Originally published in The Skeptic (US), 1997, 5 No 2, 43-49
Cover illustration by Pat Linse
Reprinted in 2002 as "Memes as good
science". In M. Shermer (Ed) The Skeptic Encyclopedia of
Pseudoscience, Santa Barbara, CA., ABC-Clio, 652-663
Without the theory of evolution by natural
selection nothing in the world of biology makes much sense. Without
Darwin and neo-Darwinism, you cannot answer questions like "Why
do bats have wings? Why do cats have five claws? or Why do our optic
fibres cross in front of our retinas?" You can only fall back on
appeals to an imaginary creator.
I am going to make a bold claim.
Without the theory of evolution by memetic
selection nothing in the world of the mind makes much sense. Without
memetics you cannot answer questions like "Why cant I get
that thought out of my mind? Why did I decide to write this article
and not that one? Who am I?" Without memetics you can only fall
back on appeals to an imaginary conscious agent.
In this article I want to lay the groundwork
for a theory of memetics and see how far we can get. I shall outline
the history and origins of the idea, explore how it has been used, abused,
and ignored, and how it has provided new insight into the power of religions
and cults. I shall then take on a memes eye view of the world
and use this to answer five previously unanswered questions about human
nature. Why cant we stop thinking? Why do we talk so much? Why
are we so nice to each other? Why are our brains so big? And, finally,
what is a self?
I have tried to write the sections to stand
alone. If you only want to read some of them I suggest you read the
section Taking the memes eye view, and pick any others
that take your fancy.
A History of the Meme Meme
In 1976 Dawkins published his best-selling
The Selfish Gene. This book popularised the growing view in biology
that natural selection proceeds not in the interest of the species or
of the group, nor even of the individual, but in the interest of the
genes. Although selection takes place largely at the individual level,
the genes are the true replicators and it is their competition that
drives the evolution of biological design.
Dawkins, clear and daring as always, suggested
that all life everywhere in the universe must evolve by the differential
survival of slightly inaccurate self-replicating entities; he called
these "replicators". Furthermore, these replicators automatically
band together in to groups to create systems, or machines, that carry
them around and work to favour their continued replication. These survival
machines, or "vehicles" are our familiar bodies - and those
of cats, e-coli and cabbages - created to carry around and protect the
genes inside them.
Right at the end of the book he suggests that
Darwinism is too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of
the gene. So he asks an obvious, if provocative, question. Are there
any other replicators on our planet? Yes, he claims. Staring us in the
face, though still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup of culture,
is another replicator - a unit of imitation. He gave it the name "meme"
(to rhyme with "dream" or "seem") and as examples
suggested "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways
of making pots or of building arches." Memes are stored in human
brains and passed on by imitation.
In just those few pages he laid the foundations
for understanding the evolution of memes. He discussed their propagation
by jumping from brain to brain, likened them to parasites infecting
a host, treated them as physically realised living structures, and showed
how mutually assisting memes will group together just as genes do. He
argued that once a new replicator arises it will tend to take over and
begin a new kind of evolution. Above all he treated memes as replicators
in their own right, chastising those of his colleagues who tended always
to go back to "biological advantage" to answer questions about
human behaviour. Yes, he agreed, we got our brains for biological (genetic)
reasons but now we have them a new replicator has been unleashed and
it need not be subservient to the old. In other words, memetic evolution
can now proceed without regard to its effects on the genes.
A few years later Douglas Hofstadter wrote
about viral sentences and self-replicating structures in his Scientific
American column Metamagical Themas. Readers replied, with
examples of text using bait and hooks to ensure its own replication.
They suggested viral sentences from the simplest instruction, such as
"Copy me!", through those with added threats ("Say me
or III. put a curse on you") or promises ("III.
grant you three wishes"), to examples of virulent chain letters
(Hofstadter, 1985, p 53). One reader suggested the term memetics
for the discipline studying memes. Yet memetics did not really take
Why not? The basic idea is very simple. If
Dawkins is right then everything you have learned by imitation from
someone else is a meme. This includes all the words in your vocabulary,
the stories you know, the skills and habits you have picked up from
others and the games you like to play. It includes the songs you sing
and the rules you obey. So, for example, whenever you drive on the right
(and I on the left!), eat a hamburger or a pizza, whistle "Happy
Birthday to You" or "Mama I love you" or even shake hands,
you are dealing in memes. Memetics is all about why some memes spread
and others do not.
