SciFri Extra: Science Diction On The Word 'Meme'
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It's science Friday Johanna Mayor. She'll be bringing you this series once a week for the next month so stay tuned for some wordy nerdy goodness. I think you're GONNA like it. The first word we're diving into is mean. Here's science-fiction if you've been on the Internet at all the past few years. This song is ingrained in your brain. The original Gangnam style video has been viewed over three billion times and it spawned endless parodies versions inspired by video games and former presidential candidates and even the more working farmer style since Gangnam Style's Heyday in twenty twelve. Approximately a gazillion. Memes have circulated the Internet and we think of memes as a phenomenon that's particularly born and bred online but it turns out the word meme didn't actually come from the Internet. It came from an evolutionary biologist from science Friday this science-fiction. I'm Johanna Mayor Today. We're talking about the word You've probably used the word mean to talk about all sorts of stuff that you see online but first let's clear something up what exactly is an Internet meme That's an interesting question. So I think of an Internet NEOM as a unit of Internet culture a piece of Internet culture that spreads through Internet people or people on the Internet making their own versions of it. That's Gretchen McCulloch. Ick She's an internet linguist coolest job ever and she wrote a really great book called because Internet so a meme spreads through people making other versions of it and people putting their own spin on it. You don't just copy the thing that's been sent like the original Gangnam style video you remake it to appeal to your particular subculture or to appeal to some other group of people or two mashed up with some other type of me. Like Super Mario Style or Romney's style. Last time you have to hear that I promise okay. So what is the connection to science? Here let's talk about that evolutionary biologist. I mentioned you've probably heard of Richard Dawkins he wrote a book called the God delusion. He's said some pretty controversial things about religion but before all that he worked on evolutionary theory and animal behavior so in the seventies he wrote a book called the selfish gene and we know how gene spread every time that a plant or animal or really any living thing reproduces it makes a copy of its genes the more reproduces the more copies of these genes. There are running around. That's the gist of evolution. But in the book Dawkins talks about how the principles of evolution could work for other things too. 'cause jeans aren't the only thing that spread and evolve ideas do to darkens was looking for an ideological counterpart to the idea of a gene. So he wanted to use the analogy of a gene spreading through sexual selection and physical reproductive fitness to apply this to the spread of Ideas. So when it comes to biology that thing that's spreading and reproducing and evolving and competing was called a gene but when it came to culture and ideas. There was an a word for that thing. So Richard Dawkins made one up. He borrowed the Greek word. Me Mama which means imitation and mashed together with our English word Gene Me Mama plus gene equals but when Richard Dawkins coined the word mean. He didn't quite mean what we mean when we talk about Internet today. I obviously didn't have to be on the Internet because the Internet didn't exist but also the original meam didn't have to go viral or get remixed for Dawkins a meme was simply an idea and ideas like genes can spread or they can die out the CA- mutate or they can stay the same so in the original idea. A whole lot of things could count as memes songs recipes. The custom of saying bless you when someone sneezes or the idea that the earth is flat even the idea of God. These are all memes swimming around and competing in what doctrines would call the mean pool. Obviously all these things existed before dachshunds came up with that word. One of my favorite examples starts in shipyard in Massachusetts with a guy named James J Kilroy there are tons of different versions of the story but generally the most agreed upon one begins during World War Two when Kilroy was working as a ship. Inspector when he finished inspecting a ship he would mark it with the words. Kilroy was here. You know to show that he was finished and those ships that in marked we get sent into battle and those words would go with them and then next to the words a cartoon Kilroy began popping up all over in various countries and it was more or less the same every time it was the doodle of a man with googly eyes and along. Dopey knows kind of a smattering of hairs on a bald head peeking over a fence always next to this cartoon dude where the words. Kilroy was here. Pretty much anywhere. The allied soldiers showed