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Science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer

SF writer Robert J. Sawyer often jokes that he is more interested in the survival of his memes than his genes. (Photo: sfwriter.com)

We had better start with a clear definition of the term, meme.

“Meme: (biology) a cultural unit (an idea, value, or pattern of behaviour) … passed from one person to another by non-genetic means (as by imitation)” (WordWeb).

In other words, memes are the cultural counterpart of genes. Like genes, anyone can pass on his or her memes. Unlike genes, individuals who are willing to do the work can create memes.

Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer has said on more than one occasion that, “… I like to quip that I’m more interested in the survival of my memes than my genes …” Sawyer knowingly works his memes into his stories and novels thereby making it possible for others to see and adopt them, and then, hopefully, pass them on yet again. Anyone who deliberately includes their own ideas and values in their work shares Sawyer’s openly expressed desire to spread his memes. However, they may be considerably less conscious of what they are doing. I want to play with the sometimes poorly understood impulse to spread one’s memes so let me pose a suggestive question.

Do memes have a life of their own?

To elaborate: Consider the fact that memes have to start somewhere. Does an idea, concept, or pattern of behaviour, once conceived or established, possess some kind of blind instinct or will to survive, in the same way that a fetus, once conceived, has a natural propensity to grow and develop?

My experience has been that ideas (one type of meme) make one crave the things they need to expand and evolve. The list would include particular books, simple facts and figures, illustrations, or more comprehensive information that requires much time and effort. A meme prompting the desire for data mimics the way a fetus makes its mother crave foods that contain what it needs to grow. Seen in this light, memes are a sort of living thing with a will to live and specific nutritional needs. Well-nourished memes expand and prosper while malnourished memes simply waste away. In a sense, creative humans can become willing hosts to parasitical memes they have originated themselves. Or to put it another way, those creative humans become pregnant with memes.

Drawing on my own experience again, I notice that once a meme has gathered what it needs and its development is complete, I have the urge to share it with others by talking about it, posting it on my blog, or including it in my “works in progress.” In a sense, having completed the gestation period, I now have the urge to give birth. Like Robert J. Sawyer, I want to embody the meme in some way and send it out into the world in physical form (text in my case) where I hope it will survive and prosper. I want it to have a life of its own, not as an entity within myself, but as a thing apart from me that others may choose to adopt because they find it useful.

A fascinating aspect of gestating and birthing memes is the way the process parallels the creative process as described by creativity researchers. In fact, the two processes are the same. Creators who go beyond the rudimentary forms of art are actually creating on two levels. They create art, and they create memes to put into their art. Or they create memes and they create art to embody those memes. Often, the two processes are so intertwined that it is impossible to separate them or even tell which aspect came first.

When we say that a particular creator is influential, we mean that his or her memes are potent and others are adopting them. However, creative artists are not the only ones who generate new memes, and art is not the only way to spread freshly created memes. Scientists, thinkers, and leaders of all kinds frequently gestate memes and spread them with papers, non-fiction books, and by personal example.