The greatest proponent of memetics since Dawkins
has been the philosopher Dan Dennett. In his books Consciousness
Explained (1991) and Darwins Dangerous Idea (1995)
he expands on the idea of the meme as replicator.
In The Origin of Species, Darwin (1859)
explained how natural selection must happen if certain conditions
are met. If there is heredity from parent to offspring, variation among
the offspring, and not all the offspring can survive - then selection
must happen. Individuals who have some useful advantage "have the
best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life" (Darwin,
1859, p 127, and see Dennett, 1995, p 48) and will then pass on this
advantage to their offspring. Darwin clearly saw how obvious the process
of natural selection is once you have grasped it. It just must
Dennett describes evolution as a simple algorithm
- that is, a mindless procedure that when carried out must produce
a result. For evolution you need three things - heredity, variation
and selection - then evolution is inevitable. You need not get us, of
course, or anything remotely like us; for evolution has no plans and
no foresight. Nevertheless, you must get something more complex than
what you started with. The evolutionary algorithm is "a scheme
for creating Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind" (Dennett,
1995, p 50). This, says Dennett, is Darwins Dangerous Idea.
No wonder people have been terrified of it,
and fought so hard against it. It is outrageously simple and terrifyingly
If evolution is an algorithm then it should
be able to run on different substrates. We tend to think of evolution
as depending on genes because that is the way biology works on this
planet, but the algorithm is neutral about this and will run wherever
there is heredity, variation and selection. Or -as Dawkins puts it -
a replicator. It doesnt matter which replicator. If memes are
replicators then evolution will occur.
So are memes replicators?
There is enormous variety in the behaviours
human beings emit, these behaviours are copied, more or less accurately
by other human beings, and not all the copies survive. The meme therefore
fits perfectly with the scheme of heredity, variation and selection.
Think of tunes, for example. Millions of variants are sung by millions
of people. Only a few get passed on and repeated and even fewer make
it into the pop charts or the collections of classics. Scientific papers
proliferate but only a few get long listings in the citation indexes.
Only a few of the disgusting concoctions made in woks actually make
it onto the TV shows that tell you how to Wok things and only a few
of my brilliant ideas have ever been appreciated by anyone! In other
words, competition to get copied is fierce.
Of course memes are not like genes in many
ways and we must be very careful in applying terms from genetics to
memes. The copying of memes is done by a kind of "reverse engineering"
by one person copying anothers behaviour, rather than by chemical
transcription. Also we do not know just how memes are stored in human
brains and whether they will turn out to be digitally stored, like genes,
or not. However, the important point is that if memes are true replicators,
memetic evolution must occur.
Dennett is convinced they are and he explores
how memes compete to get into as many minds as possible. This competition
is the selective force of the memosphere and the successful memes create
human minds as they go, restructuring our brains to make them ever better
havens for more memes. Human consciousness, claims Dennett, is itself
a huge meme-complex, and a person is best understood as a certain sort
of ape infested with memes. If he is right then we cannot hope to understand
the origins of the human mind without memetics.
This makes it all the more fascinating that
most people interested in the human mind have ignored memetics or simply
failed to understand it. Mary Midgley (1994) calls memes "mythical
entities" that cannot have interests of their own; "an empty
and misleading metaphor". In a recent radio debate, Stephen Jay
Gould called the idea of memes a "meaningless metaphor" (though
I am not sure one can actually have a meaningless metaphor!). He wishes
"that the term "cultural evolution" would drop from use."
(Gould, 1996, p 219-20).
The word "Meme" does not even appear
in the index of important books about human origins and language (e.g.
