From a biological perspective, Tumblr’s ‘Goncharov’ is a masterpiece

Illustration+by+Rachel+Choi

Photo: Rachel Choi

Illustration by Rachel Choi

By Rachel Choi, Multimedia Managing Editor

Tumblr’s newest hot topic revolves around Martin Scorsese’s 1973 film “Goncharov,” which Tumblr users are deeming the best mafia film ever made, with its intricately-woven storylines coupled with heartbreaking moments of both love and betrayal. 

The story follows a man named Goncharov—originally a discothèque manager who turned into a notorious Russian hitman—who returns to Naples, Italy to finish what he has started. The movie is ripe with interesting plot points, love triangles, homoerotic relationships, memorable shots like the iconic bridge scene, and other hitmen—like the fan-favorite Joe “Ice Pick Joe” Morelli—out to get Goncharov. Except, there’s a little twist to this movie: it doesn’t exist.

The best mafia film of all time that does not exist is completely fabricated by  Tumblarians—Tumblrs? Tumblrons?—and although the surge of fans reevaluating the mythical movie started in November 2022, the origins of “Goncharov” showed its face on April 21, 2020. Tumblr user zootycoon posted a picture of the tag on a pair of boots, reading “THE GREATEST MAFIA MOVIE EVER MADE, MARTIN SCORSESE PRESENTS, GONCHAROV.” Zootycoon expressed understandable confusion at the tag promoting a nonexistent movie, prompting a response by user abandonedambition who replied, “this idiot hasn’t seen goncharov.” 

This exchange was reposted a year later, and somehow it got to user beelzeebub, who made a fake poster for it just this November—and the rest is history. While Tumblr was giggling and gaggling, everyone outside of that godforsaken hellhole was asking, “What?” and “Why?” 

The simple answer is “Goncharov” is an example of a meme, a channel for culturally relevant ideas, topics, and conversations to be shared amongst individuals. Tumblr’s work ethic of pumping out stunningly beautiful artwork of “Goncharov,” or the sheer amount of effort people are putting in to keep this meme going is an example of how a meme will usually cycle until its internet life hits a peak. That raises a whole new question of why memes are even a thing. 

Memes have an odd quality to them; memes that survive on the internet in the long term are the memes that have somehow stuck with the public. The survivors then replicate almost like a form of natural selection. The confusing nature of memes can be understood through one of the most left-field explanations yet: memes are best defined through a biological lens. 

Memes have been around long before the internet had a term for the phenomenon. Evolutionary biologist Richards Dawkins first coined the term in his book “The Selfish Gene” published in 1976. Dawkins stated that he needed a word to fully encapsulate the idea of cultural transmission, and used a combination of the Greek “mimeme,” which means something that is imitated, and the word “gene” to create the word fondly known as “meme.” Of course, like all things, the meaning of the word “meme” evolved throughout generations. Nowadays, a meme is a piece of media—usually in a humorous manner—that is shared and replicated to deliver a certain topic, whether it be social, political, and cultural to the masses. 

Yet, in an interesting turn of events, to understand the why behind memes and not just the how, we need to look into biology. Memes on a fundamental basis are just ideas—ideas that are transmitted, almost like a virus, and also replicated, like a gene. Parisian biologist Jacques Monod put it best when he compared this concept of ideas to mRNA: “Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms … they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.” To Monod, ideas were seemingly akin to an actual biological lifeform, able to shift and change and evolve. 

Like religious ideology swaying a large group of people, or some random tag on a pair of boots online sparking an entire website to go absolutely bonkers, ideas can combine, branch off, and evolve into something greater. Dawkins hopped onto this vein of a biological explanation to the phenomenon of ideas seemingly evolving. He explained that where there is life, there is evolution, and evolution is made possible thanks to replicators—things that replicate—and that in biology, replicators were genetically based like nucleic acid.

However, Dawkins noted that there was a “new kind of replicator” that had “recently emerged on this very plant,” one that was non-chemically based. These replicators used language as transmission, and the brain was its “spawning ground.” He called these bodiless replicators “memes,” and thus the “meme” was born.

Memes undergo processes of biological life cycles. They compete with one another for resources, like brain time, memorability, and attention, and the weaker die off while the strong survive, not unlike natural selection. The survivors of natural selection are able to self-replicate and evolve, propagating far and wide. Dawkins said that memes were propagated from brain to brain through a process similar to imitation. Subsequently, it came to be understood that memes occurred long before language was created. 

Memes are, at their most basic state, ideas that have been built upon by different external factors to change and grow. Ideas don’t need to be spread by word-of-mouth, they can be spread by action. Examples could be seen in primitive humans mimicking each other to learn to create fire, or songbirds learning their own songs by replicating the sound of nearby songbirds—the transmission of ideas has been an ongoing cycle since the beginning of time. Philosopher Fred Dretske wrote in 1981 that, “In the beginning there was information. The word came later.” Language was just something that helped understand this phenomenon; a tool that carried the evolution of this form of communication into the modern day colloquialism. 

Modern methods of communication technology have allowed for a global connectivity unlike anything before. This high-speed connection across person to person has bolstered the speed at which memes evolve. Ideas are spread through memes, and memes are no longer word-of-mouth. They’re at the average person’s fingertips, sprawled across shitty advertisements, played over and over again at the mall, plastered on dorm bathrooms, and left on billboards to be showcased. New information on the latest internet trends go viral—a term coined through comparing memes to viral infections—and are shared within seconds across millions. 

Memes aren’t tethered to the earth like biological organisms are. Much like organisms have evolved to exploit information they encounter to survive, memes have done the same; by exploiting any brain they come across to survive.

As such, the entire situation with “Goncharov” isn’t just a silly little goofy moment made by Tumblr’s girly pop community, but affirmation of both Monod and Dawkins’ theories. It’s a striking example of how a bit of information has latched onto a few brains and replicated across the invisible infosphere—an environment inhabited by informational entities. 

It’s gathered the necessary resources of brain time and memory, and has survived to reproduce and create new versions of itself. “Goncharov” is a biological mutation, the Frankenstein of memes, and it’s fascinating to see how the highkey-wild take on the eerily biological aspects of memeification come to fruition.

“Goncharov” is the best mafia film ever made because it’s the culmination of human evolution and the magnum opus of the biological processes of the transmission of information. It’s the perfect meme, and once it dies out through natural selection, another meme will take its place to fill a spot on Tumblr’s dossier.