Kuper provides a wonderful example of a thriving memeplex in the
rituals of King’s College Founder’s Day. Every year members of the
college find themselves enacting all sorts of odd behaviours from
wearing clothes they would otherwise never wear to eating special
foods and reciting weird words. Why? The simple answer is because
other people did it before them. They may enact the rituals slightly
differently, or embellish them a touch, so essentially they are
copying them with slight variations.
this is the crux. These memes – these rituals, communal meals and
choral performances – are information that is copied with variation
and selection. Not every variant is passed on and so the memes
compete, thus fitting the evolutionary algorithm. To answer Kuper’s
question, the “big idea” is nothing less than universal Darwinism.
great insight was to realise that when something is copied with
variation and selection then evolution must occur. Oddly Darwin
himself assumed that languages and customs evolved this way, and then
made the daring leap to suggest that plants and animals do too.
Nowadays we are so used to the idea of biological evolution that we
find it harder to make the leap back. But what matters is the
underlying principle of universal Darwinism. This is why Dawkins
pointed out that there is nothing necessarily unique about genes –
rather, they are just one example of a replicator. He then invented
the term “meme” to point out not only that there can be other
replicators, but that there is one evolving around us all the time in
should make it clear that memetics is not based on an analogy with
biology; it is based on the principle that copying with variation and
selection drives evolution, and this is precisely what happens with
rituals, songs, stories, technologies, financial institutions, and
scientific theories (to give just a few examples of memeplexes). All
of these can be seen as selfish information using us to get itself
replicated. In the case of the Founder’s Day rituals all of the
actions that are copied from year to year are memes.
we supposed, asks Kuper, to believe that their destiny depends on
their innate talent for reproducing themselves? Not quite – at
least, not if he is suggesting that they can replicate themselves in
isolation. This they cannot do, but then nor can genes or prions or
learned behaviours. They all need copying machinery, and in the case
of memes we humans are the copying machines.
it matter whether we think of culture as evolving by memetic
selection? I say yes. Humans are a bizarre species, with their
language, culture and unique capacity to destroy their own planet.
They got this way, I would say, not because they started using tools
or language for their own benefit or for the benefit of their genes,
but because they became capable of imitation, and once they could
imitate a new replicator was let loose. As Dawkins said when he
invented the term meme, “Once this new evolution begins, it will in
no necessary sense be subservient to the old”.
Meme Machine I argued that once memes took off the world was
changed forever, and the genes could not take back their unwitting
invention. As soon as our hominid ancestors could imitate with high
enough fidelity (and just how high that needs to be is a live
question) memes began to spread. This meant that people who were bad
at imitation were disadvantaged, and so genes for imitation spread in
the gene pool. This in turn meant more memes and an escalating process
of memetic drive – leading not only to bigger brains but to brains
designed to copy the sorts of memes that had already flourished;
brains good at copying sounds, songs, stories and rituals for example.
this view the memes (the sounds, songs and rituals) are selfish
information competing to get copied, using human resources to do so:
language and culture are not human adaptations, but parasites that
humans cannot avoid carrying because of their capacity for imitation.
view is not at all popular among evolutionary biologists who still, as
Dawkins complained thirty years ago “wish always to go back to
‘biological advantage’”. It is not popular among
anthropologists, social scientists or psychologists, some of whom wish
to have no evolutionary basis to culture, and others who wish to stick
with evolution based on just one replicator. I think they are wrong.
reason is the predictions that have come true. For example, I
predicted that if language evolved as a memetic parasite then it
should spontaneously emerge in groups of imitating robots, and this is
now well known in robotics, even though the research is not called
memetics. Then there is the big brain hypothesis which has been tested
with mathematical modelling and computer simulations, and confirmed by
brain scan studies revealing that the areas of the brain most enlarged
during human evolution are the very same areas used in imitation.
theory makes sense of the world we live in. We humans did not create
this crazy, overloaded, dangerous world for or by ourselves; memetic
evolution drove the creation of language, writing, printing presses,
telephones, and now the world wide web. The memes used us as their
copying machinery, and they will go on driving the creation of more
and better meme machines regardless of their effect on either us or
the planet. This is what we need to understand, and only memetics
makes this clear.