Donald, 1991; Dunbar, 1996; Mithen, 1996; Pinker, 1994; Tudge,1995;
Wills,1993), in an excellent collection on evolutionary psychology (Barkow,
Cosmides and Tooby, 1992), nor in books about human morality (Ridley,
1996; Wright, 1994). Although there are many theories of the
evolution of culture, almost all make culture entirely subservient to
genetic fitness, as in Wilsons (1978) metaphor of the genes holding
culture on a leash or Lumsden and Wilsons claim that "the
link between genes and culture cannot be severed" (1981, p 344).
Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) treat "cultural activity as an
extension of Darwinian fitness" (p 362) and even Durham (1991),
the only one to use the word "meme", sticks to examples of
cultural features with obvious relevance to genetic fitness, such as
color naming, dietary habits and marriage customs. Perhaps Boyd and
Richerson (1990) come closest to treating the cultural unit as a true
replicator. However, they still view "genetic and cultural evolution
as a tightly coupled coevolutionary process in humans" (Richerson
& Boyd, 1992, p 80).
As far as I can understand them, no one except
Cloak (1975) and Dawkins treats their unit of cultural exchange as a
true replicator. If there is a continuum from Goulds outright
rejection at one end, to Dawkins and Cloak at the other, then most lie
in between. They accept cultural evolution but not the idea of a second
replicator. When they say "adaptive" or "maladaptive"
they mean for the genes. When it comes to the crunch they always fall
back on appeals to biological advantage, just as Dawkins complained
that his colleagues did twenty years ago.
Dawkins is clear on this issue when he says
"there is no reason why success in a meme should have any connection
whatever with genetic success". I agree. I am going to propose
a theory of memetics that lies at the far end of this continuum. I suggest
that once genetic evolution had created creatures that were capable
of imitating each other, a second replicator was born. Since then our
brains and minds have been the product of two replicators, not one.
Today many of the selection pressures on memes are still of genetic
origin (such as whom we find sexy and what food tastes good) but as
memetic evolution proceeds faster and faster, our minds are increasingly
the product of memes, not genes. If memetics is true then the memes
have created human minds and culture just as surely as the genes have
created human bodies.
Religions as Co-Adapted Meme-Complexes
Dawkins (1976) introduced the term co-adapted
meme-complex. By this he meant a group of memes that thrive in each
others company. Just as genes group together for mutual protection,
leading ultimately to the creation of organisms, so we might expect
memes to group together. As Dawkins (1993) puts it "there will
be a ganging up of ideas that flourish in one anothers presence".
Meme-complexes include all those groups of
memes that tend to be passed on together, such as political ideologies,
religious beliefs, scientific theories and paradigms, artistic movements,
and languages. The most successful of these are not just loose agglomerations
of compatible ideas, but well structured groups with different memes
specialising as hooks, bait, threats, and immune system. (Memetic jargon
is still evolving and these terms may change but see Grants "memetic
lexicon" (Grant, 1990)).
When I was about ten years old I received a
post card and a letter that contained a list of six names and instructed
me to send a post card to the first name on the list. I was to put my
own name and address at the bottom and send the new list to six more
people. It promised me I would receive lots of postcards.
This was a fairly innocuous chain letter as
these things go, consisting just of a bait (the promised postcards)
and a hook (send it to six more people). Threats are also common (send
this on or the evil eye will get you) and many have far worse consequences
than a waste of stamps. What they have in common is the instruction
to "duplicate me" (the hook) along with co-memes for coercion.
These simple little groups can spread quite well.
With the advent of computers viral meme-groups
have much more space to play in and can leap from disk to disk among
"unhygienic" computer users. Dawkins (1993) discusses how
computer viruses and worms use tricks to get themselves spread. Some
bury themselves in memory only to pop up as a time bomb; some infect
only a small proportion of those they reach, and some are triggered
probabilistically. Like biological viruses they must not kill their
host too soon or they will die out. Their final effect may be quite
funny, such as one that makes the Mackintoshs loudspeaker say
"Dont Panic!", but some have clogged up entire networks
and destroyed whole doctoral theses. My students have recently encountered
a virus in WORD6 that lives in a formatting section called "Thesis"
- tempting you to get infected just when your years work is almost
finished. No wonder we now have a proliferation of anti-virus software
- the equivalent of medicine for the info-sphere.
