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20 October 2016

Evolution, Memes, and the Social

I follow SciShow on Youtube. Think of it like a Readers Digest for the natural sciences. Here is a recent video from them that got me thinking:

"Genetically speaking, music and art and Youtube are probably pointless" (2:33).
Sociology would beg to differ. Cultural forms, like music and (physical) art, and cultural artifacts, like memes, are only "pointless" in the shortsighted sense. Let me elaborate.

An evolutionarily functionalist view of culture insists that memes originated and proliferated only inasmuch as they could help early humans in their immediate survival (e.g. how to make fire and language). Most memes persist, from this perspective, only as vestigial social structures, a kind of cultural version of the appendix; it may have served some purpose in the past, but it's basically useless now. Internet memes are even worse, more like "viruses."

A sociological view of culture insists that the exchange of arbitrary cultural knowledge helps to generate solidarity and to maintain group boundaries. This kind of social cohesiveness is what was essential to our evolution, survival, and global dominance as a species. (Moreover, it's not so much that evolution favored intelligence; instead, evolution favored sociality.) Internet memes aren't so much like "viruses," then, as they are fleeting reminders of our interconnectedness, more like handshakes, shortlived but socially meaningful.

I think this really calls into question the intellectual utility of "memes" as a concept. They're more like a shorthand for biological determinists to pigeonhole the social into their genetic conceptualization of evolution than a social reality.

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