Susan Blackmore and Richard Dawkins are two of the few authors that have written about the idea of “memes” in comparison to genes. As mentioned by Dawkins in the foreword of Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, the Oxford English Dictionary now acknowledges a meme to be “an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation” (viii). The meme that I chose to discuss is the children’s song that is widely known throughout the United States and some other countries, “Ring Around the Rosie.” This song is common among young children and is kind of like a game as well because it typically involves people holding hands and rotating in a circle as they sing it, then all “falling down” at the end of the song. As is the case with all memes, this song/game is replicated by imitation, and the actions involved can often be learned even before a child really knows how to talk. There is definitely a behavioral component involved in this meme, which includes both the singing of the song itself and the action of rotating in a circle and then falling down.
There is some variation in the words used to sing this song in different areas of the world, and probably also in the actions that go along with it. For example, (according to Wikipedia) the British version of the song is “Ring-a-ring o’ roses, a pocket full of posies, a-tishoo!, a-tishoo!, we all fall down;” while the American version that most of us probably learned is “Ring-a-round a rosie, a pocket full of posies, ashes!, ashes!, we all fall down.” There are a few additional versions that are less common, along with a version in German. I think this meme has been so widely replicated because the song has a catchy tune, and children love to get up and move around while also singing a fun song. According to Blackmore’s definition of “memeplexes,” it could be considered to be part of the larger memeplex of children’s songs and games that are played in schools or among kids.
The variation in this meme and the selection for the more “popular” versions of the song in different environments accounts for part of Dawkins and Blackmore’s argument that memes are similar to genes because they evolve in the same way. The three crucial elements that Dawkins argues must occur in the process of evolution are heredity, variation and differential fitness. These elements are based on definitions established by Charles Darwin concerning natural selection and evolution, and both Dawkins and Blackmore use these elements in an attempt to prove the similarity between the cultural evolution of memes and the process of genetics and biological evolution. In this case, “heredity,” or the ability of the meme to be passed on, is present because this song and the actions that go along with it can be replicated by others. Variation and differential fitness are also arguably occurring in this scenario because there are different variations of this song, and some have become more successful and widespread than others, presumably because of the environment they are in.
I really like the idea of this meme theory overall, and I think it is fascinating to think about how some of these elements of our culture spread so rapidly sometimes. However, I do think there are some flaws in the connection they are trying to make with genetics. Dawkins discusses a few of these in his foreword, and the main one that stuck out to me is that “we do not know what memes are made of or where they reside” (xii). This is a major flaw in the analogy for me because genes are known to exist, and I don’t really see how they can connect the two systems without this essential component. Additionally, when Blackmore discusses memeplexes, she compares this grouping of memes to the grouping of genes on chromosomes. This comparison didn’t quite make sense to me because she goes on to describe memeplexes as sets of memes that are related or associated with each other, while individual chromosomes often contain many different genes that have little to no relation to one another and just happen to be located on the same chromosome. Overall, I think Blackmore’s ideas on memes are very interesting, and the connection she makes concerning the existence of some kind of evolution in both genetics and memetics is accurate. These systems are very different in some ways, but I think Blackmore does a great job of relating the two using Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution.
Blackmore, Susan J. The Meme Machine. Oxford, England: Oxford UP, 1999.