Internet viruses are a relatively new arrival.
Last week I received a very kind warning from someone Ive never
met. "Do not download any message entitled "Penpal Greetings""
it said - and went on to warn me that if I read this terrible message
I would have let in a "Trojan Horse" virus that would destroy
everything on my hard drive and then send itself on to every e-mail
address in my mail box. To protect all my friends, and the world-wide
computer network, I had to act fast and send the warning on to them.
Have you spotted it? The virus described does
not make sense - and does not exist. The real virus is the warning.
This is a very clever little meme-complex that uses both threats and
appeals to altruism to get you - the silly, caring victim - to pass
it on. It is not the first - "Good Times" and "Deeyenda
Maddick" used a similar trick - and it probably wont be the
last. However, as more people learn to ignore the warnings these viruses
will start to fail and perhaps that will let in worse viruses, as people
start to ignore warnings they ought to heed. So Watch Out!
What does this have to do with religions? According
to Dawkins, a great deal. The most controversial application of memetics
is undoubtedly his treatment of religions as co-adapted meme-complexes
(Dawkins 1976, 1993). He unashamedly describes religions as "viruses
of the mind" and sets about analysing how they work.
They work because human brains are just what
info-viruses need; brains can soak up information, replicate it reasonably
accurately, and obey the instructions it embodies. Dawkins uses the
example of Roman Catholicism; a gang of mutually compatible memes that
is stable enough to deserve a name. The heart of Catholicism is its
major beliefs; a powerful and forgiving God, Jesus his son who was born
of a virgin and rose again from the dead, the holy spirit, and so on.
If these arent implausible enough you can add belief in miracles
or the literal transubstantiation of wine into blood. Why should any
one believe these things? Dawkins explains.
Threats of hell-fire and damnation are an effective
and nasty technique of persuasion. From an early age children are brought
up by their Catholic parents to believe that if they break certain rules
they will burn in hell forever after death. The children cannot easily
test this since neither hell nor God can be seen, although He can see
everything they do. So they must simply live in life-long fear until
death, when they will find out for sure - or not! The idea of hell is
thus a self-perpetuating meme.
And did I say "test" the idea? Some
religious beliefs could be tested, such as whether wine really
turns into blood, or whether prayer actually helps; hence the need for
the anti-testing meme of faith. In Catholicism, doubt must be resisted,
while faith is nurtured and respected. If your knowledge of biology
leads you to doubt the virgin birth, - or if war, cruelty and starvation
seem to challenge the goodness of God - then you must have faith. The
story of Doubting Thomas is a cautionary tale against seeking evidence.
As Dawkins puts it "Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of
meme than a tendency to look for evidence" (Dawkins, 1976, p 198)
and religions, unlike science, make sure they discourage it. Also unlike
science, religions often include memes that make their carriers violently
intolerant of new and unfamiliar ideas so protecting themselves against
being ousted in favour of a different religion - or none at all.
Finally the meme-complex needs mechanisms to
ensure its own spread. "Kill the infidel" will dispose of
the opposition. "Go forth and multiply" will produce more
children to pass itself onto. So will forbidding masturbation, birth
control or inter-faith marriages. If fear of going blind doesnt
work, there are prizes in heaven for missionaries and those who convert
unbelievers (Dawkins, 1993; Lynch, 1996).
Catholicism generally spreads from parent to
child but celibate priests play a role too. This is particularly interesting
since celibacy means a dead end for the genes, but not for the memes.
A priest who has no wife and children to care for has more time to spread
his memes, including that for celibacy. Celibacy is another partner
in this vast complex of mutually assisting religious memes.
Dawkins (1993) gives other examples from Judaism,
such as the pointlessness of Rabbis testing for the kosher-purity of
food, or the horrors of Jim Jones leading his flock to mass suicide
in the Guyana jungle. Today he might add "Heavens Gate"
to the catalogue. "Obviously a meme that causes individuals bearing
it to kill themselves has a grave disadvantage, but not necessarily
a fatal one. .... a suicidal meme can spread, as when a dramatic and
well-publicised martyrdom inspires others to die for a deeply loved
cause, and this in turn inspires others to die, and so on." (Dawkins,
1982, p 111).
