Killer memes

A meme is a term invented by Richard Dawkins, who defines it as "a unit of cultural inheritance, hypothesised as analogous to the particulate gene and as naturally selected by virtue of its 'phenotypic' consequences on its own survival and replication in the cultural environment."Dawkins goes further, hypothesising that a meme can behave as if it were a free agent, a virus, capable of "infecting" individuals or entire communities with ideas.

For example, the ability to read could be seen as a meme, as could rock'n'roll or the apparent desire by most of today's youth to pierce or tattoo one or more parts of the body their parents gave them.

Reflecting on the notion of a meme caused me to ponder the phenomenon of criminal activity. Some think criminals are born as such, victims to their genetic inheritance. Some think that criminal behaviour is the result of social or cultural disadvantage. Others think that it is the result of both nurture and nature at work. A few (loonie) postmodernists believe that crime, like everything else, is merely a social construct and not real at why bother thinking about it.

I have long been a member of the nurture plus nature school and the concept of memes (and their virus-like behaviour) provides a credible hypothesis to explain how it all works. More importantly, it provides a pointer towards new solutions to the problem of crime.

For a biological virus to succeed in infecting a victim, it must attach itself to an organism that is susceptible to infection and whose defences are not capable of repelling or containing the attack.

This is why while all of us might be exposed to the flu virus, only some of us will develop the disease and only some of us will suffer – and only a very few of us will die from complications. Some of us will repel the virus altogether, because we have a strong immune system or we have been vaccinated. Some of us will develop symptoms, but of a mild form, again thanks to our immune system and perhaps thanks to medications or nutritional supplements. I think a cultural virus, a meme, behaves the same way.

So, while it may be trendy for young women to sport a tattoo above visible underwear, not all young women do this, While it may be trendy for young boys to wear caps facing backwards, not all young boys do that. While in some circles it is expected that one would do drugs, not all members of that circle would do so. Do you get the picture?

To move on to the theme of crime, while there are neighbourhoods where crime is rife and gangs rule, not all young people participate and among those who do, not all become lifelong criminals. Conversely, criminals can emerge from the most sedate, law abiding families, with generations of do-gooders preceding them.

In the next instalment I will elaborate on this hypothesis and on what it might mean for crime prevention and crime abatement.

(Cross posted at Temporanea)

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