What’s In A Meme?

Meme is a neologism coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1989 classic The Selfish Gene that describes an idea, behaviour or style that spreads from person to person within a culture. A meme acts in a similar way to a gene that carries genetic information in plants and animals but instead acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols or practices that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or anything that can be mimicked. Like genes, memes can self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.

So what has this got to do with dogs?

Anthrozoologist Hal Herzog has proposed that keeping dogs as pets and, in particular, preferences for specific dog breeds are memes. He proposes that he acted as a “vehicle through which the dog-as-pet meme” replicated… “inadvertently spreading the dog-as-pet meme by raising my children with dogs and by extolling the joys and tribulations of having companion dogs in my classes.” He thinks that this may well be a mechanism to explain the explosion in popularity of specific dog breeds as such cultural changes can replicate many times faster than genetic changes.

This monkey see, monkey do approach would explain why, against all rational, and I would argue ethical considerations, the expected registrations of the French bulldog, to name but one brachycephalic breed, is expected to exceed 28,000 this year with the UKKC alone. It would seem that the desire to fit in by conforming to popular behaviours and the reverence for supposed role models – indeed actual models – that have helped to make this breed fashionable is much stronger than the obvious fact that most cannot give birth naturally and cannot breathe without extreme difficulty. (In addition to the common occurence of cleft palate/hare lips, anasarca puppies, congenital abnormalities of the vertebrae, hip dysplasia
luxating patellas, straight stifles and loose ligaments, hindquarter paresis and spondalytis). One owner happily stated to me that he spends a fortune on air conditioning so that his dogs do not overheat and that he would prefer his dog to sleep with a ball in his mouth so that he does not die from sleep apnoea than contemplate surgery to correct BOAS.

Perhaps, as well as providing many enlightening insights into attitudes towards animals in his excellent book Some We Love, Some We Hate, Some We Eat, Professor Herzog may have solved the mystery why otherwise kind and straight-thinking people can profess to love their dogs and perpetuate and ignore misery and deformity.

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