Mitochondrial Memes (part 1)

I have been enamored with the “meme” concept of ideas–that ideas spread like viruses, and their propagation can be understood via metaphorical evolutionary theory–ever since I first heard it.

So I was thinking this morning, that “virus” is not the only way a meme can propagate. Mitochondria are foreign DNA that long ago hitched a ride in our cells, to our mutual benefit. Mitochondria might once have been virus-like, but now they are just passed from mother to child.

Many of people’s cultural norms, like religious beliefs and political orientation, correlate strongly with their parents’ norms, suggesting that they are passed down in some way from parent to child. Obvious examples are the continuing conservatism of the American South, which has been notably more conservative than the North for over 200 years, and the remarkable stability of patterns of religious affiliation across the globe–not many Pakistani kids are going to convert to Neo-Paganism in the next decade. We shall call the way these values are transmitted “mitochondrial”.

So we may think of “meme viruses” and “meme mitochondrias”.

This construction immediately suggests that “viruses = bad”, but I think that is over applying the metaphor. After all, I can immediately think of meme viruses that I think are good, like the shift in attitudes toward smoking over the past few decades, or meme mitochondira that I think are bad, like homophobia.

A better set of inferences would be that long-term, mitochondria memes must encourage people to have children in order to be successful (otherwise they will be out-competed by mitochondrial memes that do encourage people to have more children.) So, for example, if one group of people believes in having only one child on whom they dote excessively, and they manage to pass this idea on to their child who passes it on to their grandchild, while another group of people believes that birth control is evil and manages to pass that idea on to their children, the doting people will be outbred by the anti-BC crowd.

Successful viral memes have to be good at convincing people to adopt them, so they have to sound good. Having lots of children sounds like a ton of work, so most people are not terribly convinced by that meme if they are not already inclined to it; watching TV or going to a club right now sounds like fun, so lots of people can be convinced to do these activities. Viral memes can exert a significant dampening effect on their hosts’ reproduction, so long as they still manage to spread via conversation.

Shakerism comes immediately to mind as a meme virus that could not attract enough people to overcome its depressive effect on fertility, mostly because “never have sex” is not much fun. By contrast, “Use birth control” might be a sustainable meme virus despite its depressive effects on fertility, because it allows people to do lots of fun things.


10 thoughts on “Mitochondrial Memes (part 1)

  1. […] As I have discussed before, recent (ie, in the past 100 or so years) technological advances have created a completely novel memetic environment. For almost the entirety of human history, people got almost all of the information about the world around them from the people around them, principally their parents, grandparents, and tribal/village elders. Information passed vertically in this way I refer to as “meme mitochondria,” due to their similarity to the mitochondrial DNA passed down from mother to child. […]


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