Scientific American, Vol 283 No 4, October 2000, p 52-61
Behaviors and ideas copied from person to person by
imitation - memes - may have forced human genes to make us what we are
Reproduced with permission. Copyright 2000 by Scientific American, Inc.
All rights reserved. http://www.sciam.com
Human beings are strange animals. Although
evolutionary theory has brilliantly accounted for the features we share
with other creaturesfrom the genetic code that directs the construction
of our bodies to the details of how our muscles and neurons workwe
still stand out in countless ways. Our brains are exceptionally large,
we alone have truly grammatical language, and we alone compose symphonies,
drive cars, eat spaghetti with a fork and wonder about the origins of
The problem is that these abilities seem surplus
to requirements, going well beyond what we need to survive. As Steven
Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology points out in How
the Mind Works, "As far as biological cause and effect are concerned,
music is useless." We might say the same of art, chess and pure
Classical (Darwinian) evolutionary theory,
which focuses on inheritable traits of organisms, cannot directly justify
such riches. Expressed in modern terms, this theory holds that genes
control the traits of organisms; over the course of many generations,
genes that give their bearers a survival advantage and that favor production
of many offspring (who will inherit the genes) tend to proliferate at
the expense of others. The genes, then, essentially compete against
one another, and those that are most proficient at being passed to the
next generation gradually prosper.
Few scientists would want to abandon Darwinian
theory. But if it does not clarify why we humans have come to apportion
so much of our resources to so many abilities that are superfluous to
the central biological task of further propagating our genes, where
else can we look?
The answer, I suggest, lies in memes. Memes
are stories, songs, habits, skills, inventions and ways of doing things
that we copy from person to person by imitation. Human nature can be
explained by evolutionary theory, but only when we consider evolving
memes as well as genes.
It is tempting to consider memes as simply
"ideas," but more properly memes are a form of information.
(Genes, too, are information: instructions, written in DNA, for building
proteins.) Thus, the meme for, say, the first eight notes of the Twilight
Zone theme can be recorded not only in the neurons of a person (who
will recognize the notes when she hears them) but also in magnetic patterns
on a videocassette or in ink markings on a page of sheet music.
The Birth of Memes
The notion that memes exist and evolve has
been around for almost 25 years, but only recently has it gained attention
as a powerful force in human evolution. Richard Dawkins of the University
of Oxford coined the word in 1976, in his best-selling book The Selfish
Gene. There he described the basic principle of Darwinian evolution
in terms of three general processeswhen information is copied
again and again, with variations and with selection of some variants
over others, you must get evolution. That is, over many iterations of
this cycle, the population of surviving copies will gradually acquire
new properties that tend to make them better suited to succeeding in
the ongoing competition to produce progeny. Although the cycle is mindless,
it generates design out of chaos.
Dawkins called the information that gets copied
the "replicator" and pointed out that the most familiar replicator
is the gene. But he wanted to emphasize that evolution can be based
on any replicator, and so, as an example, he invented the idea of the
meme. The copying of memes from one person to another is imperfect,
just as the copying of genes from parent to child is sometimes inaccurate.
We may embellish a story, forget a word of the song, adapt an old technology
or concoct a new theory out of old ideas. Of all these variations, some
go on to be copied many times, whereas others die out. Memes are thus
true replicators, possessing all three propertiesreplication,
variation, selectionneeded to spawn a new Darwinian evolutionary
Dawkins says that he had modest intentions
for his new termto prevent his readers from thinking that the
gene was the "be-all and end-all of evolution, the fundamental
unit of selection"but in fact his idea is dynamite. If memes
are replicators, then they, like genes, compete to get copied for their
own sake. This conclusion contradicts the assumption, held by most evolutionary
psychologists, that the ultimate function of human culture is to serve
the genes by aiding their survival. The founder of sociobiology, E.
O. Wilson, famously said that the genes hold culture on a leash. Culture
might temporarily develop in some direction that is counterproductive
to spreading the genes, but in the long run it is brought back in line
by gene-based natural selection, like a straying dog curbed by its owner.
In this view, memes would be slaves to the genes that built the brains
that copy them, prospering only by helping those genes to proliferate.
But if Dawkins is right and memes are replicators, then memes serve
their own selfish ends, replicating whenever they can. They sculpt our
minds and cultures as they gowhatever their effect on the genes.
