Download audio file read by Glyn Moody.
You may already be infected; if not, you will be once you get to the end of this paragraph. If you wish to remain uninfected, there is still time to stop, but by reading on you will certainly catch it. I caught it from Richard Dawkins' book 'The Selfish Gene', where the idea first originated, where the infection first started. The idea was that of a 'meme', or an idea viewed as a general class of mental objects. When you grasp an idea, you can be said to be infected by that meme; passing that idea on spreads the infection. By reading to the end of this paragraph you are now infected with the idea, or meme, of a meme.
It may seem a trivial redefinition. But viewing ideas as something like independent entities which can spread and be passed on like viruses, say, emphasises their vitality and hints at their power. Ideas are a fundamental, dynamic component of the world in which we live. They can change it in dramatic ways. A great idea, infecting or inhabiting the right people, can drive them to great actions with far-reaching implications. They are the visionaries, the religious and political leaders whose single-mindedness is a by-product of an idea's force.
Not all ideas are so grand. But even the humblest of them is worthy of admiration and gratitude. We all know the experience of the sudden revelation brought about by an encounter with a new and hitherto undreamt-of - unthought-of - idea. It is as if a door or window has opened, or a light has been turned on. Somehow we see and understand something which before was a mystery, or perhaps was simply not present in our mental universe.
The relation between the meme and the memed is therefore a symbiotic one. Without the mind in which it can live, an idea has no active existence. In a book or a play or a film, it lies dormant like those viruses that can survive in the most hostile conditions until a suitable host comes along, when they are suddenly activated. For the carrier of the meme, the world is a different place. It is as if the meme were an organism which secreted some subtle substance, a perception-enhancing drug perhaps; harbouring an idea we vivify it, but we also drink its intangible nectar.
Sometimes that nectar is poisoned: a meme may be an epiphany of the sadness and badness in this world. Ideas are irresponsible and morally neutral in themselves; only the mind they inhabit can judge them, choose amongst them, act on them and manifest them. But it can rarely destroy them, just as we cannot will to forget, though time and age may eventually achieve this. There is, however, a kind of natural selection which favours the more beneficent memes. For example, someone infected with the meme of random violence is likely to be destroyed themselves; with them dies the instigating meme and the possibility of further direct infection.
Ideas are precious things; and rare enough too. How often have we read a book, talked with a person, listened to music, and experienced no new thought, no sudden illumination? It is like eating cardboard. So the next time you encounter a fine, wholesome meme, savour it; enjoy the infection as it grips you; pass it on.
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