Chapter One - Strange Creatures
We humans are strange creatures. There is no doubt that our bodies
evolved by natural selection just as other animals' did. Yet we differ
from all other creatures in many ways. For a start we speak. We believe
ourselves to be the most intelligent species on the planet. We are
extraordinarily widespread and extremely versatile in our ways of
making a living. We wage wars, believe in religions, bury our dead, and
get embarrassed about sex. We watch television, drive cars and eat ice
cream. We have had such a devastating impact upon the ecosystems of our
planet that we appear to be in danger of destroying everything on which
our lives depend. One of the problems of being a human is that it is
rather hard to look at humans with an unprejudiced eye.
On the one hand, we are obviously animals comparable with any others.
We have lungs, hearts and brains made of living cells; we eat and
breathe and reproduce. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural
selection can successfully explain how we, along with the rest of life
on this planet, came to be here and why we all share so many
characteristics. On the other hand we behave quite differently from
other animals. Now that biology has so successfully explained much of
our similarity with other creatures we need to ask the opposite
question. What makes us so different? Could it be our superior
intelligence, our consciousness, our language, or what?
A common answer is that we are simply more intelligent than any other
species. Yet the notion of intelligence is extremely slippery, with
interminable arguments about how to define it, how to measure it and to
what extent it is inherited. Research in artificial intelligence (AI)
has provided some nice surprises for those who thought they knew what
makes human intelligence so special.
In the early days of AI, researchers thought that if they could teach a
computer to play chess they would have reproduced one of the highest
forms of human intelligence. In those days the idea that a computer
could ever play well, let alone beat a Grand Master, was unthinkable.
Yet now most home computers come with passable chess programs already
installed, and in 1997 the program "Deep Blue" beat World Champion
Garry Kasparov ending human supremacy at the game. Computers may not
play chess in the same way as humans, but their success shows how wrong
we can be about intelligence. Clearly what we thought were human
beings' most special capabilities may not be.
Quite the opposite goes for some apparently quite unintelligent things
like cleaning the house, digging the garden or making a cup of tea.
Time and again AI researchers have tried to build robots to carry out
such tasks and been defeated. The first problem is that the tasks all
require vision. There is a popular (though possibly apocryphal) story
about Marvin Minsky at MIT (the Massachusetts Institute of Technology);
that he once gave his graduate students the problem of vision as a
summer project. Decades later the problem of computer vision is still
just that - a problem. We humans can see so effortlessly that we cannot
begin to imagine how complex the process has to be. And in any case
this kind of intelligence cannot distinguish us from other animals
because they can see too.
If intelligence does not provide simple answers perhaps consciousness
might. Many people believe that human consciousness is unique and is
responsible for making us human. Yet scientists cannot even define the
term `consciousness'. Everyone knows what their own consciousness is
like but they cannot share that knowledge with anyone else. This
troublesome fact - the subjectivity of consciousness - may explain why
for most of this century the whole topic of consciousness was more or
less banned from scientific discussion. Now at last it has become
fashionable again, but scientists and philosophers cannot even agree on
what an explanation of consciousness would look like. Some say that the
`Hard Problem' of subjectivity is quite different from any other
scientific problem and needs a totally new kind of solution, while
others are sure that when we fully understand brain function and
behaviour the problem of consciousness will have disappeared.
Some people believe in the existence of a human soul or spirit that
transcends the physical brain and explains human uniqueness. With the
decline in religious belief fewer and fewer people intellectually
accept that view, yet most of us continue to think of ourselves as a
little conscious "me" inside our brain; a "me" who sees the world,
makes the decisions, directs the actions and has responsibility for
As we shall see later on, this view has to be wrong. Whatever the
brain is doing it does not seem to need help from an extra, magical
self. Different parts of the brain carry on their tasks independently
of each other and countless different things are always going on at
once. We may feel as though there is a central place inside our heads
in to which the sensations come and from which we consciously make the
decisions. Yet this place simply does not exist. Clearly something is
very wrong with our ordinary view of our conscious selves. From this
confused viewpoint we cannot say with certainty that other animals are
not conscious or that consciousness is what makes us unique. So what
What makes us different?