He might equally have chosen Islam; a faith
that includes the concept of the jihad or holy war, and has particularly
nasty punishments for people who desert the faith. Even today the author,
and heretic, Salman Rushdie lives in fear of his life because many Muslims
consider it their holy duty to kill him. Once you have been infected
with powerful memes like these you must pay a high price to get rid
Lynch (1996) explores in depth some tricks
used by religions and cults. "Honour thy father and mother"
is an excellent commandment, increasing the chance that children will
take on beliefs from their parents, including the commandment itself.
As a secular meme it might not succeed very well, since kids would surely
reject it if they thought it came straight from the parents. However,
presented as an idea from God (who is powerful, all-seeing and punishes
disobedience) it has a much better chance - a good example of memes
Dietary laws may thrive because they protect
against disease, but may also keep people in the faith by making it
harder for them to adapt to other diets outside. Moral codes may enhance
effective cooperation and survival but may also be ways of punishing
lapses of faith. Observing "holy days" ensures lots of time
for spreading the memes, and public prayers and grace at meals ensure
that lots of people are exposed to them. Learning sacred texts by heart,
and setting them to inspiring or memorable music ensures their longevity.
In the long history of religions most of them
have spread vertically - that is from parent to child. Even today the
best predictor of your religion is your parents religion - even
if you think you rationally chose the "best" or "truest"
one! However, today more and more new religions and cults spread horizonally
- from any person to any other person. The two types use different meme
tricks for their replication.
As an example of the first type Lynch (1996)
gives the Hutterites. They average more than ten children per couple,
a fantastic rate that is possibly helped by the way they distribute
parental responsibility, making each extra child only a slightly greater
burden for its natural parents. Other religions put more effort into
conversion, like the evangelical faiths which thrive on instant rewards
and spiritual joy on conversion.
In case I seem to be implying that people have
deliberately manufactured religions this way, that is not at all what
I mean. Look at it this way - imagine in the long, long history of human
religious endeavour, all the millions and millions of different statements,
ideas, and commandments that must have been uttered at some time or
another. Which would you expect to have survived through to the present?
The answer is, of course, the ones that just happened to have included
clever tricks or come together with other ideas they could gang up with.
The countless millions of other ideas have simply been lost. This is
Taking the Memes Eye View
We are now ready to take on the memes
eye view. The basic approach I take is this - imagine a world full of
hosts for memes (e.g. brains) and far more memes than can possibly find
homes. Now ask - which memes are more likely to find a safe home and
get passed on again? Its that simple.
In doing this I try to follow some simple rules.
First, remember that memes (like genes) do not have foresight!
Second, consider only the interests of
the memes, not of the genes or the organism. Memes do not care about
genes or people - all they do is reproduce themselves. Short-hand
statements like "memes want x" or "memes try to do
y" must always be translatable back into the longer
version, such as "memes that have the effect of producing x
are more likely to survive than those that do not."
Third, memes, by definition, are passed
on by imitation. So learning by trial and error or by feedback is
not memetic, nor are all forms of communication. Only when an idea,
behaviour or skill is passed on by imitation does it count as a
Now, remembering these rules, we can ask the question and see where
Imagine a world full of brains, and far
more memes than can possibly find homes. Which memes are more likely
to find a safe home and get passed on again?
Some of the consequences are startlingly obvious
- once you see them. And some are frighteningly powerful.
I shall start with two simple ones, partly as exercises in thinking
1. Why cant we stop thinking ?
Can you stop thinking? If you have ever
meditated you will know just how hard this is - the mind just seems
to keep blithering on. If we were thinking useful thoughts, practising
mental skills, or solving relevant problems there might be some point,
but mostly we don't seem to be. So why cant we just sit down and
not think? From a genetic point of view all this extra thinking seems
extremely wasteful - and animals that waste energy don't survive. Memetics
provides a simple answer.
Imagine a world full of brains, and
far more memes than can possibly find homes. Which memes are more likely
to find a safe home and get passed on again?
