researchers at such events as the ROFLCon, -- a conference devoted to Internet memes and the mini-celebrities that have emerged. The Atlantic, in another article, entitled "Memes are people too ..." describes the conference.

The "meme" is an extremely important concept for anthropology as the science of humanity (the human species). The term, coined by Dawkins in his "The Selfish Gene", addressed a very real problem in human/social/cultural evolution, "How do you explain the super-sonic development of humanity as the dominant species on the planet from an evolutionary (biological) point of view?" The answer he suggested is that you don't. You have to look to something that while it acts like a gene (encapsulating basic fundamental information for a biological organism) but which is not physically (chemically) based. This he called the "meme."

When Darwin (& Wallace) discovered the principle and mechanism for species evolution -- "survival of the fittest", it took the rediscovery of Mendel’s pea experiments to demonstrate how that process works (although it was long understood in agriculture and animal breeding on a practical level). Almost a century later, Watson and Crick, and Rosalind Franklin, aided with by the technological invention of x-ray crystallography, discovered the double helix nature of DNA, the basis of the gene. This has produced a explosion of understanding and application of the concept of the genetic technology.

But despite attempts to extend the power of the gene into the field of social organization of species and especially the human species, through sociobiology, such explanations are inadequate given the relativity short time period of Homo sapiens existence as just one of a variety of Hominid species to today being the dominate species on the planet.

The "meme" is a concept that helps to explain how this could and can happen -- which was Dawkins' point. Memetics is a relatively new field of study and considered by many as a fad. In the context of the internet, the term "meme" has taken on a superficial meaning of graphic images that has gone viral. The concept is still in a "toy" stage as the Atlantic stories demonstrate, yet I suspect in time will be given the serious attention it deserves.

To understand "culture" and the role that it has played and does play in human existence and evolution, we need a concept that explains the spread of cultural elements across populations and generation and even within populations and generation independent of the biological constraint of passing on of an individual's genetic material to the generation where it will come to dominate the population over time and under the given environment conditions that favored it.

The "meme" is such a concept and worthy of more serious attention than it is currently receiving. The technological advances in brain sciences and neurology may help us to bridge the gap. On the practical side -- understanding the nature of the meme has tremendous implications for education, marketing, advertising, and propaganda.

No comments: