- talk by Hugh Young at the Eighth International Symposium
Common examples of memes are
(Dawkins cites “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches”.)
A cluster of related memes is a memeplex. (Dawkins called it a “co-adapted meme-complex”, but the name of the meme has evolved.)
Examples of memeplexes are
Memes, like genes, are replicators - they copy themselves - an amazing property, when you think about it, the basis of life itself.
Like genes, memes endure and copy themselves with variations, which are naturally selected, and thereby evolve. Like genes, they are "selfish" - or rather, their function is the promotion of their own survival.
Unlike genes, only human (and possibly some primate, and electronic) brains carry memes.
A good analogy for a meme today is a computer virus. In fact, a computer virus, being merely information stored in, and transmitted between, information processsing systems, is more like a meme than it is like a biological virus (which is a self-contained physical entity that actually moves between organisms, carrying genetic information with it).
Richard Dawkins says that as with genes, we track memes through populations by their phenotypes [ways of being physically expressed]. And he cites circumcision as a rare example of a meme phenotype that is part of a living body, like most gene phenotypes. He says a Martian geneticist ... … would have to work quite hard to discover that no genes are involved in the genesis of the "roundhead" (circumcised) phenotype.
Susan Blackmore suggests that the taboo on masturbation, and circumcision, both have the evolutionary function of increasing the amount of vaginal sex, and hence the number of offspring to whom the taboo can be taught. Enter evolutionary biology. But there is no evidence that circumcision significantly increases the birthrate, and many circumcised men claim circumcision does not make masturbation more difficult.
But the belief that it did was sufficient to establish it in the UK and then the US, late in the 19th century, and once established, it sustained (and sustains) itself by associated memes that had (and have) nothing to do with masturbation or sex. In fact, for most of the 20th century, any role of the foreskin in sex has been ignored or denied in circumcising cultures.
While Dawkins and Blackmore consider circumcision a meme, the central idea - cutting part of a baby's or child's penis off - is always embedded in culture, tradition, religion and/or medicine. (Nobody could reasonably consider that cutting part of a baby's genitals off, without some supposed benefits or context, was a good idea in and of itself.)
The Circumcision Memeplex
This diagram does not include circumfetishism - circumcising or being circumcised for sexual pleasure, though there is reason to suspect it's often hiding not far under the surface.
Ritual circumcision and Routine Infant Circumcision [that is, without immediate medical reason] might almost be considered different memes that happen to share the same phenotype:
These may be summarised as
but ritual cleanliness is the invisible guest at the feast. Jewish defenders of circumcision frequently cite cleanliness and express horror at the supposed uncleanliness of the foreskin.
In the USA, Routine Infant Circumcision is perpetuated by a stealth akin to that of the stealth bomber. It makes itself invisible to our radar.
The ostensible reasons are
Each of these is a cluster of ostensible reasons, sometimes contradictory - for example both to increase and to decrease penile size or sensitivity.
The constituent memes of Jewish circumcision and Routine Infant Circumcision in the US are like the two members of a double star orbiting each other, influencing each other while keeping their distance - with Jewish circumcision the shining star, Routine Infant Circumcision a black hole, sucking parents and babies in. The interaction can be seen in many TV sitcoms - Seinfeld is a good example - where the circumcision being discussed is ostensibly Jewish, but stripped of any religious connotations, and many of the other "reasons" are invoked. A large but unknown number of US Jewish babies are reportedly circumcised in hospital without ceremony before the eighth day, nullifying any covanental value, but satisfying other memes of the memeplex.
The most effective memes are simple and couple the behaviour with something universally agreed to be good:
And these associations make them hard to argue with.
Circumcision is presented as "an important decision parents must make for their children" - yet any opposition to doing it may be dismissed because "it's no big deal".
Altruism is a powerful way of spreading memes - and hence many memes spread by linking themselves to altruism.
Circumcision is an excellent example of such a memeplex - the cluster of ostensible reasons for doing it is hydra-headed and ever-changing. The silly ones are carried on with it, as well as those with any validity at all.
The ostensible reasons for infant circumcision always have an altruistic component. Even the reason “to punish him for masturbation” was only prevalent when that was believed to be for his ultimate betterment, including the salvation of his immortal soul.
Certain memes, like wearing a turban or abstaining from certain foods are carried along as markers of other religious memes, so that those who share them will be altruistic toward each other.
Unlike those so-called “beneficent norms”, religious, ritual and "medical" circumcision (and FGM) are forced on infants and children by adults who have already undergone it themselves. The ones who perform it are not those who suffer (now). Their culture or religion has taught them that it is "inevitable" and "necessary" and “beneficial” so that they are able to suppress their natural revulsion, and even wallow in their own empathy with the child's pain. If they remember the pain, they may consider that it, too, is valuable, as Nelson Mandela does. So by a variety of dodges, the circumcision meme can pass itself off as altruistic. Or rather, people infected with it can.