Imagine a meme that encourages its host
to keep on mentally rehearsing it, or a tune that is so easy to hum
that it goes round and round in your head, or a thought that just compels
you to keep thinking it.
Imagine in contrast a meme that buries
itself quietly in your memory and is never rehearsed, or a tune that
is too unmemorable to go round in your head, or a thought that is too
boring to think again.
Which will do better? Other things being
equal, the first lot will. Rehearsal aids memory, and you are likely
to express (or even sing) the ideas and tunes that fill your waking
hours. What is the consequence? The memosphere fills up with catchy
tunes, and thinkable thoughts. We all come across them and so we all
think an awful lot.
The principle here is familiar from biology.
In a forest, any tree that grows tall gets more light. So genes for
growing tall become more common in the gene pool and the forest ends
up being as high as the trees can make it.
We can apply the same principle again.
2. Why do we talk so much?
Imagine a world full of brains, and
far more memes than can possibly find homes. Which memes are more likely
to find a safe home and get passed on again?
Imagine any meme that encourages talking.
It might be an idea like "talking makes people like you" or
"Its friendly to chat". It might be an urgent thought
that you feel compelled to share, a funny joke, good news that everybody
wants to hear, or any meme that thrives inside a talkative person.
Imagine in contrast any meme that discourages
talking, such as the thought "talking is a waste of time".
It might be something you dare not voice aloud, something very difficult
to say, or any meme that thrives inside a shy and retiring person.
Which will do better? Put this way the
answer is obvious. The first lot will be heard by more people and, other
things being equal, simply must stand a better chance of being propagated.
What is the consequence of this? The memosphere will fill up with memes
that encourage talking and we will all talk an awful lot. And we do!
A simpler way of putting it is this:-
people who talk more will, on average, spread more memes. So any memes
which thrive in chatterboxes are likely to spread.
This makes me see conversation in a new
light. Is all that talking really founded on biological advantage? Talking
takes a lot of energy and we do talk about some daft and pointless things!
Do these trivial and stupid thoughts and conversations have some hidden
I would at least like to offer the suggestion
that they do not. That we do all this talking and all this thinking
merely because the memes that make us do it are good survivors. The
memes seem to be working against the genes.
This sets the stage for a more audacious
3. Why are we so nice to each other?
Of course we arent always nice
to each other, but human co-operation and altruism are something of
a mystery - despite the tremendous advances made in understanding kin
selection and inclusive fitness, reciprocal altruism and evolutionarily
stable strategies (see e.g. Wright, 1994; Ridley, 1996). Human societies
exhibit much more cooperation than is typical of vertebrate societies,
and we cooperate with non-relatives on a massive scale (Richerson and
Boyd, 1992). As Cronin puts it, human morality "presents an obvious
challenge to Darwinian theory" (Cronin, 1991, p325).
Everyone can probably think up their
own favourite example. Richard Dawkins (1989 p 230) calls blood doning
"a genuine case of pure, disinterested altruism". I am more
impressed by charitable giving to people in faraway countries who probably
share as few of our genes as anyone on earth and whom we are unlikely
ever to meet. And why do we hand in wallets found in the street, rescue
injured wildlife, support eco-friendly companies or recycle our bottles?
Why do so many people want to be poorly paid nurses and counsellors,
social workers and psychotherapists, when they could live in bigger
houses, attract richer mates, and afford more children if they were
bankers, stock brokers or lawyers?
Many people believe all this must ultimately
be explained in terms of biological advantage. Perhaps it will, but
I offer an alternative for consideration; a memetic theory of altruism.
We can use our, by now, familiar tactic.
Imagine a world full of brains, and
far more memes than can possibly find homes. Which memes are more likely
to find a safe home and get passed on again?
Imagine the sort of meme that encourages
its host to be friendly and kind. It might be a meme for throwing good
parties, for being generous with the home-made marmalade, or just being
prepared to spend time listening to a friends woes. Now compare
this with memes for being unfriendly and mean - never cooking people
dinners or buying drinks, and refusing to give your time to others.
Which will spread more quickly?