The most obvious examples of this phenomenon
are "viral" memes. Chain letters (both hard-copy and e-mail)
consist of little bits of written information, including a "copy-me"
instruction backed up with threats (if you break the chain you will
suffer bad luck) or promises (youll receive money and you can
help your friends). It does not matter that the threats and promises
are empty and your effort in copying the letters is wasted. These memes
have an internal structure that ensures their own propagation.
The same can be said, Dawkins argues, of the
great religions of the world. Of all the myriad small cults with charismatic
leaders that have sprung up in human history, only a few had what it
took to survivecopy-me instructions backed up with threats and
promises. In religions the threats are of death or eternal damnation,
and the promises are of everlasting bliss. The costs are a proportion
of ones income, a lifetime devoted to propagating the word, or
resources spent on building magnificent mosques and cathedrals that
further promote the memes. The genes may even suffer directly at the
hands of the memesas occurs with a celibate priesthood.
Of course, not every cult (or chain letter)
with the appropriate viral structure will actually succeed. Some threats
and promises are more effective, or virulent, than others, and all compete
for the limited resource of human attention in the face of experience
and skepticism (which, in the viral metaphor, act as a kind of immune
Arguably, religions are not entirely viral;
for example, they provide comfort and a sense of belonging. In any case,
we must not make the mistake of thinking that all memes are viruses.
The vast majority make up the very stuff of our lives, including languages,
political systems, financial institutions, education, science and technology.
All these are memes (or conglomerations of memes), because they are
copied from person to person and vie for survival in the limited space
of human memories and culture.
Thinking memetically gives rise to a new vision
of the world, one that, when you "get" it, transforms everything.
From the memes-eye view, every human is a machine for making more
memesa vehicle for propagation, an opportunity for replication
and a resource to compete for. We are neither the slaves of our genes
nor rational free agents creating culture, art, science and technology
for our own happiness. Instead we are part of a vast evolutionary process
in which memes are the evolving replicators and we are the meme machines.
This new vision is stunning and scary: stunning
because now one simple theory encompasses all of human culture and creativity
as well as biological evolution; scary because it seems to reduce great
swathes of our humanity, of our activities and our intellectual lives,
to a mindless phenomenon. But is this vision true? Can memetics help
us to understand ourselves? Can it lead to testable predictions or do
any real scientific work? If it cannot, memetics is worthless.
I believe that the idea of the meme as replicator
is what has been missing from our theories of human evolution and that
memetics will prove immensely useful for explaining our unique attributes
and the rise of our elaborate cultures and societies. We are different
from all other animals because we alone, at some time in our far past,
became capable of widespread generalized imitation. This let loose new
replicatorsmemeswhich then began to propagate, using us
as their copying machinery much as genes use the copying machinery inside
cells. From then on, this one species has been designed by two replicators,
not one. This is why we are different from the millions of other species
on the planet. This is how we got our big brains, our language and all
our other peculiar "surplus" abilities.
Big Brains for Memes
Memetics neatly resolves the mystery of the
human brains vastness. The human brain is about as big as the
genes can make itthree times bigger, relative to body weight,
than the brains of our closest relatives, the great apes. It is expensive
to build and maintain, and many mothers and babies die through childbirth
complications caused by the size of the head. Why has evolution allowed
the brain to grow so hazardously large? Traditional theories look to
genetic advantage, in improved hunting or foraging skills or the ability
to sustain larger cooperating groups with complex social skills. Memetics
provides a completely different explanation.
The critical transition for hominids was the
dawn of imitation, perhaps two and a half million years ago, before
the advent of stone tools and expanding brains. True imitation means
copying a novel behavior or skill from another animal. It is difficult
to do, requires a lot of brainpower and is correspondingly rare in the
animal kingdom. Although many birds copy songs, and whales and dolphins
can imitate sounds and actions, most species cannot. Often animal "imitation,"
such as learning to respond to a new predator, involves merely the use
of an innate behavior in a new situation. Even chimpanzees imitation
is limited to a small range of behaviors, such as methods of fishing
for termites. In contrast, generalized imitation of almost any activity
seenas seems to come naturally to humansis a much more difficult
and correspondingly more valuable trick, letting the imitator reap the
benefits of someone elses learning or ingenuity as often as possible.
