Saturday, April 2, 2016

...of Myths & Memes


"Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool.
Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such a high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal."

- Richard Dawkins


Meme (noun) 
1. an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media). 
2. a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind especially contagious to children and the impressionable. 
3. the fundamental unit of information, analogous to the gene in emerging evolutionary theory of culture.

Memetics (noun) 
1. The area of study relating to viral cultural ideas that spread from person to person. From Greek: mimetikos ...good at imitating.

- Urban Dictionary

Life is hard. Let us tell you what to think!
Memetics is a theory of mental content based on an analogy with Darwinian evolution, originating from the popularization of Richard Dawkins' 1976 book: The Selfish Gene. Proponents describe memetics as an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer. Memetics is notoriously notable for sidestepping the traditional concern with the truth of ideas and beliefs. Instead, it is interested in an idea's success.

Within memetics... cultural evolution, including the evolution of knowledge, can be modeled through the same basic principles of variation and selection that underlie biological evolution. This implies a shift from genes as units of biological information to a new type of unit of cultural information: memes. The meme was conceived as a "unit of culture" (an idea, belief, pattern of behavior, etc.) which is "hosted" in the mind of one or more individuals and which can reproduce itself, thereby jumping from mind to mind.

What was once regarded as one individual influencing another to adopt a specific belief... is seen within the discipline of memetics, as an idea-replicator reproducing itself in a new host. As with genetics, particularly under this Dawkinsian interpretation, a meme's success may be due to its contribution to the effectiveness of its host.

A meme is a cognitive or behavioral pattern that can be transmitted from one individual to another one. Since the individual who transmitted the meme will continue to carry it, the transmission can be interpreted as a replication: a copy of the meme is made in the memory of another individual, making him or her into a carrier of the meme. This process of self-reproduction (the memetic life-cycle), leading to spreading over a growing group of individuals, defines the meme as a replicator, similar in that respect to the gene (Dawkins, 1976; Moritz, 1991).


Myth  (noun)
1. A traditional, typically ancient story dealing with supernatural beings, ancestors, or heroes that serves as a fundamental type in the worldview of a people, as by explaining aspects of the natural world or delineating the psychology, customs, or ideals of society: the myth of Eros and Psyche; a creation myth.
2. A popular belief or story that has become associated with a person, institution, or occurrence, especially one considered to illustrate a cultural ideal: a star whose fame turned her into a myth; the pioneer myth of suburbia.
3. A fiction or half-truth, especially one that forms part of an ideology.

Mythology (noun)
1.  An allegorical narrative.
2.  A body of myths: as the myths dealing with the gods, demigods, and legendary heroes of a particular people.
3.  A branch of knowledge that deals with myth.
4.  A popular belief or assumption that has grown up around someone or something.

- Merriam Webster


Mythology is a collection of myths pertaining to a particular sacred, religious, or cultural tradition of a group of people. Myths are a collection of stories told to explain nature, history, and customs (or the study of such myths). As a collection of "civilizing stories" mythology is a vital feature of every culture. Mythologizing is not just an ancient or primitive practice, but a vibrant, dynamic cultural process, as demonstrated by contemporary myths such as urban legends and the expansive fictional mythologies created by fantasy novels and especially comics. A culture's collective mythology helps convey belonging, shared and religious experiences, behavioral models, and moral and practical lessons.

The study of myth dates back to ancient history. Rival classes of the Greek myths by Euhemerus, Plato, and Sallustius were developed by the Neoplatonists and later revived by Renaissance mythographers. Nineteenth-century comparative mythologists interpreted myth as a misinterpretation of magical ritual (James Frazer). Modern scholarship recognizes the complementary value of myth and rational thought, viewing myths as expressions for understanding general psychological, cultural, or societal truths, rather than being merely inaccurate historical accounts.

Historian Mircea Eliade suggests that one of the foremost functions of myth is to establish models for behavior and that myths may also provide a religious experience. By telling or reenacting myths, members of traditional societies detach themselves from the present, returning to the mythical age, thereby bringing themselves closer to the divine. Roland Barthes argues that modern culture utilizes mythology to trigger religious experience. Since it is not the job of science to define human morality... a religious experience is an attempt to connect with a perceived moral past, which is in contrast with the technological present.


"In the long view of the history of mankind, four essential functions of mythology can be discerned. The first and most distinctive... vitalizing all... is that of eliciting and supporting a sense of awe before the mystery of being."
"The second function of mythology is to render a cosmology, an image of the universe that will support and be supported by this sense of awe before the mystery of the presence and the presence of a mystery." 
"A third function of mythology is to support the current social order, to integrate the individual organically with his group;"
"The fourth function of mythology is to initiate the individual into the order of realities of his own psyche, guiding him toward his own spiritual enrichment and realization."

- Joseph Campbell



Editor's note: At the end of the day... the difference between a meme and a myth may involve resonance and longevity. Memes display the immediacy of an evolving culture... while myths "canonize" a particularly resonate cultural meme, over time.

(source: Uban Dictionary, Merriam Webster & Wikipedia)

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