The first type, of course. People like
to be with nice people. So those who harbour lots of friendliness memes
will spend more time with others and have more chances to spread their
memes. In consequence many of us will end up harbouring lots of memes
for being nice to others.
A simpler way of putting it is this:-
people who are altruistic will, on average, spread more memes. So any
memes which thrive in altruistic people are likely to spread - including
the memes for being altruistic.
You may wish to challenge any of the
above steps. It is therefore reassuring to learn from many experiments
in social psychology, that people are more likely to adopt ideas from
people they like (Eagly and Chaiken, 1984). Whether this is a cause
or a consequence of the above argument is debatable. It would be most
interesting if psychological facts like this, or others such as cognitive
dissonance, or the need for self esteem, could be derived from simple
memetic principles - but that is a topic for another time!
For now we should consider whether the
idea is testable. It predicts that people should act in ways that benefit
the spread of their memes even at some cost to themselves. We are familiar
with buying useful information, and with advertisers buying their way
into peoples minds for the purposes of selling products, but this
theory predicts that people will pay (or work) simply to spread the
memes they hold - because the memes force them to. Missionaries and
Jehovahs Witnesses seem to.
Many aspects of persuasion and conversion
to causes may turn out to involve meme-driven altruism. Altruism is
yet another of the meme tricks that religions (those most powerful of
meme-complexes) have purloined. Almost all of them thrive on making
their members work for them and believe they are doing good.
Of course, being generous is expensive.
There will always be pressure against it, and if memes can find alternative
strategies for spreading they will. For example, powerful people may
be able to spread memes without being altruistic at all! However, that
does not change the basic argument - that altruism spreads memes.
You may have noticed that the underlying
theme in all these arguments is that the memes may act in opposition
to the interest of the genes. Thinking all the time may not use much
energy but it must cost something. Talking is certainly expensive, as
anyone who has been utterly exhausted or seriously ill will attest.
And of course any altruistic act is, by definition, costly to the actor.
I would say that this is just what we
should expect if memes are true replicators. They do not care about
the genes or the creatures the genes created. Their only interest is
self-propagation. So if they can propagate by stealing resources from
the genes, they will do so.
In the next example we see the memes
forcing the hand of the genes in a much more dramatic way.
4. Why are our brains so big?
Yes, I know this is an old chestnut,
and there are lots and lots of good answers to the question. But are
they good enough? Let us not forget how mysterious this issue really
is. Brains are notoriously expensive both to build and to run. They
take up about 2% of the bodys weight but use about 20% of its
energy. Our brains are three times the size of the brains of apes of
equivalent body size. Compared to other mammals our encephalisation
quotient is even higher, up to about 25 (Jerison, 1973; Leakey, 1994;
Wills, 1993). On many measures of brain capacity humans stand out alone.
The fact that such intelligence has arisen in an animal that stands
upright may or may not be a coincidence but it certainly adds to the
problem. Our pelvises are not ideally suited for giving birth to huge
brains and so childbirth is a risky process for human beings - yet we
do it. Why?
The mystery was deepened for me by thinking
about the size of the biological advantage required for survival. In
a study concerned with the fate of the Neanderthals, Zubrow (Leakey,
1994) used computer simulations to determine the effect of a slight
competitive edge. He concluded that a 2% advantage could eliminate a
competing population in less than a millennium. If we needed only such
a tiny advantage why do we have such a huge one?
Several answers have recently been proposed.
For example, Dunbar (1996) argues that we need large brains in order
to gossip, and we need to gossip as a kind of verbal grooming to keep
very large bands of people together. Christopher Wills (1993) argues
that the runaway evolution of the human brain results from an increasingly
swift gene-environment feedback loop. Miller (1993) proposes that our
vast brains have been created by sexual selection; and Richerson and
Boyd (1992) claim they are used for individual and social learning,
favoured under increasing rates of environmental variation.
What these authors all have in common
is that their ultimate appeal is to the genes. Like Dawkins bewailed
colleagues, they always wish to go back to biological advantage. I propose
an alternative based on memetic advantage.
