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Disseminating ideas and the Memetic perspective

I think people heavily underestimate the power of ideas. Their intangible, immeasurable nature forces them to take a back seat to the more physical, material things that attract our attention. We look out at a reality which seems so ordinary, so standard, like everyone should see it this way, when in fact the truth is that our reality is really more of a perspective moulded by a collection and collaboration of interlinking ideas which have infected our minds and spread due to their virality.

China People And FluThis comparison of ideas to viruses is a fascinating thought and one which holds far more than just a metaphorical way of description. Ideas actually have a great deal in common with viruses and genes in general. At their core, genes are no more than simple information patterns which are easily copied and dispersed, much like a good idea.

Memetics, the study of memes, was one the first real theories, that took seriously this relationship between the intangible world of ideas and the physical realm of genes. The word “meme” is a term coined by Richard Dawkins, and can be loosely described as an information pattern which is capable of being copied to another person’s memory. These information patterns (memes) are importantly subject to a selection process, similar to that of their close relatives (genes), which are chosen through natural selection.

Therefore just because a meme spreads through a network, does not mean that it will be selected as an important memory and so continue to spread to other networks and communities. If a meme is to continue to spread, it needs to be simple, easily replicable and meaningful to its hosts (people’s minds).

Thinking of an effective idea as something that must be meaningful seems so obvious and trivial when in fact from the memetic perspective, it is certainly its most interesting characteristic. The idea/meme needs to be able to thrive within the mind of the host. In order to do this, is needs to be well suited to the preconceptions and understandings that the host holds most true.


To understand this, imagine trying to get the most radical Islamic to accept the idea of Darwinism, compared to a young, western-born student, studying science to accept the idea. There is no large difference in the physical, biological make up of these two hosts, yet the one can completely reject the idea, well the other accepts it and embraces it as a core part of his understanding of the world. The difference occurs because the two had previously been exposed to drastically different ideas which had spread throughout their cultural networks and so inevitably infected their minds.

The Memetic perspective really gives us a great understanding of how powerful ideas actually are and as Daniel Dennett explains in this video, how dangerous they can be too..

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