“It’s an Oxford Expression”: the Hard Science of Dank Memes

Science and Technology

Photo credit: David Shankbone (Edited)

Maymays, mems, meems. If you have spent some time on the internet in the last decade, then chances are you are aware of the everlasting trash fire that is meme culture. For any baby boomers uninitiated in this most noble of pursuits, memes are images and other media that are shared around social media platforms. Pretty inconsequential right? Haha nooo. These images have become indispensable as a tool that allow Millennials and Generation Z-ers to connect and share feelings with one another; mostly pain stemming from existential dread but what can you do? So vital are they to the maintenance of modern relationships, that friendships can be based solely on meme tagging with no other form of actual communication necessary. What a world we live in.  

The concept of internet memes was introduced by Mike Godwin, writing for Wired in the 90s. They started as jokes overlaid on a picture related to the joke’s premise. Remember that, when memes contained actual humour? An example of these is a fist-pumping toddler expressing his delight at receiving 11 McNuggets, when in fact, he only ordered 10. In modern, more sophisticated memes however, just the toddler’s head would be included in the image. Laser beams would be screaming from his eyes, on a white background, pleading with his brother to be given some söǖp. But I digress.

You may not know that the neologism: “meme”, was coined by an Oxford student, lecturer and member of the zoology faculty… Dr Richard Dawkins. This was in his ground-breaking 1976 work, The Selfish Gene, which offered a new perspective on evolution. Oxonians, meme-ing is in your blood! 

The process of evolution by natural selection requires there to be variation within a population that is heritable. It also requires differential survival and reproduction rates as well as selective pressures. An example of a selective pressure could be decreased rainfall. Individuals within a population that can cope better with drought would be fitter and produce more offspring than individuals worse at coping. Therefore, individuals with improved drought tolerance would gradually increase in frequency over time. Hey presto, Darwinian evolution. 

One can consider this in a different way. A central argument within the selfish gene is that genetic material is immortal and changes over time due to mutation. The genetic code utilises replicators to spread. These replicators are organisms. In this framework, genetic material that codes for fitter replicators will increase in frequency. 

Moreover, this concept can be extended to units of culture, which spread utilising replicators in a manner analogous to genes and viruses. These memes will change over time according to selective pressures. This is investigated by those in the (rather pseudoscientific) field of memetics. Think about it. An internet maymay is generated by a page admin. If people like this admin’s maymays, their following will increase. Having more followers means that the admin (or replicator) is more fit and shall spread their maymays more efficiently; their maymays will increase in frequency within the population, going “viral”. This is classical Darwinian evolution. 

Even more excitingly, I would argue that memetics could be used to validate a long maligned field of evolutionary biology: saltationism/ mutationism. Saltation theory stands in contrast to neo-Darwinian theories of natural selection; arguing that few large-effect mutations can lead to rapid speciation. Proponents of this theory included Richard Goldschmidt who formulated the “Hopeful Monster” hypothesis; arguing that gradual frequency changes of small-effect mutations within populations could not bridge the gap between micro and macro-evolution. This theory was (rightly) rejected by neo-Darwinists such as the great Fisher, Haldane and Sewall Wright; who were responsible for the modern synthesis and laid the foundation for quantitative population genetics.

Yes, saltationism is probably wrong in the genetic context but maybe not in the memetic context. We see this all the time with new meme templates being created. Consider the double cartoon Spider-men pointing at each other meme. This was generated by one brave soul. It then spread and changed gradually over time, with different text overlays appearing until the meme’s death. The creation of the template can be considered as saltationism and the subsequent gradual changes can be seen as neo-Darwinian.

Whether you read this whilst furiously dabbing, or with a note book, eagerly jotting down information with the view to use this piece as a reference for one of your essays… I hope you enjoyed yourself. Sincerely or ironically. You may not even know which one it was. I wouldn’t blame you. I can’t tell anymore either, was this whole article written ironically? I don’t know. Was it a cry for help? Who can tell? Then again, I’m pretty sure we all learnt something about evolutionary theory and that is worth it. Repeat after me: “I’m something of a scientist myself”.