Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Do some memes have a death wish?

More than one million people take part annually in the "Race for the Cure" events, sponsored by the Komen Foundation, worldwide. This month alone, races are set for Fort Worth, Indianapolis, Spokane and Tucson, among other U.S. cities.

Central to the very successful memeplex "Komen Foundation" is the meme "Cure breast cancer." The memeplex had driven its hosts to raise and invest more than $630 million in research to that end.

A new study suggests that the meme may be very close to getting its wish. And yet, if the meme succeeds, won't it in effect commit suicide? If breast cancer is cured, then the meme fades away by default.

What then happens to the other memes that have grafted onto the Komen Foundation memeplex?

The icons?

The rituals?

The artifacts?

What's clear is that a memeplex like the Komen Foundation thrives because it provides all three incentives for the host to spead the meme to others:

Economic: How will I gain if I spread this meme?
"I will cure my breast cancer" or "I will cure my friend's breast cancer".
Social: How will I improve my status with this meme?
"Others will admire my efforts to cure breast cancer."
Moral: How will I improve the world with this meme?
"The world will be a better place without breast cancer."

And yet, what happens to the memeplex is the central meme reaches its goal.

Likely, the same thing that happened to the "March of Dimes" memeplex when its original central meme, "Stamp out polio," succeeded in the 1950s. The central meme winked out, only to be replaced by a new central meme, "Prevent birth defects."

Monday, April 17, 2006

How do memes reward us?

'Unlike any other animals, we readily imitate everything and anything – and seem to take pleasure in doing so.'
-- Susan Blackmore, “The Meme Machine,” p. 50.

To improve its chances of spreading to other minds, a meme must give each of us an incentive to demonstrate it for others. There are three basic incentives (with three examples):

Economic: How will I gain if I spread this meme?
(stockbrokering, political lobbying, labor unions)
Social: How will I improve my status with this meme?
(Hummer H2s, local politics, cigar smoking)
Moral: How will I improve the world with this meme?
(veganism, PTA, objectivism)

Notice that a meme can contain more than one incentive. For example, if I join the Rotary Club, it could be to gain economically by creating more business contacts, or to improve my status within my community, to improve the world by taking an active role in any of Rotary's many programs.

The more incentives, the stronger the meme. It's the old pleasure principle at work.

Sunday, April 16, 2006

Keeping the pagan in the Easter season

Easter offers two dominant sets of memes. One set is Christian. The other is pagan. The Easter Bunny and Easter eggs come to us from the latter.

In the centuries after the Christian memeplex swept over the Roman Empire under Constantine I, the pragmatists among the Christians found it easier to adapt pagan practices than to obliterate them.
The dominant spring festival in Europe in the Second century honored Eastre, the Saxon goddess of fertility. The animal most associated with her was the hare, a symbol of fertility.

As for the colored eggs, they come to us as icons of fertility via the Roman and Greek civilizations. This evolved into a German tradition where children awaited the arrival of the Oschter Haws, a rabbit who would lay colored eggs in nests for them to find on Easter morning. In America, Oschter Haws became the Easter Bunny and the nests became the Easter basket.

Think the tradition has ceased evolving? Not so. Consider a neopagan tradition that appeared in the United States around 1990. It says that the goddess Eastre found an injured bird dying in the winter cold. To help it survive, she turned it into a rabbit, but allowed the rabbit to continue to lay eggs. To shows it appreciation, the bird/rabbit decorates its eggs in the spring and leaves them as gifts for the goddesss.

In Australia, the fertile rabbit is considered a major pest and an invasive species. Some Australians have tried to replace the Easter Bunny with the Easter Bilby, a marsupial that is native to the continent. But memes die hard. The Bunny remains far more popular than the Bilby.

The point is: None of us are born with the memes of Easter in our heads. We are taught about the Easter Bunny. We are shown how to color eggs and how to hunt them when hidden. Demonstration, observation, imitation. This is how a meme moves up the memetic ladder to reach the mainstream of human thought. Once taught, we rarely question the souces of these memes. And once a meme like "believe in the Easter Bunny" sinks its roots into our collective memory, replacing it with another -- even one as rational as the Easter Bilby -- is almost impossible.