Imagine early hominids who, for good
biological reasons, gained the ability to imitate each other and to
develop simple language. Once this step occurred memes could begin to
spread, and the second replicator was born. Remember - once this happened
the genes would no longer be able to stop the spread! Presumably the
earliest memes would be useful ones, such as ways of making pots or
knives, or ways of catching or dismembering prey. Let us assume that
some people would have slightly larger brains and that larger brains
are better copiers. As more and more people began to pick up these early
memes, the environment would change so that it became more and more
necessary to have the new skills in order to survive.
A person who could quickly learn to make
a good pot or tell a popular story would more easily find a mate, and
so sexual selection would add to the pressure for big brains. In the
new environment larger brained people would have an advantage and the
importance of the advantage would increase as the memes spread. It seems
to me that this fundamental change in selection pressures, spreading
at the rate of meme propagation, provides for the first time a plausible
reason why our brains are totally out of line with all other brains
on the planet. They have been meme-driven. One replicator has forced
the moves of another.
5. Who am I?
now see the human mind as the creation of two replicators, one using
for its replication the machinery created by the other. As Dennett pointed
out, people are animals infested with memes. Our personalities, abilities
and unique qualities derive from the complex interplay of these replicators.
What then of our innermost selves - the "real me", the person
who experiences "my" life?
I would say that selves are co-adapted
meme complexes - though only one of many supported by any given brain
(Blackmore, 1996). Like religions, political belief systems and cults,
they are sets of memes that thrive in each others company. Like
religions, political belief systems and cults, they are safe havens
for all sorts of travelling memes and they are protected from destruction
by various meme-tricks. They do not have to be true.
In fact we know that selves are a myth.
Look inside the brain and you find only neurons. You do not find the
little person pulling the strings or the homunculus watching the show
on an inner screen (Dennett, 1991). You do not find the place where
"my" conscious decisions are made. You do not find the thing
that lovingly holds all those beliefs and opinions. Most of us still
persist in thinking about ourselves that way. But the truth is - there
is no one in there!
We now have a radically new answer to
the question "Who am I?", and a rather terrifying one. "I"
am one of the many co-adapted meme-complexes living within this brain.
This scary idea may explain why memetics is not more popular. Memetics
deals a terrible blow to the supremacy of self.
The Future for Memes
The memes are out! For most of human
history memes have evolved alongside genes. They were passed on largely
vertically - from parent to child - and therefore evolved at much the
same rate as genes. This is no longer true. Memes can leap from brain
to brain in seconds - even when the brains are half a planet apart.
While some memes hang around in brains
for weeks, months or years before being passed on, many now spread in
multiple copies at the speed of light. The invention of the telephone,
fax machine and e-mail all increase the speed of propagation of memes.
As high speed, accurate, horizontal copying of memes increases we can
expect some dramatic developments in the memosphere.
First, the faster memes spread the weaker
is the hold of natural (genetic) selection. This relative uncoupling
of genes and memes may mean that more than ever before memes will spread
that are detrimental to their carriers. We may be seeing this already
with some of the dangerous cults, fads, political systems, copy-cat
crimes and false beliefs that can now spread so quickly.
Second, we may expect memes to build
themselves ever better vehicles for their own propagation. Genes have
built themselves organisms to carry them around in. What is the memic
equivalent? Artifacts such as books, paintings, tools and aeroplanes
might count (Dennett, 1995) but they are feeble compared with computers
or the Internet. Even these recent inventions are still largely dependent
on humans for their functioning, and on the genes those humans are carrying
- after all, sex is the most popular topic on the internet. So can the
second replicator ever really break free? It might if ever we construct
robots that directly imitate each other. Fortunately this is such a
difficult task that it will not be achieved very soon and perhaps by
then we will have a better understanding of memetics and be in a better
position to cope with our new neighbours.
I have shown how a theory of memetics provides
new answers to some important questions about human nature. If I am
right, then we humans are the product of two replicators, not just one.
In the past hundred years we have successfully thrown off the illusion
that a God is needed to understand the design of our bodies. Perhaps
in the next millenium we can throw off the illusion that conscious agents
are needed to understand the design of our minds.
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