International Congress on Ontopsychology and
Milan, May 18-21 2002
published in Meneghetti, A. et al. (2003) Ontopsychology
and Memetics. Rome, Psicologica Editrice, pp 233-240
The science of memetics faces a serious problem.
The concept of the meme emerged from evolutionary biology and the
theory of replicators, and within this context it is well understood,
if highly controversial. But out on the web, and in popular discourse,
the word ‘meme’ is horribly abused. It is confused with ‘idea’
or ‘concept’ or treated as something ethereal or non-material
floating about quite separate from behaviours and artefacts.
No one can prevent people from using using the
term ‘meme’ in these other ways, but the power of the idea may be
lost, and much confusion may be generated. So I hope that it may be
helpful for me to outline the origins of memetics and the basic
concept of the meme as a replicator in an evolutionary process. I will
then use this to explore the evolution of human machines and of the
other newer meme machines that have evolved from us.
The story begins in 1976 with the publication of
evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins’s, best-selling book The
Selfish Gene. This book popularised the growing view in biology
that natural selection proceeds not in the interest of the species nor
of the group, nor even of the individual, but in the interest of the
genes. Although selection takes place largely at the individual level,
it is the information in the genes that is copied. They are the
replicators and it is their competition that drives the evolution of
In explaining this, Dawkins wanted to emphasise the
principle of Universal Darwinism. Darwin’s fundamental insight was
brilliant; an idea of such stunning power and simplicity that it has
been called “the best idea anybody ever had”. It is this: - if
living things vary in ways that affect how well they can survive, and
if they produce more offspring than can possibly survive, and if the
few survivors pass on their characteristics to the next generation,
then the characteristics that helped them survive will be more common
in the next generation. That is, the members of the next generation
will have evolved in some way compared with the previous one – they
will be better adapted to the environment in which the selection took
place. This, as Darwin saw, is an inevitable process that simply must
occur if the conditions are fulfilled. Dennett has called this the
evolutionary algorithm. If you have variation, heredity, and
selection, then you must get evolution. You get “Design out of Chaos
without the aid of Mind” (Dennett, 1995, p 50).
There are two important features to notice about this
process. First, it simply must happen if the three functions
are in place. There is no magic here, nor any incomprehensible
theories. Once you understand the effects of variation with selective
copying the result is obvious – it is beautifully simple. Second,
the process requires no designer and no plan. It is not heading
inexorably towards anything in particular because all the changes are
the product of chance and necessity. This is because selection is not
carried out by anyone with a plan or scheme or project in mind but is
shaped by wind and weather, lack of food or oxygen, and the appetites
of predators. Biology needs no God. Evolution has no project. This is
what Dennett calls “Darwin’s dangerous idea”. It is often said
that nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of this theory
We are all familiar with how this process works for
genes, but to explore the notion of universal Darwinism, Dawkins
wondered whether there any other replicators on this planet. Since
then many other examples have been discovered, including the immune
system and neural processing, but Dawkins argued that 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 “cream” or “seem”), from the
Greek for ‘that which is imitated’. As examples he suggested
“tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots
or of building arches.” (Dawkins, 1976, p 192).
By 1998 the term had entered the English language and
first appeared in the Oxford English Dictionary, defined as
(mi:m), n. Biol.
(shortened from mimeme ...
that which is imitated, after GENE n.)
“An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by
non-genetic means, esp. imitation”. This means that whatever is
copied from person to person is a meme. Everything you have learned by
copying it from someone else is a meme; every word in your language,
every catch-phrase or saying. Every story you have ever heard, and
every song you know, is a meme. The fact that you drive on the left
(or perhaps the right), that you drink lager, think sun-dried tomatoes
are passé, and wear jeans and a T-shirt to work are memes. The style
of your house and your bicycle, the design of the roads in your city
and the colour of the buses - all these are memes.
There is nothing ethereal about these memes. They are
the very behaviours and artefacts that fill our lives. They are
whatever is copied.
We can see that much of culture consists of memes.
However, it is easy to get carried away and think of all experiences
as memes and this is not helpful. We need instead to stick to a clear
definition. The whole point of the meme is that it is information
copied from one person to another. Therefore a great deal of what goes
on in the human mind is nothing to do with memes. First, perception
and visual memory need not involve memes. You can look at a beautiful
scene, or taste a delicious meal, and remember them in detail without
any memes being involved (unless you put words to your experience).
Second, not all learning involves memes. What you
learn by yourself through classical conditioning (association) or by
operant conditioning (trial and error) need not be memetic. Many other
creatures are capable of these processes, and of extensive learning,
but they do not have memes because they cannot pass on what they learn
to anyone else. There may be a limited capacity for imitation in song
birds, dolphins, and possibly some primates. Chimpanzees and
orangutans may be capable of very limited forms of imitation, but only
humans are capable of the kind of widespread and general imitation
that makes a second replicator possible, and so leads to memetic
We should remember that this new kind of evolution
proceeds not in the interest of the genes, nor in the interest of the
individual who carries the memes, but in the interest of the memes
themselves. This is why both memes and genes are described as
“selfish”. Replicators are not selfish in the sense of
having desires and plans as we do – they couldn’t have – they
are only bits of information, either coded on DNA or copied by
imitation. They are selfish in the sense that they will get
copied if they can. In the case of memes, they will use us to get
themselves copied without caring about the effect on us, or on our
genes, or on our planet.
We can now begin to take on the “the meme’s eye
view” and from this perspective the important question is why some
memes survive and get copied into many brains or artefacts, while
others do not. The general principle might be stated like this: Some
memes succeed in getting copied because they are good, useful, true,
or beautiful, while others succeed even though they are false or
useless. From the meme’s point of view all this is irrelevant. If a
meme can survive and get replicated it will. Generally we humans do
try to select true ideas over false ones, and good over bad; after all
our biology has set us up to do just that, but we do it imperfectly,
and we leave all kinds of opportunities for other memes to get copied
- using us as their copying machinery.
We may consider some examples of selfish memes that
survive well in spite of being useless, false, or even harmful. At the
simplest end of the continuum are self-replicating viral sentences, or
simple groups of memes. A group of memes that works together is called
a ‘co-adapted meme-complex’ or “memeplex”. An example is the
common sort of email virus that urges you to pass on an urgent warning
to all your friends. These messages often warn of a non-existent
threat, such as a virus that will destroy everything on your hard
disk. If you believe them, and pass on the message, this little
memeplex can go on to be copied many more times. In fact the message
itself is the virus. Not only have such viruses clogged up whole
systems, but when people realise their mistake they often send out new
messages telling people not to believe it, and so clog up the
system again. Some of these viruses have lasted for five years or
The basic structure of such viruses is an instruction
to “copy me” backed up by threats and promises. This same
structure can be seen in other, more important, memeplexes too. For
example, Dawkins uses Catholicism as an example of a group of memes
that have succeeded for centuries in spite of being false. At Holy
mass, the wine is supposed to turn literally into the blood of Christ.
Clearly this is nonsense, in the sense that the wine still smells and
tastes as it did before and would not show up as Christ’s blood in a
DNA test. Yet millions of people routinely believe the claim, as well
as believing in heaven and hell, an invisible and all-powerful God,
the virgin birth and the Holy Trinity.
Why? Part of the answer is that these memeplexes have
the same structure as simple viral memes. But religions use other
memetic tricks too. The idea of God appeals because of our desire to
understand our origins and purpose here on earth, and to have a
greater being who protects us. Of course if God could be seen you
could discover that he did not exist, so invisibility is a good ploy.
God can see all your sins and will punish you, but you have to wait
for proof of that until you are dead. And in case you do show an
inclination for checking up on things, you may be reminded that faith
is good and questioning is bad (the opposite of how it is in science).
In addition, the memes include exhortations to marry another Catholic
and bring up lots of children in the faith, or to convert others.
Giving your money away to the poor will raise your stakes in heaven,
as will contributing to the building and maintenance of great
churches, cathedrals, and monuments which will inspire further meme
hosts. In all these ways money and effort is diverted into the
spreading of memes. The memes make us work for their propagation.
Memes such as religions, cults, fads and ineffective
therapies, have been described as viruses of the mind because they
infect people and demand their resources in spite of being false. Some
authors have emphasised these pernicious kinds of meme and even
implied that all memes are viral. However, memes can vary across a
wide spectrum. As a general principle we can say that some memes
succeed because they are good, true, useful or beautiful, while others
succeed even though they are none of these things. And some just
pretend to be good or useful. Towards one end are the viruses,
religions, cults and false beliefs. Towards the other are our most
valuable tools for living (such as our languages, technology and
scientific theories). Without memes we could not speak, write, enjoy
stories and songs, or do most of the things we associate with being
human. Memes are the tools with which we think and our minds are a
mass of memes.
Note that successful memeplexes were not deliberately
designed by anyone, but were created by the process of memetic
selection. Presumably there have always been countless competing memes
- whether religions, political theories, ways of curing cancer,
clothes fashions, or musical styles - the point about memetic
evolution is that the ones we see around us now are those that
survived in the competition to be copied. They had what it takes to be
a good replicator.
The theory of memetics provides a completely new way
of looking at the world in general, and at human evolution in
particular. For example, it provides new explanations for both the
evolution of the enormous human brain, and for the evolution of
language – both of which are difficult to explain on ordinary
The size of the human brain is one mystery. Expensive
to build and maintain, and dangerous to give birth to, it is about as
big as the genes can safely make it - about three times bigger,
relative to body weight, than the brains of other great apes. But why?
Traditional theories look to genetic advantage, in improved hunting or
foraging skills, or the ability to sustain larger groups with complex
social skills. Memetics provides a completely different explanation.
The turning point was when the first hominids began
to imitate, perhaps two and half million years ago, before the advent
of stone tools and expanding brains. True imitation means copying a
novel behaviour or skill from another animal. It is difficult to do
and needs a lot of brain power, and is correspondingly rare in the
animal kingdom. But once it arose, we may imagine our early ancestors
imitating useful new skills in hunting, carrying and preparing food,
or making fire or clothes.
As these early memes spread, it became increasingly
important to be able to acquire them. So people who were better at
imitation thrived, and the genes that gave them that ability, and the
bigger brains it required, spread in the gene pool. Everyone got
better at imitation, increasing the pressure to increase brain size
Once everyone began imitating, the memes were let
loose and could begin competing with each other to get copied.
Alongside useful skills such as building fires, go less useful ones
like fancy body decoration, and downright costly ones like energetic
but futile rain dances. From the genes’ point of view people ought
to be choosy about what they imitate, with genes for indiscriminate
imitation being eliminated. But how can genes ensure that their
carriers copy only useful memes when the memes keep changing? One
useful strategy might be to copy the best imitators because they are
most likely to have accurate versions of currently useful memes. This
gives added status to the best imitators, improves their survival
chances, and so helps to spread the genes that made them good
imitators - genes for imitating rain dances as well as useful skills.
If this memetic evolution goes too far the genes will respond with
improvements in selective imitation, but their response will always
lag behind the memetic competition. In this way the memes take hold of
the leash. This is the process I have called memetic drive. Memes
compete among themselves and evolve in one direction, genes then
respond by improving selective imitation, and this means increasing
brain power and size.
In a final twist, it would pay for people to mate
with the best imitators too, because by and large they have the best
survival skills. This means that 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, colourful clothes, singing, dancing or
painting, depending on the direction memetic evolution has taken. 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.
The origins of language can be explained by the same
mechanism. Questions about the origins and function of language have
been so contentious that as long ago as 1866 the Société de
Linguistique de Paris banned any more speculation on the issue, and
even now there is no generally agreed explanation. The most popular
theories naturally appeal to genetic advantage. In contrast, the
theory of memetic drive is based on advantage to the memes.
To understand how this works we must ask which kinds
of memes would have survived best and spread in the emerging meme pool
of our early ancestors. The general answer for any replicator is those
with high fidelity, fecundity and longevity - in other words, ones
that make many accurate and long-lived copies of themselves.
Sounds can be copied by more people at once than can
gestures or other physical actions. Some sounds would be copied more
accurately or more frequently than others depending on their value in
communication or on the limitations of people’s ears, voices, and
memories. The sounds themselves would compete for roles in signalling,
and in this competition the best replicators would thrive. Streams of
sound broken into separate words would be copied more accurately
because digitisation makes for more effective replication. The use of
different word orders in different circumstances would open up new
niches for more memes. In this competition the highest quality
replicable sounds would swamp out the poorer ones.
Now consider the effect on the genes. The best
imitators acquire better survival skills, higher status and the best
mates. Therefore genes for the ability to imitate the winning sounds
increase in the gene pool. I suggest that by this process the
successful sounds gradually drove the genes into creating a brain that
was especially good at copying them. The result was the human capacity
for language. It was designed by memetic competition and meme-gene
The whole process of memetic driving is an example of
replicators coevolving with their copying machinery. Just as DNA must
have once evolved along with its cellular replication machinery, so
memes have coevolved with the human brains that copy them. But human
imitation can be inaccurate. Unlike imitation in other species, human
imitation is clearly good enough to sustain memetic evolution, but
there is plenty of room for improvement. So we might expect better
copying machinery to have appeared - and it has. From pen and paper to
the printing press, from telephones to the fax machine, and from
computers to the Internet, copying machinery has been improving, and
more memes are spreading further and faster.
We can take a simple example; the invention of the
fax machine. When fax machines became available people realised that
they could get information faster and so they bought a machine. This
encouraged them to send more faxes and encouraged their friends and
colleagues to buy machines too. The memes sent, and the machines that
copied them, increased together - and because faxes get there quicker
than letters the whole process of memetic exchange speeded up. The
same process happened with the Internet. Once email was possible, more
and more people wanted it, and they sent more and more messages. The
infosphere expanded rapidly.
Looked at from our point of view, we might see the
Internet as wonderful technology created by us for our own pleasure
and to make our lives easier. Looked at from the meme’s eye view, we
humans are the early meme machines that helped create better meme
machines for the benefit of the memes themsleves. When you see an
office full of people enslaved by the flod of memes they have to deal
with – typing away all day – rushing to deal with yet more
information – you might reasonably wonder who this is all for.
According to memetics, it is all a vast evolutionary process happening
for the sake of replicating the memes. Today’s information explosion
is just what we should expect.
Finally, memetics has implications for the nature of
our very selves. According to Dennett a person is “a particular sort
of ape infested with memes”. We all pick up countless memes
throughout our lives and these (along with our genes and the
environment in which we live) make us the unique individuals we are.
But isn’t there a real self inside who lives this life? Isn’t
there a real ‘me’ who makes my decisions, and holds my beliefs.
Isn’t there a real self who has consciousness and free will? I would
say no. The self is just a word around which memes can gather. All
sorts of memes benefit by us having the false idea of a self inside.
So the self is just a complicated memeplex, created by and for the
memes themselves for their own protection and replication.
How then do we live our lives if we are just
memeplexes? Some philosophers have argued that the only result would
be a helpless fatalism or deep depression. In fact it is possible to
drop the idea of an inner self and simply live life as a memeplex.
Oddly enough this does not seem to make people worse, or more
miserable, but to be a kind of liberation. Dawkins ended The
Selfish Gene with the words “We,
alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish
replicators”. I would argue, instead, that we are meme machines,
created by and for the selfish replicators. Our only true freedom
comes not when we rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators
but when we realise that there is no one to rebel.