The Meme meme

“There’s no such thing as a meme. Pass it on.”

I don’t know when I first encountered the word “meme”; I suspect it was sometime around 1997. In any event I disliked it enough to lampoon it in a little thing called “Notes on the Source Code”, which I wrote during one frenzied all-nighter in the spring of 1998 (“notes” later morphed into the astonishing hallucination known as Cheap Complex Devices, the most brilliant book I ever wrote. But I digress.)

Suddenly “meme” was everywhere. It was like fractal redux, ten years later.

I didn’t like “meme” because I thought it added nothing to the perfectly serviceable word “idea” and was just a lot of newfangled pseudo pscientific poppycock. I’ve changed my mind since then, even to the extent that I see much human activity as the mere playing out of memes in meat substrate.

Hardware, Software, Wetware

If you think of human society as a loosely-coupled net and human culture as the totality of the protocols that mediate transactions among its nodes (people), then the analogy of memes to computer viruses becomes pretty obvious.

So, when I consider that one way to summarize the plot of my Acts of the Apostles is, “it’s the story of the virus-caused conversion from asynchronous to synchronous of the human interaction protocol stack,” then, it does make it rather odd that I resisted the “meme” meme for so long. After all, Acts of the Apostles was mostly in the can by the time I wrote Notes on the Source Code.

Self-Replicating and Toxic to other Memes

In its essence, “meme” is merely a subspecies of “idea.” A meme is an idea that is self-replicating and toxic to, or at least displacing of, other memes. Memes have been called “viruses of the mind,” a definition I like. Like biological viruses, memes may be toxic to their hosts; or they may be benign or even beneficial. Like biological viruses, they may trigger host responses that amplify their replication. For example, humans have strong biological imperatives associated with needs for sex, food and simply staying alive. So, effective memes infect systems of the human mind that sit atop, as it were, the wetware responsible for sex, food, survival, etc. Memes having to do with, frinstance, the right way to lay out the flowers in one’s garden, are decidedly less compelling than, say Catholicism.

If you look at religion, then, from a memetic point of view, it becomes obvious why so many religions concern themselves with sex, food and immortality, and we see why so many religions must proclaim themselves as the “one true faith” and work to the elimination of other religions. The evangelical imperative shines clear. Every “convert” to a religion represents a new host for the meme system, and a potential creator of countless new hosts beyond.

I’m aware that this is not especially ground-breaking thinking that I’m expostulating here, by the way. I’m just meming out loud.

Also, although I do (now) believe that the word “meme” carries meaning not shared by the word “idea”, I don’t think “meme system” carries meaning not shared by the word “ideology.” Or am I missing something?


You know the difference between a catchy tune and a non-catchy tune. If you’re like me, you can sometimes hear complex music in your head that you have no way to get out of your head. In my case, it’s not merely that I have scant musical training or ability & can barely read music & have no language to express what I hear. It’s also that what I hear is inchoate. I can’t hum it because it’s unformed. Catchy jingles on the other hand are perfectly well-formed. Even if you’re virtually tone deaf, you can probably hum the jingle that’s in your head at any moment sufficiently well to infect the person next to you.

Pure memes are perfectly comprehensible — at least in the sense that you can replicate them well enough to easily infect other hosts. You don’t need to know the fine points of Augustinian eschatology to bring others in to the fold; you just need to be able to say John 3:16, or “Saved” or “Damned” or “Death to the Infidel!”

Which reminds me of the time that I was stranded by a snowstorm at Chicago’s O’Hare airport with “Monkey Gone to Heaven” by the Pixies stuck in my head. But that’s a story for another day.

Like ants and cock-a-roaches, meme sytems are hard to stomp out.


You may be familiar with the Monsanto “killer gene” that poisons the ground around it so that nothing else can grow. Many effective memes are like this. They poison the ground around them such that competing ideas literally cannot take hold.

