Saturday, April 08, 2006

What is the memetic ladder?

The memetic ladder is a model for understanding how the meme moves through a population of hosts and prospects. On the bottom rung is the cultural fringe, where prophets, artists and lunatics reside. On the top rung is the cultural center, where the majority of the population resides.

Cultural Center

Cultural Fringe

The goal of every meme is to replicate itself within as many minds as possible. Thus it always seeks to climb as far up the memetic ladder as it can. Over time, the meme may move up and down the ladder, depending on changes in the physical world as well as in the subjective minds of its hosts and prospects. Or it may simply slip entirely off the ladder and fall into oblivion. The successful meme will follow a predictable path to mass replication.

As an example, consider the memeplex "Christianity."
  • The meme “Worship Jesus as the Messiah” began with Jesus of Nazareth, with some help from John the Baptist. They were the source.
  • When the meme spread to the 12 Apostles, that was a cluster. (Often a cluster is described as a cult.)
  • The Apostles and their heirs spread the Gospel through action (preaching), documents (the letters of Peter and Paul, and eventually the New Testament), artifacts (the chalice) and symbols (the crucifix).
  • Eventually, they spread the meme to enough of the Mediterranean population that Rome’s emperors felt compelled to suppress and oppress the Christian movement. When a secret Christian society formed within Rome itself, that was a trend.
  • When the Emperor Constantine finally declared Christianity as the official religion of the Roman Empire, the meme became mainstream, where it has remained for 1,800 years

Now consider the religion that Christianity replaced, the multi-god faith of ancient Rome. One need only study the ruins of countless Roman temples to grasp how mainstream the meme of “worship the Roman gods” had become by the time of Jesus Christ. The Romans devoted incredible resources to appease this meme.

And yet today, as a religion, this meme has fallen entirely off the memetic ladder. Rather than tumbling into oblivion, however, the meme as mutated into “study the Roman gods.”

Universities around the world now devote massive resources to documenting and analyzing the pantheon of Roman gods through archeology, anthropology and literature. Indeed, the mutated meme has climbed right back up the memetic ladder to the mainstream of human thought.

Copyright 2006 by W.O. Cawley Jr.


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