up. Kilroy did too. So memes existed way. Before Richard Dawkins hit the scene. He just gave them a name in the dock and sense. A mean is just an idea. It's not the strictly speaking Internet type of mean that we think of it now. So adoptions mean could be the idea that the earth revolves around the sun and that's not an internet me right. The the idea that the earth is very boring Internet. Meme NOT GONNA Redo. It doesn't mean like it doesn't come with a fun video. It doesn't come with a dance. It doesn't come with the cats. There are no cats. There's no like like weird. Photoshop taxed on top of an image. There's no sort of lake stylized thing. Okay so it's not the best Internet meme but the way that Dawkins originally meant mean just as an idea. Heliocentric definitely is a me and a very successful one at that so why do we associate that word with stuff that we do online for a long time? Me Just wasn't aware that a lot of people were using. It was a made up term in a book about evolution published in the seven days pre Internet pre twitter and selfish gene was popular book. But it was still a relatively specific group of people who were exposed to that word. What you see in a lot of meam histories is omitting this link. They go from dachshunds directly to the Internet memes sense and I've always kind of unsatisfying because it's like how did this concept in social science research suddenly become the name of an Internet cultural phenomenon? Like weird that how did crossover it crossed over. Thanks to a guy named Mike Godwin. He's a lawyer and writer who works on a lot of Internet issues. And in the ninety s he noticed this trend happening in conversations in various corners of the Internet people kept making really gratuitous comparisons to the Nazis. Select say the pizza's up. And it's like kind of cold and slimy and not very good and then someone would say we're being treated like concentration camp victims that kind of thing so Godwin wrote an article about this whole phenomenon. People Making Bad Nazi comparisons and he published in the Tech magazine wired and he called the phenomenon amine an idea that spread so this is a reminder that not all memes are good and funny and lighthearted bad ideas can be memes too so as far as we know. That's the first time that the word meme Kinda crossed into the Internet. Godwin plucked up this word museum. This tiny kernel from a more than three hundred page book about evolutionary biology. Any plotted into this entirely new ecosystem. The Internet I really wish that I could tell you the exact big bang moment for memes as we know them online. It's impossible to pinpoint the precise moment. But maybe this song rings a Bell. Remember the dancing baby. Cgi fall where another mother diaper grooving to Swedish rock song. The dancing baby sometimes does Baby Cha. Cha is widely cited as one of the first Internet. Memes to really make the rounds bugging its way into email inboxes everywhere m people started playing around with dancing baby. There is a drunk dancing baby. Dancing baby became a kind of recurring hallucination on the TV show alley mcbeal and someone even made version of the baby. That was dancing to Gangnam style. Don't worry not GonNa play that song again. Memes have changed a lot since the dancing baby but the Internet is still where we primarily. Use The word today usually to talk about pictures of cats cheeseburgers or distracted boyfriends and Internet. Memes are great. They are so fine. They provide an excellent distraction. When you're pretending to work but are actually just goofing around online but when we use that word team we're actually talking about something so much. Bigger names are ideas. There are culture and that makes them as fundamental to our humanity as our genes which might sound super weird to someone not familiar with the Richard Dawkins origin story and. Hey that is the best part of the story. How the word meam itself has spread and evolved over the decades since Dawkins coined debt in a recent anniversary edition of the selfish gene. Dawkins wrote about how the word itself seems to have caught on the word. Meme he wrote. Seems to be turning out to be a good meme. Science fiction is written and produced by me. Johanna mayor with production and editing help from fetter. Our senior editor is Christopher Intel. Yada and we had additional story editing from Nathan Toby. Our theme song most of our music or by Daniel Peterson and additional music. Credits are on our website. Fact checking help from Michelle Harrah's for more stories like these subscribed to science-fiction wherever you get your podcasts. Special thanks to Gretchen McCulloch IQ for more word nursery in your life. Checkout her book because Internet and our podcast length Uzi Azam. Thanks also to the entire science Friday staff. Thanks so much for listening and we'll see you next time with a new episode and a new word.