Thoughts and ideas to inspire, uplift and affirm the childless and childfree, by circumstance and by choice
The term ‘meme’ is now generally used to describe a viral trend on the internet but the concept originates with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who gave it a much broader meaning connected with the theory of evolution. His suggestion was that ideas bear some distinct similarities to genes. A meme, for Dawkins, could be anything from a mannerism (like scratching your chin while you think) to a practice (like wearing your jeans very loose and low) to a story (like the urban myth about Eddie Murphy in the elevator), to a complex system of understandings (like a religion). He argues that, like genes, some of these memes are reproduced and therefore survive in human society while others others are not reproduced and therefore die out.
An interesting idea that spins off from meme theory is to do with romantic attraction. Biological determinists have often argued that we choose our partners based on who we think will do the best job of passing on our genes. Heterosexual women’s widespread attraction to muscular men is understood in this way, as is men’s widespread attraction to slimmer, younger women. According to this kind of theorist these body types are simply recognised, instinctively, as effective gene-carriers.
As some one who seems not to have a very strong drive to procreate, meme theory is especially interesting to me. For one thing, I’ll take a skinny artist over a bodybuilding accountant any day, and meme theory would explain my attraction as follows: even though I may know I won’t produce a single skinny, moody child to pass on my genes with the artist, I have recognised him as an effective meme-carrier.
Say you have an idea that a mermaid’s tail could spread across the sky like the Milky Way. If you share your idea with the bodybuilding accountant, he might just roll his eyes and turn up the tv, unlikely to find anyone to discuss it with at the office or the gym. But after sharing your daydream with the artist, you could wake up to find it painted across a huge canvas. Of the fifty people who see it as part of an exhibition later in the month, someone could photograph it for a newspaper read by hundreds, one of whom could add it to pinterest where it could be pinned and repinned hundreds more times and within a couple of weeks, starry-tailed mermaid prints could be appearing on postcards, bags and shirts in countries all over the world. If you get hit by a bus, your meme will outlive you and will continue to potter around the world independently of you, just as your genes might have with the accountant. Like a good gene-carrier, a good meme-carrier will grant you a kind of immortality.
Even though, to quote Elizabeth Gilbert, “my womb did not seem to … come equipped with that famously ticking clock,” my own drive to produce and reproduce stories and ideas is going at full blast. And this isn’t just a matter of who I am attracted to, it is a matter of what propels me day-to-day. Sometimes I swear I must be on meme heat. I lie awake thinking about my work at night. I bound out of bed to get to it again in the morning. I can barely describe the joy of seeing my name, my very own name, on the spine of a book. It will never get old, not even if I end up being the meme version of Michelle Duggar (oh please, may that happen!)
As far as I know, nobody has really theorised about the connection between meme theory and childfreedom yet (except for me and I’m just a dabbler). But my guess is that some of us might be more about the memes than the genes.
If meme theory is of interest to you, I highly recommend The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. If you’re interested in the connection between childfree/childless women and brilliant ideas, you might be interested in perusing an ever-growing gallery of such women and also reading about the possibility that childless and childfree women are freer to enrich their lives by taking risks.