Memes--by Howard Campbell
This year, the word "meme" is 39 years old. This is an article about memetics, the study of memes, and thinking about thinking.
Some say that the word meme has grown up stupid. Cynics of memetics say the best thinking about memetics came and went in the 1990s. Today, we generally know that colloquially the word meme is used to mean a picture with text on it. However, this growing awareness of the word does not disparage that the meme, meme, originally meant a single unit of thought, of anything a mind can replicate from another mind, opening up a new field of of exploration into consciousness, the fruits of which we can see today.
Memetics appears to me as an inquiry into our changing system of thinking. However, humans studying memetics is like a fish studying water--we are inquiring into the invisible currents surrounding us.
Meme, as a word, is credited with being coined in 1976 in Richard Dawkins' seminal book *The Selfish Gene.* The word "meme" was intentionally minted by Richard Dawkins years earlier when he was an ornithologist, a studier of birds in an academic setting Dr. Dawkins was a pro in birding, a hobby notorious for competitive amateurs.
Dr. Dawkins was tracking the source of variation in a bird song. When he tracked the migrating birds, he found they summered in New Jersey. There, in the valley of their traditional summering ecosystem, was a new factory, and the rhythm of the machines had been incorporated into this bird call, creating the shift he noticed.
Dr. Dawkins coined the word meme to reflect birds have adopted a specific unit of human intelligence, a unit of cultural reproduction that was traceable and capable of being coded for analysis.
Meme allowed us to think about thinking in a new way. Thinking about thinking appears to me as similar to drawing about drawing--they both bring to life our own optical illusions. What Dawkins did for thinking appears to me as having many similarities to what MC Escher did for drawing--bringing the medium back around to examine itself and show where a surrealistic reality gets created, allowing us to see that we are constructing a make-believe in our recreation of the Universe.
Thinking about thinking changes your thinking--or maybe you are doing what many philosophers call thoughting, which is to parrot back memories of people using the word thinking.
Dr. Dawkins saw a new phenomenon and he needed a new word for the phenomenon he saw. He documented a new scientific generalization. Consensus around a new generalization is a big deal in science. I think Dawkins' generalization is a big deal in the evolution of human thought, an echo of Einstein's generalization of Relativity. I believe Dawkins removed intelligence from something being measured by man to anything a mind replicates, whether conscious or not. I read Dawkins as saying that there is complexity that oozes out, crossing the previously indelible lines of species-ism. This in an important part of our changing mind and evolving zeitgeist
The word meme appears to me as important to thinking as Copernicus' helio-centric model was important to our sense of place in space. What Copernicus did for space, Dawkins appears to me as having done for intelligence, showing that humans are not at the center--intelligence is something being measured, our mind is experiencing itself subjectively--we are the imagination of ourselves, crafting ourselves by thinking about ourselves and our interconnected thinking.
I am optimistic because I see more and more humans recognizing our interconnected with all living things, a perspective that the word meme helped open up on Spaceship Earth. I find heartening the words of Donald Kaufman from his movie *The Three.* :"Like cells in a body, we're all interconnected. 'Cept we can't see the body. The way fish can't see the ocean. And so we envy each other. Hurt each other. Hate each other. How silly as that? A heart cell hating a lung cell."