Or circumcision may seem to benefit someone else, and two important memes of this kind are complementary, but not exactly so:
Meanwhile, the irrational aspect to the circumcision memeplex adds a complication. Circumcising a baby is Doing Something (at a particular time and place), so it has a definiteness about it that Leaving The Baby Alone does not. In fact US mothers who leave their babies intact are frequently accused of neglect. Circumcision leaves a vivid mark of having been done. It does not usually do sufficient harm at any one time to be genetically or socially contraindicated - unlike, say, castration. (There is some suggestion that ritual circumcision may have been introduced in Egypt as a substitute for ritual castration - of a priestly caste, rather than the whole male population, obviously.) The good that circumcision supposedly does is set in the unforeseeable future. (In this, circumcision is like those religion memes that promise infinite and eternal rewards or punishments after death.) Since the evils it is supposed to prevent are rare, it is allowed to take credit by default for their absence, something like a lucky charm, or wearing garlic to ward off vampires.
Reviewing a book of Dawkins', Simon Blackburn argues against treating memes as having purposes or designs, which of course they do not. But while they are in people's heads, memes are subjected to those people's purposes and designs, and hence to creative, evolutionary processes. And for memes, acquired characteristics (changes to the meme phenotype between transmissions) ARE inherited, unlike those of genes. (That is, meme evolution is Larmarkian, as well as Darwinian.)
For example, secular circumcision quickly evolved from being a childhood treatment for masturbation to an infant preventative of it, largely because newborns can put up less resistance. (Jewish circumcision probably moved in the same direction in ancient times. Muslim, Korean and Philippine circumcision have yet to do so. They are also reportedly milder than the Jewish and US forms.) And when masturbation hysteria waned, people's wish to circumcise, which is the heart of the circumcision memeplex, has attached and reattached itself to successive diseases it was alleged to prevent.
The concept of a meme or memeplex is particularly productive with regard to genital mutilation, because the idea of genital mutilation has a coherence of its own that is independent of individual rationality.
An intact penis (or female genitalia) are not themselves memes (nor meme-phenotypes), because they are transmitted by genes, not by imitation. In the context of a strongly circumcising culture, it may require unusual determination to break the hold of the circumcision meme, but, for the most part, leaving a baby alone needs no reason.
However, Intactivism, the campaign for genital integrity (which only exists in the context of genitally mutilating cultures), may usefully be considered a memeplex. Here are some of the ideas linked to it:
The Intactivism Memeplex
Opposition to the three varieties of genital modification has been amalgamated here because most of the associated factors relate to all three, in greater or lesser degree. (The “gender equality” meme is near to male circumcision, but there is a special relationship between feminism and opposition to FGM - women's outrage that this can be done to women. We might speak of “gender solidarity”. Sadly, there seems little or no equivalent men's outrage, based on gender solidarity, that this can be done to fellow men. It seems to be overwhelmed by macho denial of pain, imposed on tiny babies.)
The Intactivism memeplex is clearly much simpler than the circumcision memeplex. The different elements also reinforce each other in ways that the parts of the circumcision memeplex do not. These are two of the strengths by which the Intactivism memeplex will ultimately prevail. Intactivism is an easy idea to transmit, and once transmitted, it is not easily lost.
Susan Blackmore's homepage
Back to the Intactivism index page.
Richard Dawkins, preface to The Meme Machine (p. xiii), Reprinted in "A Devil's Chaplain: reflections on hope, lies, science and love" Houghton Mifflin, 2003, (pp124-5)
As with genes, we track memes through populations by their phenotypes [ways of being physically expressed]. The 'phenotype' of the [origami] Chinese junk meme is made of paper. With the exception of 'extended phenotypes', such as beaver dams and caddis larva houses, the phenotypes of genes are normally parts of living bodies. Meme phenotypes seldom are.
But it can happen. To return to my school again, a Martian geneticist, visiting the school during the morning cold bath ritual, would have unhesitatingly diagnosed an 'obvious' genetic polymorphism. About 50 per cent of the boys were circumcised and 50 per cent were not. The boys, incidentally, were highly conscious of the polymorphism and we classified ourselves into Roundheads versus Cavaliers (I have recently read of another school in which the boys even organised themselves into two football teams along the same lines). It is, of course, not a genetic but a memetic polymorphism. But the Martian's mistake is completely understandable; the morphological discontinuity is of exactly the kind that one normally expects to find produced by genes.
In England at that time, infant circumcision was a medical whim, and the Roundhead/Cavalier polymorphism at my school probably owed less to longitudinal [between generations] transmission than to differing fashions in the various hospitals where we happened to have been born - horizontal [between peers] memetic transmission, yet again. But through most of history circumcision has been longitudinally transmitted as a badge of religion (of parents' religion I hasten to point out, for the unfortunate child is normally too young to know his own religious mind). Where circumcision is religiously or traditionally based ( the barbaric custom of female circumcision always is), the transmission will follow a longitudinal pattern of heredity, very similar to the pattern for true genetic transmission, and often persisting for many generations. Our Martian geneticist would have to work quite hard to discover that no genes are involved in the genesis of the roundhead phenotype.
[Dawkins errs in implying that only female genital mutilation is barbaric.]