Notes on The Viral Aspects of Language

A Quantitative Research of Memetic Selection Criteria

This is a 92 page senior thesis. It covers the basics of memes but digs into how memes spread and specific research into virus hoaxes.

This paper is broken into 4 chapters:

  1. Introduction to Memetics
  2. Spreading of Memes
  3. Reseach Methodology and Corpus
  4. Research Results

Introduction to Memetics

Memes according to Richard Dawkins:

Meme - unit of cultural transmission. Memes "propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation." - Richard Dawkins, Selfish Gene

According to Wilkins:

"The least unit of socio-cultural information relative to a selection process that has favorable or unfavorable selection bias that exceeds its endogenous tendency to change."

According to Heylighen

"An information patter, held in an individual's memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual's memory."

This author comes to this defintion for meme and uses this as the backdrop for the research within.

A meme is an information pattern which is capable of being copied to another individual's memory, mostly by means of imitations (though other techniques are possible as well) and which is subject to a selection process.

Evolution on this planet gave way to the creation of replicators which was the final breakthrough to life on this planet.

Dawkins compared memes to well known replicators, genes.

  1. Memes = genes
  2. Memeplex = genotype (sum total of genes)
  3. Mutation = phenotype (how we perceive the genotype.)

Memes have the ability to adapt themselves by interaction with the environment (host), and change their phenotype1.

From the author:

A meme will not be passed in its original 'genotypic' state but will instead be copied in a phenotypic state which will, for the new host, become the genotype of this meme.

I think this is an interesting point of view. I am curious what the author would say about the proliferation of internet memes which are copied and pasted without any changes. Would the author suggest that although internet memes can be easily replicated, they are still subject to interpretation in hosts minds, which varies from individual to individual?

Memes are selfish-replicators, that is they are only concerned with replicating themselves.

While genes are subject to exact science, memes are more in subject to fields where exactness is not feasible such as sociology and psychology.

Dennet describes memes as units affected by natural selection AND evolution.

  • Variation: a continuing abundance of different elements
  • Heredity or replication: the elements have the capacity to create copies or replicas of themselves
  • Differential "fitness": the number of copies of an element that are created in a given time varies, depending on the interaction between the features of that element (whatever it is that makes it different from other elements) and features of the environment in which it persists.

On Mutation

  • Mutation is genes - happens by accident
  • Mutation in memes - can happen by accident OR mutate consciously by the host. The deliberate mutation is part of the variation.
Re: memes & mutation - there's an important distinction between how genes and memes replicate. Genes are like a protocol in a sense that they strictly follow rules, however mutation does occur. Memes on the other hand are subjective because each person's mind is different. Memes will TRY to replicate and will only do so IF they include instructions. Since we are dealing with the human mind, they will slightly change each time they replicate. I would say memes with the simplest "rules" stay as close to the previous version, that is they are not as susceptible to mutation.

Unsuccessful Mutations

Replicator Mutation Effects
Genes unsuccessful mutation will result in the gene being unable to replicate
Memes due to subjectivity aka selection criteria, unsuccessful mutation may be duplicated without errors until it hits the criteria or required subjectivity of a host at which point it will no longer propagate.

On Linked Memes or Memeplexes

LIke genes, memes work together in groups called memeplexes. They work together and influence each other.

Memes work together in ways that build protections for each other within the memeplex

On Religions

Religions as memeplexes - these memplexes find shelter in hosts minds, but they also change the perceptions and life of their new host2.

From author:

Built-in defense mechanisms protect hosts (and the memeplex) from being subjected to changes of their belief systems. Aside from protecting the host from hostile meme-intrusions, religions also include a factor of 'conversion'. All major world-religions have a religious task to spread the religion and convert non-believers. Next to that, they have their own holy scriptures which hasten spreading and make sure the memes can survive over time.

Memes and hosts

Meme Carriers

Carriers Description
Vectors canot reflect upon the meme they carry. Books & graffiti are vectors. Humans CAN be vectors and they CAN turn into hosts once they contemplate the meme they carry.
Hosts Hosts are opposite of vectors. They think about the meme and have a general understanding of the meme, this requires reflection and thought.

Meme Life-Cycle

A meme is virtually immortal.3

Meme lifespan depends on several criteria:

  • Velocity - The rate at which a meme can spread.
  • Smoothness - How easy it is for a meme to be spread

Viral memes spread on their own, but internet marketers use buttons and special call to actions in order to simplify or increase smoothness of spreading a meme.

What is meme selection?
It is the process of a meme's first contact with a host and it's journey to be selected and propagated.

4 Stages of Meme Selection

  1. Assimilation
  2. Retention
  3. Expression
  4. Transmission

During each stage, memes are battling for promotion to the next stage within a host.

Examples of memes

Frame or reference of the host is important when considering meme examples. You might not know how to read sheet music, so it would be impossible for a written song to be able to propagate with you.

Memes do not have to be decoded by conventional means, they can also use symbols and logos for meme propagation. Examples being Nike swoosh of the Christian Cross.

Sometimes memes only propagate within a small community. They become tokens of mutual understanding and shared interest.

Examples of small community memes:

  • Band logos
  • street gang tags
  • religious symbols

Language Viruses

Some authors call memes a language virus. Some scientists say language was developed as a way for early humans to propagate memes.

Language viruses can be dangerous. A potentially dangerous viral sentence contains instructions such as: "Copy me" or "Say me" or "Steal this".

The internet has made meme propagation easier and more rapid than ever.

Virus Hoaxes - false virus warnings. They urge the recipient to take action that is harmful to the recipient by exploiting fear.

Death of a meme

Although memes are "virtually immortal", when hosts die, all the memes they carry die with them.

Since humans ONLY pass on phenotypes (i.e. their interpretation of a genotype), the meme dies with the human. Memes can be passed on in their genotype form in other replicators or vectors such as books because they are not subject to interprutation, they are literal genotypes.

3 Other Factors to the death of a meme

  1. Changes in environment - loss of data ie computer crash, host gets alzheimers, physical destruction. This only applies if this single host or vector carry the meme.
  2. intrinsic fragility - complexity in memes make propagation more difficult. Sometimes complex memes propagate because the essence or main points are transmitted on like in tribal stories and folklore. Other memes such as recipes do not do so well with the loss of data, which could result in the death of the meme.
  3. elimination by other memes - attack by other memes. Man's mind is a limited resource, therefore memes are in constant battle to stay relevant. Attacks come in two forms:
    • Neutralize the information value of their competitors (convert to a Islam)
    • Instruct their host to destroy the hosts of competing memes (Jihad)

Spreading of Memes














Virus Hoaxes4


  1. Dawkins drew the comparison to genes. The phenotype is the result of interactions between the genotype and the environment. 

  2. This is a strong quote where I can see the effects of Bitcoin on an individual. Hass McCook has written about and avdvocated the Bitcoin religion in "The Passion of the Believers" 

  3. Gigi has spoken about how you cannot kill an idea and that Bitcoin cannot be un-invented. How it is here to stay. Need link to that article. 

  4. "Virus hoaxes are fake virus reports resembling the chain letters of yesteryear. Virus hoaxes are threatening and scaremongering, unlike those old chain letters, which promised all sorts of luck and oodles of cash if you forwarded the letter to X number of people. Unlike viruses, virus hoaxes do not self-replicate. People who forward them on are either fooled by the threats and (helpfully) want to warn others, or have a knee-jerk reaction to share anything unusual in their inbox. ..." https://www.comparitech.com/antivirus/virus-hoax/ 


You'll only receive email when Joe Rodgers publishes a new post

More from Joe Rodgers