On a side note, it’s interesting to consider alcoholism and similar addictions as a quasi-memetic system. When you’re an alcoholic, your thought system gets hijacked so that you spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about alcohol. Eventually that’s all you can think about, and you die, for man does not live by booze alone. However, I don’t think you can call alcoholism memetic, since the inflicted person really doesn’t care whether or not you get drunk with him (but the inflicted Christian, say, really does care whether you get saved). As so well depicted in “Leaving Las Vegas,” the advanced-stage drunk wants to be alone — not out evangelizing alcohol addiction to the relatively sober.

But anyway, back on the subject of memes as viruses. Why are some viruses so virulent? Why are some infections so devastating (ebola, anyone?) while others (the common cold) are so mild by comparison? That’s a whole nother topic which I shan’t go into right now, but I can recommend The Coming Plague (Emerging Diseases in a World out of Balance) by Laurie Garrett. It’s a great book, although long and dense.

(Laurie Garrett’s letter of resignation from, and indictment of, the news industry, which coincidentally was published today, is a subject best left for its own Wetmachine story at some future date.)

By analogy, why are some religions so benign to their hosts?

So here’s a little story I heard when I was in Africa all those years ago. It bears upon our discussion somewhat, but mostly it’s just a perfectly little bit of Samuel Beckettian comic despair that I feel like sharing at the moment.

A scorpion wanted to get across the river. So he said to the hippopotamus, “let me ride across the river on your nose.”

The hippo said, “but if I do that, you may sting me and I will die.”

“Why would I do that?” said the scorpion. “for then I would die too.”

“OK,” said the hippo. “hop on.”

Mid-way across the river the scorpion stung the hippo.

“Why did you do that?” asked the hippo. “For now we will both die.”

“I’m sorry,” said the scorpion. “It is my nature.”

Why memes matter

In his little pop-culture money-maker “The Tipping Point,” Malcolm Gladwell (another writer whose out-of-nowhere success turns me chartreuse with envy), discusses the horrible spread of the “Despondent Lover’s Suicide” meme among young people in a certain South Pacific island. It’s really a heartbreaking tale and I’m sure you can imagine it without reading more. I find it hard to understand the phenomenon without thinking in terms of minds infected by a pernicious meme. When you think about ways to stem this tragic tide of self-murder, all the best lessons come from epidemiology. How might society innoculate the vulnerable? How do you cure the infected person before he dies? And how do you quarantine the poor fuckers who have terminal cases so they cannot infect anybody else?

Of course when you start thinking about infection by suicide memes (which was also a plot point in a made for TV movie I once saw; it may have been a remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers or similar or Steven King or likewise; I forget), you’re probably soon going to be thinking about Iraq, Israel, September 11 and so forth. (You may think of the Battle of Midway too, or The Charge of the Light Brigade.)

But back on Iraq. I’m having a hard time imagining a good resolution of things there unless and until this suicide meme is eradicated. Anybody got any brilliant ideas on how to do that?

By the way, I was against this war. I blogged against it and marched against it and wrote all my elected representatives. War unleashes all kinds of shit; war not only kills people and destroys things and perverts civil society (“War is the Health of the State”) — it also stirs up pathogens of the mind. And one thing you can say about globalization and the emergence of Orson, the overmind: it’s a damn site easier to spread memes when everybody has cell phones, teh internets, and satellite television than it was in Jesus’s day, and his homeboys nevertheless did not do too badly in spreading the Word.

David Brin

Had some interesting things to say on this general topic.