The thesis of this book is that what makes us different is our ability
to imitate. Imitation comes naturally to us humans. Have you ever sat
and blinked, or waved, or "goo gooed", or even just smiled, at a baby?
What happens? Very often they blink too, or wave or smile back at you.
We do it so easily, even as an infant. We copy each other all the time.
Like seeing, it comes so effortlessly that we hardly think about it. We
certainly don't think of it as being something very clever. Yet, as we
shall see, it is fantastically clever.
Certainly other animals don't take naturally to it. Blink, or wave, or
smile at your dog or cat and what happens? She might purr, wag her
tail, twitch, or walk away, but you can be pretty sure she will not
imitate you. You can teach a cat, or rat, to beg neatly for its food by
progressively rewarding it but you cannot teach it by demonstrating the
trick yourself - nor can another cat or rat. Years of detailed research
on animal imitation has lead to the conclusion that it is extremely
rare (I shall return to this in Chapter 4). Though we may think of
mother cats as teaching their kittens to hunt, or groom or use the cat
door, they do not do it by demonstration or imitation. Parent birds
"teach" their babies to fly more by pushing them out of the nest and
giving them the chance to try it than by demonstrating the required
skills for them to copy.
There is a special appeal to stories of animals copying human
behaviour, and pet owners are fond of such tales. I read on the
internet about a cat who learned to flush the toilet and soon taught a
second cat the same trick. Now the two of them sit together on the
cistern flushing away. A more reliable anecdote was told by Diana
Reiss, a psychologist at Rutgers University. She works with bottlenose
dolphins, who are known to be able to copy vocal sounds and artificial
whistles, as well as simple actions (Bauer & Johnson, 1994; Reiss &
McCowan, 1993). She trained the dolphins by giving them fish as a
reward and also by a "time out" procedure for punishment. If they did
the wrong thing she would walk away from the water's edge and wait for
one minute before returning to the pool. One day she threw a fish to
one of the dolphins but had accidentally left on some spiky bits of
fin. Immediately the dolphin turned, swam away, and waited for a minute
at the other side of the pool.
That story touched me because I couldn't help thinking of the dolphin
as understanding the action, as having intelligence and consciousness
and intentionality like ours. But we cannot even define these things,
let alone be sure that the dolphin was using them in this apparent act
of reciprocation. What we can see is that it imitated Dr Reiss in an
appropriate way. We are so oblivious to the cleverness of imitation
that we don't even notice how rare it is in other animals and how often
we do it ourselves.
Perhaps more telling is that we do not have separate words for
radically different kinds of learning. We use the same word "learning"
for simple association or `classical conditioning' (which almost all
animals can do), for learning by trial and error or `operant
conditioning' (which many animals can do), and for learning by
imitation (which almost none can do). I want to argue that the supreme
ease with which we are capable of imitation, has blinded us to this
simple fact - that imitation is what makes us special.
Imitation and the meme
When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This "something"
can then be passed on again, and again, and so take on a life of its
own. We might call this thing an idea, an instruction, a behaviour, a
piece of information ... but if we are going to study it we shall need
to give it a name.
Fortunately there is a name. It is the "meme".
The term meme first appeared in 1976, in Richard Dawkins's best-selling
book The Selfish Gene. In that book Dawkins, an Oxford zoologist,
popularised the increasingly influential view that evolution is best
understood in terms of the competition between genes. Earlier in the
twentieth century biologists had blithely talked about evolution
occurring for the "good of the species" without worrying about the
exact mechanisms involved but in the 1960s serious problems with this
view began to be recognised (Williams, 1966). For example, if a group
of organisms all act for the good of the group then one individual who
does not can easily exploit the rest. He will then leave more
descendants who in turn do not act for the group. On the more modern
"gene's eye view", evolution may appear to proceed in the interests of
the individual, or for the good of the species, but in fact it is all
driven by the competition between genes. This new viewpoint provided a
much more powerful understanding of evolution and has come to
be known as `selfish gene theory'.
We must be absolutely clear about what `selfish' means in this context.
