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FIT 101 – Dan Dennett: Ants, terrorism, and the awesome power of memes

Written By: Youki on March 17, 2009 No Comment

Studying language and technology, it’s inevitable that the concept of memes will come up.  Whether it’s rickrolling, LOLcats, or “25 random things…“, memes are a ubiquitous part of internet culture.  So, I thought I’d start off this series with a great talk by Dan Dennett on “Ants, terrorism, and the awesome power of memes.”  He examines the larger concept of memes, not within internet culture, but within culture in toto.

Dennett’s central concept is the meme: “a theoretical unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices; such units or elements transmit from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena,” [source] originally coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene.  Taking examples from religion and culture, Dennett examines the ways in which memes replicate and spread, exhibiting virus-like qualities and in certain cases, surviving despite inhibiting the natural instincts of reproduction and self-preservation in humans.

Memes are like viruses,  Dennett argues.  “It’s an information packet with attitude.”  A meme can flourish in spite of not being reproduced genetically — Dennett uses the example of Shakers to demonstrate how memes can survive through non-genetic transmission (Shakers were prohibited from procreating and had to rely solely on proselytization to ensure the continued existence of the religion).  Dennett also calls on examples in which people were willing to die for an idea, whether the idea is religion, nationalism, or more abstract concepts like justice or freedom.  Dennett ultimately questions the idea of free will, suggesting that memes are a parasite, a form of “hijacking the brain.”  For Dennett, memes have a life of their own and understanding the competitive, aggressive, and destructive nature of memes is the key to understanding phenomena such as terrorism and war.

Dan Dennett: Ants, terrorism, and the awesome power of memes:



Other posts in the “FIT 101″ series:

George Lakoff on framing, metaphors, and political language


“FIT 101” is a Found in Translation video series that highlights a language-related topic or concept, typically talks by experts within a language field.  These videos tend to be more in-depth and are intended to encourage our readers to think about language in new ways.  This is the first post in the series.

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