The Rapture and The Jihad

I got thinking about this stuff recently when I read somewhere how “fundamentalism” can be best understood as a meme itself, regardless of the larger memetic system, or ideology, that it has infected. That is to say, fundamentalist Christianity and fundamentalist Judaism and fundamentalist Islam, etc, have more in common with each other than, say, fundamentalist Judaism has with mainstream Judaism. Over at the Buddhist site Empty is Form I saw this:

Fundamentalism is a powerful meme that has infected Christianity, Judaism, Islam and Hinduism with destructive consequences. It will take concerted efforts within each of these faiths to thwart the cancer of extremism. Each faith is in a struggle for its own soul as forces of intolerance, hatred and violence eclipse the transcendental source.

and then it continued,

Mainstream denominations are too often lukewarm. Lukewarm religion can not compete with the fire of fundamentalism. The passion of extremism derives from its absolute claim of truth and divine authority. The fundamentalist has the holy duty to facilitate the manifestation of god’s will on earth. What could be more compelling than a mission from god?

The success of fundamentalism is in great part due to the failure of mainstream religions to offer a meaningful solution to our deep need for connection, community and meaning. In the Jewish tradition there is a legend that the letters of the Torah can reform themselves into new combinations to meet the specific needs of each age. In the Buddhist tradition it is said that enlightened beings appear in each age with the exact form and teaching that is required. Extremism can only thrive when there is a vacuum left by mainstream religion’s failure to evolve into an appropriate vehicle for this time.

The rising tide of extremism offers each religion a compelling reason to get back in touch with its essential truths and express them in new ways that meet the real needs of its community. An infinite source of truth can be expressed in infinite ways. Reinventing each of our religions is not a betrayal of the living word/dharma, but rather the trimming of dead roots so that green shoots can spring from the living source beneath. It is in freeing this essential radiance within each religious tradition that we will cap the fire of fundamentalism.

This last bit brought me up short, for it called to mind my recent rant about Unitarian-Universalism. This meme meme has all kinds of ramifications. Why, you might almost think it’s fractal!


  1. I think I first heard David Brin use the word "meme" when he gave his Guest of Honor speech at Philcon in 1988 or thereabouts. As presented here, it has some interesting similarities with the Ashera virus contemplated by Neal Stephenson in Snow Crash.

  2. Re: green shoots can springing from the source:

    "Like biological viruses, memes may be toxic to their hosts; or they may be benign or even beneficial. Like biological viruses, they may trigger host responses that amplify their replication."

    "The evangelical imperative shines clear. Every "convert" to a religion represents a new host for the meme system, and a potential creator of countless new hosts beyond."

    Could it be that the Christian Salvation Meme actually changes the soul. The conscious mind rewires its thought and learning processes as it grows into the New Creation… a soul suitable for eternal life.

    This is a meme I am currently wrestling with… which I hope to use effectively in battling the problems you mentioned with suicidal and murderous memes.

    Peace out.


  3. I have no doubt that love restructures the brain in beneficial ways.

    I encountered this idea most recently in a nifty book called "A General Theory of Love," which I liked a lot. It has to do with, among other things, the neurophysiolgy of various kinds of love. One of the more hopeful signs of some recent research (you’ll have to get your hands on the book for more specifics) is that people can be cured of various kinds of mental illnesses by becoming part of long-term loving relationships.

    I don’t know anything about the eternal salvation angle. But I find much of the rest of Christology very congenial. In fact I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been infected with it, if my two novels are any indication. I think about your proposition all the time.

  4. John,

    From my K5 postings, you may have picked-up on my "agricultural" view of this life. We are a crop. Those of us who bear the fruit desired by the Creator are cultivated for the eternal garden… the rest are unfortunately weeds.

    My goal is to deconstruct Christian theology to the point that it looses the "spooky" &/or "giant space hamster" conotations.

    "Getting Saved", becomes… embracing the meme.

    "Being in Christ" means mentally operating in a compatible way (frequency) with God.

    "New Creation" means actually mentally changing as operating in Christ.

    "Being Saved", "Grafted onto the Tree of Life", "Salvation" means the mind/soul structure of the New Creation is metaphysically part of God… and upload ready, for a glorified body.

    I gotta long way to go.

  5. MeMes Are little understood and longwinded ideas from a paranoid author

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