25 Things About…

A bit dated now, but

Don’t worry, this I’m not going to subject you to 25 random things about me.

I am going to talk about the ’25 things about me’ craze that’s managed to make it into Newsweek and Time, those bastions of journalism. I mean, if they’re talking about it then its got to be something important, right?

Richard Dawkins (the man who is P.O.ed at God) posited an idea a couple decades ago, in which he suggests the existence of a mental replicator. He means replicator in a very specific sense, one that comes from evolutionary biology. The main example of this kind of replicator is the gene, a little unit of information that contains instructions on how to copy itself. Genes work by getting themselves copied as many times as possible. You, as far as evolutionary biologists are concerned, are these big machines of water, carbon and other trace elements whose sole purpose is to get your genes copied.

A lot of people don’t like this idea, but it doesn’t bother me. Anyone who has watched last call at the Chicken Box (or your seedy watering hole of choice) should be pretty comfortable with the idea of people being wetter, messier machines, mainly interested in ‘passing along their genes.’

What does this have to do with all those variously funny, ridiculous, touching and strange lists of personal attributes traveling down the series of tubes that make up the Internet? Well, look at the instructions: if you’re tagged, pass it along. Every single one of the things you can do on Facebook are predicated on getting you to pass them along to your other friends.

I (who am admittedly a little odd) immediately think of Darwinian evolution when I see these things. I know, I should get out more. But these replicators act like genes do- genes play around in a metaphorical pool, like dancing nymphs on acid as they saunter through human populations. Ideas do the same thing.

Lets look at another example of ideas- myths. Myths spread and propagate like genes do, though not as discrete. Genes either work or don’t, the test of a gene’s fitness is its ability to pass itself along, while myths tend to be less obvious about it. Most of the myths that make up Western Civilization’s underpinnings are transplants or migrants from other, lesser known species of myth. Christ’s rising three days after death: originally from the Cult of Mithras in Rome, which is kind of like the hipster Christianity. You know, I was into that metaphysic before it was cool. Did the mental replicator in the Cult of Mithras succeed in passing itself along in the pool of our collective consciousnesses? Or did it, like the mitochondria in your cells, get coopted by another organism?

(An Aside: The Mithras connection to Christianity is muddied by the fact that dying and returning gods have been a staple of Mediterranean mystery cults since Set chopped up Osiris and Isis sewed him together again. I point to Mithras as the antecedent of the Christ rebirth story mostly because it was right there at the same time and popular enough to inspire early Christians to adopt it.)

The mental replicator Dawkins coined was called a meme, like mental gene. Meme theory is young and in its infancy, with many people doubting the field will reach anything like the rigor needed to be a legit scientific discipline. The book Meme Machine goes a long way towards answering those doubts. But the next time you don’t press skip when you take a quiz or tag someone for their 25 answers remember that you are contributing to the lifecycle of an idea, like a midwife or the taxi driver who takes a drunk couple home from the bar.

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