Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist



Memes, Behavioral Contagion, and the Zeitgeist



I want to bring these three concepts together to create a meme that will be contagious and contribute to the zeitgeist.[1]First a quick introduction to our principal players: a meme is an idea or action that spreads analogously to the gene; behavioral contagion is the process whereby the actions of some members of a group are copied by other members of the group; the zeitgeist is the sum of all ideas and patterns of behavior prevalent at a given time in a culture. For example, a meme may be a melody or a catchphrase or a fashion; behavioral contagion occurs when yawning spreads from one person to another or mass hysteria grips a mob; the zeitgeist could be the belief system of medieval Europe or the mind-set of industrial capitalism. I want to say that memes are transmitted by behavioral contagion to form the zeitgeist: that is the basic structure of cultural (ideational) formation. I will generalize the concept of behavioral contagion to include not just behavior but also attitudes and ideas—psychological contagion.[2]Emotions can be propagated through a group as well as actions. The notion of contagion is taken from epidemiology: ideas can spread like a disease caught by social contact. Ideas can “go viral” in the sense that they leap from one mind to another, as bodies are invaded by a virus, leaving their mark as they disseminate. Thus the meme is the unit of transmission, psychological contagion is the method of transmission, and the zeitgeist is the totality of items transmitted. The three concepts all belong together.

We can take the gene as our basic model. The gene is the unit of inheritance, the focus of natural selection, and the driver of embryogenesis; it is fundamental to biology. As we know, it consists of DNA molecules—a certain type of physical structure. The gene is transmitted across generations, passing from one organism to another, somewhat like a germ (indeed biologists call this transmission the “germ-line”). Thus genes have the power to combine in one organism and spread to others. They are “contagious”. Inheritance is therefore the analogue of behavioral contagion—the way items replicate and multiply. Genetic transmission is a copying process just like the spread of fads and fashions, theories and obsessions. There is also the so-called gene pool—the totality of genes characterizing a species at a given time (along with the mega gene pool that includes all the genes on the planet at a given time[3]). This is the biological zeitgeist—the analogue of the “Spirit of the Times”. Thus we can map our three concepts onto concepts drawn from genetics: gene and meme, inheritance and psychological contagion, gene pool and culture pool. This provides a theoretical framework for thinking about cultural formation (as theorists have observed). What I am adding is the completion of the analogy to include means of transmission and to the sum-total of what is transmitted (psychological contagion and zeitgeist, respectively).

There is an abstract theoretical structure here: a replicating entity, a method of transmission from one host organism to another, and a repository of all the items capable of such transmission. Memes and genes are special cases of this abstract structure. Are there any other domains in which the structure applies? Written language appears to exemplify it. Words are the replicating units, which combine into larger units (phrases, sentences); writing is the means by which words are disseminated through the population; and libraries are the totalities that result from this dissemination. Words pass from one mind to another by a process of copying (e.g. “To be or not to be”) and books contain totalities of words. Thus we have word units, word transmission, and word pools. Reading and writing (and publishing) are the means by which words propagate and multiply and fill libraries. Indeed, inverting the analogy, we can describe the genome as a library of genetic verbiage, and embryogenesis as a process of “reading” the books of this library. Words produce copies of themselves by being transmitted between people; and a dictionary is a compendium of all the words of a language at a given time (a “lexeme pool”). As there is a spirit of the time, so there is a biosphere of the time, and a language of the time: replicating units that get transmitted through a population. And these three types of “pool” can have a characteristic shape at a given time—say, a religious shape or a dinosaur shape or an eighteenth-century British shape (see Thackeray and Austen). Certain words and styles of speech can be in vogue, or a certain type of organism dominant, or a particular system of thought communally received. These can mutate and be selected for or against, yielding to new formations (e.g. scientific thought, mammals, contemporary American English). Different domains have different categories of zeitgeist and different units of transmission, but the broad structure is common to all—replicating units, a means of spread, and a currently existing totality of favored items.

Is there anything else that exemplifies this structure? Yes: commodities, products, artifacts, bits of technology, machines. I mean to include a broad range of items here, ranging from motorcars to furniture, clothes to life-styles, food to computers. Things that can be bought and sold: these too can be analyzed in the tripartite way outlined. Take computers (or their parts): these are the units, the economic system is the way they are propagated, and the collection of them at a given time is the technological zeitgeist. The units are manufactured and sold, and they form the state of technology at a given time (the zeitgeist shifted when Apple came along). Behavioral contagion explains their widespread adoption. They are selected for or against in the marketplace. They reflect a given stage of technical and business evolution. Books fill libraries as genes fill genomes; commodities fill warehouses in the same way (and homes and offices). Genes, memes, words, and products: all are subject to the same overarching structure, the same logic. If products can’t be replicated or can’t be distributed, they won’t survive in the marketplace—just like genes or memes. Reproduction and transmission are essential, as is intrinsic quality (lousy TVs are as bad as lousy genes or lousy ideas). And the state of contemporary technology (in the broad sense) reflects the state of the world at that point in time—products come and go, as civilizations do, or animal species, or words. The zeitgeist is perishable and may be superseded by a superior zeitgeist (there are plenty of extinct zeitgeists). Thus we can subsume the business world under our general schema. The entrepreneur is swimming in a sea of replicators, contagion, and time-bound constraints—just like the biologist, the librarian, and the historian of ideas. Survival depends on navigating these waters, and it’s good to know what sea you are floating on and how the current flows. The successful entrepreneur needs to be aware of the conceptual structure that underlies and shapes his or her activities.[4]



[1]The literal translation is “time-spirit”; apparently Hegel preferred “Geist der Zeiten”, i.e. “Spirit of the Times”.

[2]Behavioral contagion belongs with other forms of social influence such as suggestibility, conformism, imitation, social facilitation, copycat behavior, and the like. What I want to emphasize is the more or less automatic absorption of social trends whereby something comes to permeate a population without any rational deliberation. It is sub-rational, below the radar, and sometimes insidious. Often it occurs by the release of inhibition triggered by an aberrant individual, as in copycat shootings or suicides. At the other extreme we have the general adoption of a particular accent. The human mind seems especially susceptible to this kind of subliminal influence. Memes need it to get off the ground and colonize a population—mere reproducibility is not enough. The channel must exist as well as the replicators that flow through it.

[3]The cosmic gene pool would be all the genes existing in the universe.

[4]I intend this to be the first of a series of essays about the theoretical model described, with special reference to the business world.

4 replies
  1. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    In the abstract theoretical structure is there a place for the environment? Or a gene’s phenotype?

    I might have said the behaviour associated with a meme is its phenotype. But as you note it is also its method of replication.

  2. Giulio Katis
    Giulio Katis says:

    Abstractly, how does the concept of phenotype relate to the concepts of genetype and the environment? Is it a type of boundary between the two, providing a translation between the discrete and the continuous? Presumably phenotypes were co-emergent with genotypes. Where does the genome end and the phenome begin? Eg does the 3-dimensional folding structure of DNA (which is critical to how the digital information comprising the DNA code is expressed) belong to the genotype or the phenotype?


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