Conspiracy theories as memes?

Note: This is my eighth blog post in a multi-part series on conspiracy theories

What if conspiracy theories were in reality a type of cultural replicator or “meme” in the Richard Dawkins’ sense of the term? Dawkins, an evolutionary biologist who was the first to propose a “memetic” theory of cultural evolution in his book The Selfish Gene (1989, pp. 192-201), coined the word “meme” to describe the smallest unit of cultural transmission. According to Dawkins: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so 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.”

By way of illustration, textbook examples of such cultural memes include “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches.” (See Dawkins (1989), p. 192.) So, based on Dawkins’ memetic theory of cultural evolution, one could argue that conspiracy theories themselves are just another type of cultural meme, one that propagates itself in the meme pool of human culture by leaping from brain to brain via a process of imitation. After all, once a memorable conspiracy theory like the Weimar stab-in-the-back myth is created, it often assumes a life of its own and starts to spread like wildfire.

In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins identifies three essential features of all successful “replicators”: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity. Whether we are describing biological replicators like genes or cultural ones like memes, for evolution to occur the replicator must live long enough to make sufficient copies of itself, and these copies must be high-quality ones. From a meme’s perspective–i.e. not from the perspective of any particular person who falls for a given conspiracy theory, but from the perspective of the individual meme itself–the successful propagation of any given meme or conspiracy theory does not depend on its underlying truth value; instead, successful propagation of a meme depends on its ability to replicate or make copies of itself.

Moreover, one of the advantages of this meme’s-eye view of conspiracy theories is that it explains why far-fetched and fringe theories are more likely to propagate in the meme pool of human brains. (In other words, it is not good enough to say that conspiracy theories and other memes have psychological appeal. What we really need to know is why conspiracy theories have such psychological appeal. Cf. Dawkins 1989, p. 193.) Simply put, the more “crazy” or shocking a given conspiracy theory is, the more likely it is to grab the attention of a person’s brain and to spread to other brains, since people are more likely to share memorable memes than run-of-the-mill ones.

Nevertheless, Dawkins’ “meme’s-eye” view of conspiracy theories poses a vexing question. What makes far-fetched or fringe conspiracy theories more memorable or more likely to spread in the first place? After all, just as more plausible scientific theories have generally replaced less plausible ones in the domain of the natural sciences–think of astronomy gradually replacing astrology or alchemy giving way chemistry–why doesn’t this trend carry over into the domain of memes? Another weakness with Dawkins’ meme’s-eye view–aside from the question of the ontological status of memes!–is that Dawkins’ approach assumes that people are just passive receptacles of memes. In reality, we have some agency in this matter: we get to decide which conspiracy theories to believe in! Accordingly, I will describe an alternative approach to conspiracy theories–an approach based on the work of Michel Foucault, who was one of the most influential intellectuals of the 20th Century–in my next post.

We hate memes, pass it on… – Neuroanthropology
Image credit: Greg Downey

About F. E. Guerra-Pujol

When I’m not blogging, I am a business law professor at the University of Central Florida.
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2 Responses to Conspiracy theories as memes?

  1. Interesting! So, one quality which a conspiracy theory must necessarily possess (in order to gain any popularity) is a kind of compelling simplicity. The easier such a theory is to transmit, the better.

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