The Books Behind the Memes

In popular internet culture, a meme is a viral idea. Memes existed before the internet. Here are the books behind some popular memes. I can’t swear to these books’ truth, but they are taught in some university courses and they will certainly make you think.

The first meme is the idea of a meme. Richard Dawkins originated the word with his book The Selfish Gene. His main insight is that evolution is not controlled by organisms, such as humans, struggling to survive, but rather by individual genes struggling not to die off.

Dawkins is a noted atheist who believes genes, not organisms, are immortal. Since he does not believe individual humans leave much of a legacy, he came up with the idea of a meme, or a self-reproducing idea, as a positive example of human legacies. It worked for him. He will be remembered for both "memes" and "selfish genes."

The Peter Principle explains that incompetent bosses are a given. Everybody is promoted until they can no longer do their job. Then, and only then, do the promotions stop.

Ever thought that massive bureaucracies are unnecessary? Parkinson's Law explains how the less there is to do, the more people it takes to do it. His prime example is the explosive growth of the British Colonial Office after Great Britain lost almost all of its colonies.

“Unknown unknowns” and “Black Swans?” These memes come from Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s The Black Swan. Black Swan events are massive, rare, unexpected and totally unpredictable. The Great Recession of 2008 and the California Gold Rush are examples. Taleb's books are easy to understand and thought-provoking.

The Fractal Geometry of Nature started the fractal meme, which the Black Swan meme builds on. The book is dense, but fractals are hugely important ideas. You might want to search our catalog for something easier.

Taleb maintains that Black Swans cause revolutions. Eric Hoffer offers another meme. He thinks behind every revolution is a True Believer.

e=mc2 is perhaps the most famous 20th century meme. The original paper defies comprehension, but all you need to know is that:

  • Einstein dreamed it up.
  • Energy can be converted to mass and vice-versa.
  • The sun, atomic bombs and atomic reactors all work.

Another, easier, mathematical meme was popularized by John Guare's play Six Degrees of Separation. The theory is you can reach anybody in the world by a string of no more than six acquaintances. This meme has caught both the popular imagination and the interest of computer scientists. It is part of the explanation of why the Internet, interstate highways and other networks are able to function.

Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus theorizes that women and men are completely different, but they cheerfully refuse to recognize the differences.

Finally Murphy's Law explains why so many other memes are pessimistic. After all, anything that can go wrong, will. Humorist Arthur Bloch helped popularize Murphy's Law starting with his book Murphy's Law and Other Reasons Why Things Go Wrong.

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