Today I'm kicking off a new blog on a topic in which I've developed a keen interest: memetics. Let me state up front that I have no particular credentials or expertise on the subject. I'm just an enthusiast who's read a couple books. But I'm hoping to start some discussions, because I think the field has some real potential.

There's a lot of controversy out there as to what memetics is really about. So in the interest of clarity, let me say what it means to me: memetics is the study of the evolution of ideas. "Evolution" isn't just a biology term; it's a general name for what happens in any system with heredity, variation, and selection. It is a simple but extraordinarily elegant algorithm for producing complexity out of randomness. What we mean by "ideas" is more complicated, so let me digress for a moment.

Human brains are truly remarkable machines. A massive network of billions of neurons combine to provide all of our thoughts, memories, feelings, and beliefs. When we believe something such as "2+2=4" or "red means stop, green means go" that belief is somehow represented within the structures of our brain. When we share our ideas with others, and they decide to agree with us, their brain's structures are altered in turn to store that belief. Thus we can say that something has been "copied" from our brain to theirs. That something is an idea or, to use memetic terms, a meme.

Memetic evolution happens because this copying process is selective: not every idea that you hear or see successfully takes hold as a belief in your brain. Many are not interesting, or obviously false ("2+2=5" is not a very commonly held belief). In fact, your brain has evolved an incredibly sophisticated set of filters for choosing which memes to adopt. This leads to a fierce competition amongst the memes of the world: those which are best adapted to get themselves propagated will tend, over time, to dominate the population.

It's important to be extremely clear up front: memetic processes are unbelievably chaotic. Even understanding what's going on in a single brain at a given moment is still far beyond our current reach. Memetics deals with the interactions of millions of brains over hundreds or thousands of years. As a result, we shouldn't expect a bunch of neat equations that can be plugged into a computer to tell us what next year's most popular book will be about. It just doesn't work that way.

But it does provide a model for beginning to ask some pretty fundamental questions about the nature of human civilization. Ultimately, everything from art and culture to religion and politics is just ideas. And more to the point, human behavior is largely dictated by beliefs, which memetics shows us to be the product of a selection algorithm. If we can understand, even a little, how those selective forces shape our societies, maybe we can leverage that knowledge to make the world better.

In that hope, this blog will be exploring how memetic thinking can be applied to a wide range of subjects. Please come back, read along, and leave comments. With any luck, my memes and yours will manage to evolve into some good ideas!

26 Jul 2011 | Tags: Memetics

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