Archives for: February 2005
I was going through the logs of the referrer program last night. This is the script that allows visitors to refer a friend to the website by just plunking in their email and a short message. How many of these messages were from dads concerned about a child (â€˜Hey Sweety, this may help. Look's interesting. Love Dad') or friends who found the site and knew of others on the program (â€˜Hey Ginnie, this is the diet Betty is on!')
I scrolled through pages and pages of these quick, helpful notes and perhaps because I have been re-reading Dawkin's The Selfish Gene I got to thinking about his concept of a meme.
For those who have never heard of the concept, at its simplest, a meme (rhymes with dream) is an idea. Any idea. It is simply something that gets stuck in the human mind.
Dawkins described memes thusly:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.
You can think of a meme as a sort of 'thought replicator' stored in our human brains and passed on by the imitation of others. Some memes are helpful, others can be harmful. For example if you pulled up to a man on the side of the road that looked like a policemen, you might expect directions to a particular location to be accurate. However, people can simply walk into a uniform store and buy a policeman's uniform.
Some people may see a connection with memes to brain washing or thought manipulation, but that would not the case in anything but a tiny fraction. Most memes are passed along as a desire to inform, assist, or make a special statement about ourselves.
Our minds are not a blank slate on which any idea can be impressed. To be understood, a new meme must connect to the values and process that are already available to the individual. In addition one must also be willing to believe it or to take it serious. For example, although you are likely to understand the proposition that cartoon animals can talk with each other, you are unlikely to accept the proposition that this occurs in the real world without very strong evidence. Therefore, you will not add it to your â€˜information base' on animal characteristics. The cartoon meme will not manage to change your view on the subject.
The columnists and bloggers have been effective meme vehicles for the Blood Type Diet. A great example of the meme effect is Cheryl Hendrix's blog First Do No Harm where she writes of an interaction which allowed her to instruct an uninformed individual on another diet board about the low quality of most internet reviews of the Blood Type Diet. Another is Suzanne Graham's blog about her difficulties with the food pyramid.
Some writers think there are two basic types of memes: procedural and propagative. For example, when I successfully communicate an idea or application of the Blood Type Diet to you, I've spread a 'BTD procedural meme.' The BTD procedural meme then becomes widespread if it provides some benefit, like increasing the diet's effectiveness, or explaining things better, etc. When you in turn recommend the diet of the website to a friend, or discuss it with a co-worker, you in turn spread the 'BTD propagational meme.'
A good meme, like a good virus, will have special characteristics that insure continued growth. Without them, they eventually die. I've included a few here, with special reference to the Blood Type Diet.
Fidelity: The ability to maintain accuracy and correct errors to maintain integrity. I think the BTD does a good job here, as it has continued to generate a reassuring richness and complexity of material, but is as changeable and adaptable as needed. A good example is the addition of the secretor information to the basic ABO types that occurred with the publication of Live Right 4 Your Type.
Fecundity: The fertility of the idea. The ease by which an idea it spawns itself. At least to me, this appears to be by and large culturally dependent. For example, when I first began practicing in the early 1980's there was little to no public or media interest in nutrition. Until that began to change, ideas about diets had no real place in the daily dialogue. 'Cultural relevance' is probably a critical aspect of meme fecundity.
Longevity: To me, the longevity of an idea is related to how relevant it continues to be, as its meme is passed to newcomers and future generations. In the case of the BTD, one could argue that its best days are still ahead of it, since it will almost certainly benefit from the impending paradigm shift in nutrition that will occur over the next ten years --the nutrigenomics revolution-- and the growing frustration over one-size-fits-all diets. There are several good examples of the BTD's longevity. A simple capitalistic one is the fact that my first book, written almost ten years ago, is still in hardcover. Another is the belief of many on the program, that this is a diet for life. Individuals who have been on the diet for 5, 7 or 8 years -- a tremendous meme pool, are filling out prospective blogger applications. Consider the life cycle of the average low carb diet book. It usually takes off with a period of stupendous sales, and then slumps as a newer version takes its place. Remember Sugar Busters?
Co-adaption: Effective memes tend to thrive in the company of other replicators that compliment them. I'm not certain that we do well in this department. For example, the â€˜Blood Type Diet Meme' should be expected to do well with the â€˜Naturopathic Medicine Meme' since they both address issues of innate healing and individualized treatment. However, not all naturopaths see the BTD as being as â€˜naturopathic' per se as perhaps a universal vegetarian diet. Also since the diet suggests a place for both a plant based or animal based diet, it tends to be criticized by advocates of the exclusive use of one or the other.
Right after the Oprah article came out I was deluged with comments suggesting I write the magazine and address the mistakes that the panel of experts had made in their description of the diet. After putting this off for a few days, I finally sat at the computer and diligently tried to accomplish this task. It was then I remembered that I had never actually read the Oprah article (I've pretty much stopped reading popular depictions of my work). At that point writing the letter began to feel like a 200-pound weight around my neck. Plus the more I thought about it, the more bored I became with the whole exercise. Finally I just lost interest and gave up.
Not a great example of meme propagation, but I am trying to be honest about it.
Now as time passes I am coming to understand why this apparently simple task was so profoundly debilitating to me: The 'Write Oprah Magazine Meme*' is not my meme.
* The more analytical in the crowd may have noticed that this statement about who owns the 'Write Oprah Magazine Meme' is in itself a meme.
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The Internet site The Edge recently asked a few hundred deep thinkers "What's your law?â€? I liked Eberhard Zangger's two laws.
Zangger's First Law
Most scientific breakthroughs are nothing else than the discovery of the obvious.
Zangger's Second Law
Truly great science is always ahead of its time.
As examples, he gives:
The Hungarian surgeon Ignaz Semmelweiss in 1847 reduced the death rate in his hospital from twelve to two percent, simply by washing hands between operations -- a concept that today would be advocated by a four year old child. When Semmelweiss urged his colleagues to introduce hygiene to the operating rooms, they had him committed to a mental hospital where he eventually died.
The German meteorologist Alfred Wegener discovered in 1913 what every ten year old looking at a globe will notice immediately: That the Atlantic coasts of the African and South American continents have matching contours and thus may have been locked together some time ago. The experts needed sixty more years to comprehend the concept.
Heinrich Schliemann's excavation of Bronze Age Mycenae and Tiryns in Greece was considered by English archaeologists in The Times' as the remains of some obscure barbarian tribe' from the Byzantine period. In particular, the so-called prehistoric palace in Tiryns was labelled "the most remarkable hallucination of an unscientific enthusiast that has ever appeared in literature."
The theories of the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud were called "a case for the police" during a neurologists' congress in Hamburg in 1910.
I know it is probably just auto-suggestion, but I take solace from this sort of stuff.