Note - This is the version I originally
submitted. It may have been slightly edited for publication.
The Millennium is a strange collection of
surprisingly powerful memes.
Memes, in case you have not come across Richard
Dawkins’s (1976) term for cultural replicators, are ideas, habits,
skills, or behaviours that are passed from person to person by
imitation. In other words, they are information copied by humans and
selected in the harsh evolutionary environment of culture. Some, like
Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” are enormously successful while others,
like that tune you heard last night and can’t quite remember, are
failures. Some of these selfish memes survive because they are true,
or beautiful, or useful, but many survive even though they are not.
We all know that the number 2000 is arbitrary,
relevant in only one calendar, and doesn’t even mark 2000 years from
the birth of the founder of a religion. Yet this is no reason to
prevent its successful replication. I know from long years of research
on psychic phenomena and New Age claims, that the success of an idea
is not determined just by its truth, beauty or usefulness. Astrology
thrives, though it’s provably false. Alternative therapies replicate
whether effective or not (Blackmore, 1999).
So why are Millennium memes so successful ? One
reason is that we humans like to construct categories and give them
handy markers. Like the sun signs of astrology, or the bumps in
phrenology, the end of a millennium is arbitrary, but once invented is
hard to ignore. We expect life to be different after Y2K. Rituals to
mark transitions are a common human activity and we are all searching
for our own special ritual for “the night”.
But what interests me most is how these memes
control the flow of vast amounts of money and other resources. In one
way this seems bizarre - that a number of no intrinsic significance is
directing the use of billions of pounds and the behaviour of millions
of apparently intelligent people. But from the memetic perspective
this is just what we should expect, because competition between memes
is the driving force of culture.
The most powerful millennial meme is the bug
itself. This habit of using two digits to represent dates when four
are needed, thrived in the chaotic information explosion of the late
twentieth century. As computers rapidly increased in power, they
provided homes for more and more competing memes in a vast new
evolutionary process. The bug survived because there was no pressing
reason for getting rid of it. In the 1980s, and even the 70s a few
brave souls tried to alert people to the danger, but were ignored. So
the meme spread.
The important thing to remember is that
replicators cannot look ahead. The fact that genes have no foresight
explains, among other things, why our eyes are wired up back to front,
and why big brains evolved in a creature with such a narrow pelvis.
Once evolution had set off on one tack, there was no God to say
“Hey, wait a minute, go back and wire that up the other way
around”. Natural selection has to work with whatever is available.
Memetic selection is the same, and the Millennium Bug is one (very
But - you may object - we conscious human beings
have real foresight, and can intervene with our free will and
consciousness. But can we really? That depends on how far you are
prepared to push Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Dennett, 1995), and its
application to memes. As far as I am concerned we humans are the
product of two replicators - memes and genes - fighting it out to
survive in a complex environment, and nothing more. Any sense that we
can stand outside the process and change it, is pure illusion. If you
doubt this, just consider the devastating power of the Millennial
(1999) The Meme Machine, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Dawkins,R. (1976) The Selfish Gene
Oxford, Oxford University Press
Dennett,D. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea,