of the whole chapter.
Or read an extract :-
To be human is to
This is a strong claim, and a contentious one. It implies that the
turning point in hominid evolution was when our ancestors first
began to copy each other’s sounds and actions, and that this new
ability was responsible for transforming an ordinary ape into one
with a big brain, language, a curious penchant for music and art,
and complex cumulative culture.
The argument, briefly, is this. All evolutionary processes depend on
information being copied with variation and selection. Most living
things on earth are the product of evolution based on the copying,
varying and selection of genes. However, once humans began to
imitate they provided a new kind of copying and so let loose an
evolutionary process based on the copying, varying and selection of
memes. This new evolutionary system co-evolved with the old to turn
us into more than gene machines. We, alone on this planet, are also
meme machines. We are selective imitation devices in an evolutionary
arms race with a new replicator. This is why we are so different
from other creatures; this is why we alone have big brains, language
and complex culture.
There are many contentious issues here; the nature and status of
memes, the validity of the concept of a replicator, the difference
between this and other theories of gene-culture co-evolution, and
whether memetics really is necessary, as I believe it is, to explain
human nature. I shall outline the basic principles of memetics, show
how memes could have driven human evolution, and consider some of
these questions along the way.
The new replicator
Taking the meme’s
How we got our big
The origins of
Art, music and the
lure of religion
Creative design has
always seemed to be somehow magical or special. The way it seems is
that clever designs need something even cleverer to design them.
Dennett (1995) calls this the ‘trickle down theory of creation’; the
idea that it takes a big fancy smart thing to make a lesser thing.
As he points out, you never see a horse shoe making a blacksmith or
a pot making a potter. So it seems obvious that design requires a
designer, and that the designer must be something cleverer than the
We now know that
there is no need for a designer in biological design; evolution
works from the bottom up by the mindless power of natural selection.
Yet the intuition remains powerful and drives belief in creationism
and the theory of ‘intelligent design’.
Turning to human thought and creativity, these too have been
described as evolutionary processes (James 1890, Popper 1972),
especially in the field of evolutionary epistemology (Campbell
1960). Yet the intuition remains strong that somewhere inside
ourselves there must be a designer, a conscious mind which
originates novel ideas and creative output. Could we be wrong about
this? I think so. Indeed I think it likely that all design
works from the bottom up – human creativity included. Memetics shows
Let’s take the meme’s eye view again. Think about all the memes that
have bombarded you today, from the words on your cereal packet and
the news on the breakfast radio, to the ideas you dealt with at
work, the emails, the phone calls, the letters and faxes, your
favourite TV programme or bedtime reading. All day long memes are
competing to get into your head. Those that succeed have some effect
on your memory. They may be stored intact or twisted, but more
importantly they get mixed up with all sorts of other memes. A human
mind is a veritable factory for new memes. Every word in your
vocabulary is a meme and you routinely mix them up to produce unique
new sentences, but so are all the more complex ideas you come
across. And if you are a creative person your new mixtures will be
more interesting than other people’s and will set off on their own
with a chance of being copied again. This is, indeed, a creative
This is all that is happening as I write these words. All my ideas
about evolution and memes have come from taking old ones and putting
them together in new ways. It is certainly a creative process but
not, I think, one that requires a conscious creator inside my head.
Or think of a painter or sculptor or potter who trains for years in
techniques developed by others, practices for more years in putting
paint to canvas or hands to clay, and then finds novel and exciting
products emerging. In this context it is worth reflecting that
artists are often surprised by their own creations. They can also be
fiercely selective – destroying their own works if they don’t like
them. Many describe the state of mind in which their best work
happens as a kind of ‘flow’ (Csikszentmihalyi 1990) in which the
self seems put into abeyance and the work creates itself. All this
fits with the idea of human creativity as an evolutionary process
working through human meme machines. It may seem rather sad to say
that we don’t really create anything through the power of conscious
creativity, but it can be liberating, and I believe it is true.
Living life as a
What makes us human?
In the beginning it was imitation and the appearance of memes. Now
it is the way we work as meme machines, living in the culture that
the memes have used us to build.
Is it depressing to think of ourselves this way – as machines
created by the competition between genes and memes, and in turn
creating more genes and memes? I don’t think so. We have got used to
the idea that we need no God to explain the evolution of life, and
that we humans are part of the natural world. Now we have to take a
step further in the same direction and change yet again the way we
think about ourselves, our consciousness and free will (Blackmore
2006). But this is precisely what makes it so exciting being human –
that as meme machines we can, and must, reflect on our own nature.
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