What’s in a meme? Or, How to be as big a deal as Socrates

I recently went under the knife, so to speak, for a vasectomy, rendering myself sterile, incapable of reproducing offspring. I bucked my biological drive to procreate, I resisted my natural evolutionary drive to replicate my genes.

Or did I?

A part of me would like to think that I resisted millions of years of evolutionary biology. In itself, that would be quite the accomplishment in life, at least as far as I’m concerned, but I know better. For all of my adult life, I’ve had a general sense that I wanted to leave behind something else, and frankly having kids would get in the way of such schemes. It’s an instinct that many writers, artists, thinkers, and other outliers have in common, and there’s a good reason for this. The reason is not in the genes, it’s in the memes.

“A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices”

A meme is a shared cultural experience. It can be an idea (“capitalism is good and socialism is slavery” or “America is exceptional” or “racism is evil”). Or a meme can be a lifestyle, like going goth or like an urban hipster who wears flannels and rides a fixy bike. It can also be a behavior we engage in because others we know are doing it, like watching Star Wars or getting coffee at Starbucks.

It doesn’t have to be something that the mass public is engaged in. A meme can be the shared experiences of alternative communities as well, like a small urban bohemian community of artists, or a separatist religious cult, or a commune of militant eco-activists, or my remote summer community in McCarthy Alaska.


The common use of the term “memes” is in terms of images, like the above Trump meme. A political meme typically conveys irony or humor while at the same time making a point. The above Trump meme, for example, is a satire: Trump’s thought process is an ongoing non-sequitor of nonsense.

Wikipedia has a good definition:

A meme is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture—often with the aim of conveying a particular phenomenon, theme, or meaning represented by the meme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.


The Most Interesting Man meme, origin circa 2007, Dos Equis commercial

Richard Dawkins was the first to put into play the idea of memes, in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, but evolutionary theorists have always been aware that humans pass down more than simply DNA. T. H. Huxley claimed that The struggle for existence holds as much in the intellectual as in the physical world.

In other words, there’s something abstract and non-biological that matters to us, that we can pass along, and this process of passing it along gives us a sense of meaning. It’s in our behavior patterns, it’s in our mind, it’s in our values, and it’s in the way we feel about things.

It’s also in our cat videos. As an example, here’s the original keyboard cat, one of the early cat memes to dominate the Internet:


Why does keyboard cat matter to us? It’s more than just a moment of pointless entertainment. Even in passing along a trivial cat video, we are participating in culture, in a collective, in something greater than ourselves.

Memes are the things that both connect us and give our collective experiences meaning, and this is why I’m not bucking the evolutionary trend by getting a vasectomy. If anything, by not having kids I give myself the chance to concentrate on producing memes that will long outlive me.

Here’s how Dawkins puts it:

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene

In other words, from the perspective of evolutionary meme transmission, I’m a cog in the wheel of culture, just like everyone else. If I can produce some blog posts that go viral or write books that people actually read, then I’ve got a shot at being the next Socrates.

What’s the best meme scheme for attaining Socratic status? That will have to be the subject of the next meme blog post.

In the meantime, just for shits and giggles, I’ll close with a cat meme.









Published by

Jonathan Erdman

Writer. In the summers, I live and work in the incredible state of Alaska, in the bush community of McCarthy, as the Executive Director of the Wrangell Mountain Center. When not in McCarthy, you'll typically find me in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California, writing and working with local activists. My primary writing project right now is a novel set in remote bush Alaska, of the magical realism genre wherein an earnest and independent young woman finds a mysterious radio belonging to her grandmother, a device that has paranormal bandwidth and a disturbing ability to mess with one's mental stability.

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Consider this post an invitation, an invitation to comment and collaborate ~ In Solidarity, JE

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