It does not mean genes for selfishness. Such genes would incline their
carriers to act selfishly and that is something quite different. The
term `selfish' here means that the genes act only for themselves; their
only interest is their own replication; all they want is to be passed
on to the next generation. Of course genes do not `want' or have aims
or intentions in the same way as people do; they are only chemical
instructions that can be copied. So when I say they `want', or are
`selfish' I am using a short-hand, but this short-hand is necessary to
avoid lengthy explanations. It will not lead us astray if we remember
that genes either are or are not successful at getting passed on into
the next generation. So the short-hand "genes want x" can always be
spelled out as "genes that do x are more likely to be passed on". This
is the only power they have - replicator power. And it is in this sense
that they are selfish.
Dawkins also introduced the important distinction between `replicators'
and their `vehicles'. A replicator is anything of which copies are
made, including `active replicators' whose nature affects the chances
of their being copied again. A vehicle is the entity that interacts
with the environment, which is why Hull (1988a) prefers the term
`interactors' for a similar idea. Vehicles or interactors carry the
replicators around inside them and protect them. The original
replicator was presumably a simple self-copying molecule in the
primeval soup but our most familiar replicator now is DNA. Its vehicles
are organisms and groups of organisms that interact with each other as
they live out their lives in the seas or the air, the forests or
fields. Genes are the selfish replicators which drive the evolution of
the biological world here on earth but Dawkins believes there is a more
fundamental principle at work. He suggested that wherever it arises,
anywhere in the universe, "all life evolves by the differential
survival of replicating entities" (1976, p 192). This is the foundation
for the idea of Universal Darwinism; the application of Darwinian
thinking way beyond the confines of biological evolution.
At the very end of the book he asked an obvious, if provocative,
question. Are there any other replicators on our planet? The answer, he
claimed, is "Yes". Staring us in the face, though still drifting
clumsily about in its primeval soup of culture, is another replicator -
a unit of imitation.
"We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of
a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. `Mimeme' comes
from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit
like `gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I
abbreviate mimeme to meme."
As examples he suggested "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes
fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches." He mentioned
scientific ideas that catch on and propagate themselves around the
world by jumping from brain to brain. He wrote about religions as
groups of memes with a high survival value, infecting whole societies
with belief in a God or an afterlife. He talked about fashions in dress
or diet, and about ceremonies, customs and technologies - all of which
are spread by one person copying another. Memes are stored in human
brains (or books or inventions) and passed on by imitation.
In a 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 gang together in groups just as genes do. Most
important, he treated the meme as a replicator in its own right. He
complained that many of his colleagues seemed unable to accept the idea
that memes would spread for their own benefit, independently of any
benefit to the genes. "In the last analysis they wish 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. "Once this new
evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subservient to the
old" (Dawkins, 1976, 193-4). In other words, memetic evolution can now
take off without regard to its effects on the genes.
If Dawkins is right then human life is permeated through and through
with memes and their consequences. Everything you have learned by
imitation from someone else is a meme. But we must be clear what is
meant by the word `imitation' because our whole understanding of
memetics depends on it. Dawkins said that memes jump from "brain to
brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called
imitation." (1976, p 192). I will also use `imitation' in the broad
sense. So if, for example, a friend tells you a story and you remember
the gist and pass it on to someone else then that counts as imitation.
You have not precisely imitated your friend's every action and word,
but something (the gist of the story) has been copied from her to you
and then on to someone else. This is the `broad sense' in which we must
understand the term `imitation'. If in doubt, remember that something
must have been copied.
Everything that is passed from person to person in this way 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 left (or the right!), eat
curry with lager or pizza and coke, whistle the theme tune from
"Neighbours" or even shake hands, you are dealing in memes. Each of
these memes has evolved in its own unique way with its own history, but
each of them is using your behaviour to get itself copied.
Take the song "Happy Birthday to You". Millions of people - probably
thousands of millions of people the world over - know this tune. Indeed
I only have to write down those four words to have a pretty good idea
that you may soon start humming it to yourself. Those words affect you,
probably quite without any conscious intention on your part, by
stirring up a memory you already possess. And where did that come from?
Like millions of other people you have acquired it by imitation.
Something; some kind of information, some kind of instruction, has
become lodged in all those brains so that now we all do the same thing
at birthday parties. That something is what we call the meme.