For example, in experiments conducted in 1995 at the Yerkes Regional
Primate Research Center in Georgia, when the same problems were presented
to orangutans and human children, only the humans readily used imitation
to solve the problems.
It is easy to imagine that our early ancestors
imitated useful new skills in making fire, hunting, and carrying and
preparing food. As these early memes spread, the ability to acquire
them became increasingly important for survival. In short, people who
were better at imitation thrived, and the genes that gave them the bigger
brains required for it consequently spread in the gene pool. Everyone
got better at imitation, intensifying the pressure to enlarge the brain
still further in a kind of cerebral arms race.
Once everyone started imitating, the second
replicator was let loose on the world, changing human evolution forever.
The memes started to take control. Alongside useful skills, such as
building fires, people copied less useful ones like fancy body decoration
and downright costly ones such as energetic but futile rain dances.
The genes faced a problem: how to ensure that their carriers copied
only the useful behaviors. Newly arisen memes can spread through a population
by imitation in a single generation, faster than genetic evolution can
respond. By the time the genes could evolve a hardwired predilection
for making fires and an aversion to performing rain dances, completely
different fads could arise and hold sway. The genes can develop only
broad, long-term strategies to try to make their bearers more discriminating
about what they imitate.
A useful general heuristic that the genes could
bestow might be a predisposition to copy the best imitatorsthe
people most likely to have accurate versions of currently useful memes.
(More familiar terms for "the best imitators" in modern life
may be "trendsetters" or "role models.") In addition
to their bag of useful tricks for survival, the best imitators would
thereby acquire higher social status, further improving their survival
chances and helping to propagate the genes that made them talented imitatorsthe
genes that gave them big brains specialized at accurate generalized
The genes would continue to respond with improvements
in peoples innate preferences about what to imitate, but the genes
response, requiring generations of people to act on, would always lag
far behind the memetic developments. I call the process by which memes
control gene selection "memetic drive": memes compete among
themselves and evolve rapidly in some direction, and genes must respond
by improving selective imitationincreasing brain size and power
along the way. Successful memes thus begin dictating which genes will
be most successful. The memes take hold of the leash.
In a final twist, it would pay for people to
mate with the most proficient imitators, because by and large, good
imitators have the best survival skills. Through this effect, sexual
selection, guided by memes, could have played _a role in creating our
big brains. By choosing the best imitator for a mate, women help propagate
the genes needed to copy religious rituals, colorful clothes, singing,
dancing, painting and so on. By this process, the legacy of past memetic
evolution becomes embedded in the structures of our brains and we become
musical, artistic and religious creatures. Our big brains are selective
imitation devices built by and for the memes as much as for the genes.
Origin of Language
Language could have been another exquisite
creation of this same process of meme-gene coevolution. Questions about
the origins and function of language have been so contentious that in
1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris banned any more speculation on
the issue. Even today scientists have reached no general consensus,
but the most popular theories appeal to genetic advantage. For example,
evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool
argues that language is a substitute for grooming in keeping large social
groups together. Evolutionary anthropologist and neuroscientist Terrence
Deacon of Boston University proposes that language made symbolic communication
possible, which in turn allowed improved hunting skills, tighter social
bonds and group defense.
In contrast, the theory of memetic drive explains
language by its conferring survival advantages on memes. To understand
how this works, we must ask which kinds of memes would have survived
best and proliferated in the emerging meme pool of our early ancestors.
The general answer for any replicator is those with high fecundity,
fidelity and longevity: ones that make many accurate and long-lived
copies of themselves.
Sounds are more fecund than gestures, particularly
sounds analogous to "hey!" or "look out!" Everyone
within earshot can hear a shout, whether they happen to be looking at
the speaker or not. Fidelity of spoken memes is higher for those built
from discrete units of sound (phonemes) and divided into wordsa
kind of digitization that reduces errors in copying. As different actions
and vocalizations competed in the prehistoric meme pool, such spoken
words would prosper and displace less well adapted memes of communication.
Then, stringing words together in different orders, and adding prefixes
and inflections, would provide fertile niches for new, more sophisticated
vocal memes. In sum, the highest-quality replicable sounds would crowd
out the poorer ones.