Memes spread themselves around indiscriminately without regard to
whether they are useful, neutral or positively harmful to us. A
brilliant new scientific idea, or a technological invention may spread
because of its usefulness. A song like "Jingle Bells" may spread
because it sounds OK, though it is not seriously useful and can
definitely get on your nerves. But some memes are positively harmful -
like chain letters and pyramid selling, new methods of fraud and false
doctrines, ineffective slimming diets and dangerous medical `cures'. Of
course the memes don't care; they are selfish like genes and will
simply spread if they can.
Remember that the same shorthand applies to memes as to genes. We can
say that memes are `selfish', that they `don't care', that they `want'
to propagate themselves and so on when all we mean is that successful
memes are the ones that get copied and spread, while unsuccessful ones
do not. This is the sense in which memes `want' to get copied, `want'
you to pass them on and `don't care' what that means to you or your
This is the power behind the idea of memes. To start to think
memetically we have to make a giant flip in our minds just as
biologists had to do when taking on the idea of the selfish gene.
Instead of thinking of our ideas as our own creations, and as working
for us, we have to think of them as autonomous selfish memes, working
only to get themselves copied. We humans, because of our powers of
imitation, have become just the physical "hosts" needed for the memes
to get around. This is how the world looks from a "meme's eye view".
This is a scary idea indeed. And perhaps that is why the word "meme" is
so often written with inverted commas around it, as though to apologise
for using it. I have even seen eminent lecturers raise both hands and
tweak them above their ears when forced to say "meme" out loud.
Gradually the word has become more generally known, and has even been
added to the Oxford English Dictionary. There are discussion groups and
a Journal of Memetics on the internet, and the idea almost seems to
have acquired a cult following in cyber-space. But in academia it has
not yet been so successful. A perusal of some of the best recent books
on human origins, the evolution of language and evolutionary psychology
shows that the word does not appear at all in most of them ("meme" is
not in the index of Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, 1992; Diamond, 1997;
Dunbar, 1996; Mithen, 1996; Pinker, 1994; Ridley, 1996; Tudge, 1995;
Wills, 1993; Wright, 1994). The idea of memes seems extremely relevant
to these disciplines and I want to argue that it is time for us to take
on board the notion of a second replicator at work in human life and
One of the problems with the idea of memes is that it strikes at our
deepest assumptions about who we are and why we are here. This is
always happening in science. Before Copernicus and Galileo people
believed they lived at the centre of the universe in a world created
especially for them by God. Gradually we had to accept, not only that
the sun does not revolve around the earth, but that we live on some
minor little planet in an ordinary galaxy in a vast universe of other
A hundred and forty years ago Darwin's theory of evolution by natural
selection provided the first plausible mechanism for evolution without
a designer. People's view of their own origin changed from the Biblical
story of special creation in the image of God, to an animal descended
from an ape-like ancestor - a vast leap indeed, and one that lead to
much ridicule and fanatical opposition to Darwin. Still - we have all
coped with that leap and come to accept that we are animals created by
evolution. However, if memetics is valid, we will have to make another
vast leap in accepting a similar evolutionary mechanism for the origin
of our minds and our selves.
What will determine whether the theory of memes is worth having or not?
Although philosophers of science argue over what makes a scientific
theory valid, there are at least two commonly agreed criteria and I
will use these in judging memetics. First, a theory must be able to
explain things better than its rival theories; more economically or
more comprehensively. And second, it must lead to testable predictions
that turn out to be correct. Ideally those predictions should be
unexpected ones - things that no one would have looked for if they
weren't starting from a theory of memetics.
My aim in this book is to show that many aspects of human nature are
explained far better by a theory of memetics than by any rival theory
yet available. The theory starts only with one simple mechanism - the
competition between memes to get into human brains and be passed on
again. From this it gives rise to explanations for such diverse
phenomena as the evolution of the enormous human brain, the origins of
language, our tendency to talk and think too much, human altruism, and
the evolution of the internet. Looked at through the new lens of the
memes, human beings look quite different.
Is the new way better? It seems obviously so to me, but I expect that
many people will disagree. This is where the predictions come in. I
shall try to be as clear as I can in deriving predictions and showing
how they follow from memetic theory. I may speculate and even, at
times, leap wildly beyond the evidence, but as long as the speculations
can be tested then they can be helpful. In the end the success or
failure of these predictions will decide whether memes are just a
meaningless metaphor or the grand new unifying theory we need to
understand human nature.