Now consider the effect of this on the genes.
Once again the best imitators (the most articulate individuals) would
acquire higher status, the best mates and the most offspring. In consequence,
genes for the ability to imitate the winning sounds would increase in
the gene pool. I suggest that by this process the successful soundsthe
foundations of spoken languagegradually drove the genes into creating
a brain that was not merely big but especially adept at copying those
particular articulations. The result was the remarkable human capacity
for language. It was designed by memetic competition and meme-gene coevolution.
The process of memetic driving is an example
of replicators (memes) evolving concurrently with their copying machinery
(brains). The appearance of memes is not the first time such concurrent
evolution has occurred: something similar must have taken place in the
earliest stages of life on earth, when the first replicating molecules
developed in the primeval soup and evolved into DNA and all its associated
cellular replication machinery. As with the evolution of that sophisticated
gene-copying apparatus, we might expect better meme-copying machinery
to have appearedand it has. Written language provided a vast leap
forward in longevity and fidelity; the printing press enhanced fecundity.
From the telegraph to the cell phone, from "snail" mail to
e-mail, from phonographs to DVDs and from computers to the Internet,
copying machinery has been improving, spreading a growing multitude
of memes farther and faster. Todays information explosion is just
what we should expect of memetic evolution.
This memetic theory depends on a number of
conjectures that can be tested, especially the assumption that imitation
requires a lot of brainpower, even though it comes so easily to us.
Brain-scan studies might compare people carrying out actions with others
copying them. Contrary to common sense, this theory postulates that
imitation is the harder partand also that the evolutionarily newer
parts of the brain should be especially implicated in carrying it out.
In addition, within any group of related animal species, those with
the most ability at imitation should have the largest brains. The scarcity
of imitation in animals limits the amount of data available, but species
of birds, whales and dolphins could be analyzed and compared with this
If language developed in humans as a result
of meme-gene coevolution, linguists should find signs that grammar is
optimized for transmitting memes with high fecundity, fidelity and longevity,
rather than for conveying information on specific topics such as hunting
or for forming social contracts. Social psychology experiments should
show that people preferentially copy more articulate people and find
them more sexually attractive than less eloquent people.
Other predictions can be tested by mathematical
modeling and computer simulations, which many researchers have used
to model evolutionary processes. The addition of a second, faster replicator
to a system should introduce a dramatic change, analogous to the appearance
of memes and the human brains expansion. The second replicator
should also be able to control, and even stop, the evolution of the
first. Such models might then be used to understand in greater detail
the coevolution of memes and genes. In addition, the idea that language
could spontaneously emerge in a population of imitating creatures could
be tested with simulations of noisy imitating robots.
Memetics is a new science, struggling to find
its place and with many critics. Some of these critics have simply failed
to grasp the idea of a replicator. We need to remember that memes, like
genes, are merely bits of information that either succeed in getting
copied or do not. In this sense, but no other, memes can be said to
be "selfish" and to have replicator power. Memes are not magical
entities or free-floating Platonic ideals but information lodged in
specific human memories, actions and artifacts. Nor are all mental contents
memes, because not all of them were copied from someone else. If all
your memes were removed, you would still have many perceptions, emotions,
imaginings and learned skills that are yours alone, that you did not
acquire from anyone else and that you can never share with another.
A common objection is that memes are very different
from genes. And so they are. They suffer (or benefit) from much greater
mutation rates, and they are not locked into a system as rigidly prescribed
as DNA replication and protein synthesis. Memes are best thought about
not by analogy with genes but as new replicators, with their own ways
of surviving and getting copied. Memes can be copied all over the place,
from speech to paper to book to computer, and to another person.
Yet many more potential criticisms remain,
and much work is still to be done. In the end, memetics deserves to
succeed only if it provides better explanations than rival theories
and offers valid and testable predictions. Unlike religions, the great
meme-complex of science includes methods for throwing out ideas that
are vacuous, nonsensical or plain wrong. It is against these criteria
that memetics, quite rightly, will be judged.
This article was accompanied by a brief editor's
introduction and three 'counterpoints' written by Lee Alan Dugatkin, Robert
Boyd and Peter Richerson, and Henry Plotkin. I do not have permission
from Scientific American to post these here.
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