Also published at New
Scientist, Archive 13 March 1999
Hold out your arm in front of you. Whenever you feel like it, of your
own free will, flex your wrist. Repeat this a few times, making sure
you do it as consciously as you can. You'll probably experience some
kind of decision process, in which you hold back from doing anything
and then decide to act. Now ask yourself, what began the process that
led to the action? Was it you?
Neuroscientist Benjamin Libet of the University of California in
San Francisco asked volunteers to do exactly that. A clock allowed the
subjects to note exactly when they decided to act, and by fitting
electrodes to their wrists, Libet could time the start of the action.
More electrodes on their scalps recorded a particular brain wave
pattern called the readiness potential, which occurs just before any
complex action and is associated with the brain planning its next
Libet's controversial finding was that the decision to act came
after the readiness potential. It looks as though there is no
conscious "self" jumping into the synapses and starting
This and other research has led me to believe that the idea of
"self" is an illusion. You are nothing more than a creation
of genes and memes in a unique environment. Memes are ideas, skills,
habits, stories, songs or inventions that are passed from person to
person by imitation. They have shaped our minds, leading to the
evo-lution of big brains and language because these served to spread
the memes. But the memes with the cleverest trick are those that
persuade us that our "selves" really exist. We all live our
lives as a lie. The memes have made us do it--because giving us the
illusion of "self" helps them to survive and spread.
The term meme was coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976
book, The Selfish Gene, which explored the principles of
Darwinism. Charles Darwin's insight is simple, yet often
misunderstood. It is this. If organisms vary, if only some of them can
survive, and if whatever helped them survive is passed to their
offspring, then the offspring will be better adapted than their
parents were. In this way the organisms become designed, by the blind
processes of copying and selection, for the environment in which they
live. As Dawkins puts it, if you have variation, selection and
heredity, then you must have evolution.
Darwin did not have the benefit of our modern concept of an
algorithm, nor our tendency to look at everything from fundamental
physical processes to life itself in terms of information (see "I
is the law", New
Scientist, 30 January1999, p. 24). Yet he saw how this mindless
procedure could produce design without a designer. It was the American
philosopher Daniel Dennett who dubbed the process "the
evolutionary algorithm". At its heart is the information that is
copied, or the replicator.
In biological evolution, the replicators are genes, but there is no
reason why there should not be other evolutionary systems, with other
replicators. This was Dawkins's point--that Darwin's insight was too
important to confine it solely to biology--and he wanted another
example. So he invented the meme.
Everything you have learnt by copying it from someone else is a
meme. This includes your habit of driving on the left or right, eating
beans on toast, wearing jeans or going on holiday. You would do none
of these things if someone else hadn't done them, or something very
like them, before you did. Imitation, unlike other forms of learning,
is a kind of copying or replication. Other animals can be masters of
learning, as when squirrels remember their hundreds of food stores, or
cats and dogs build extensive mental maps. But this is learning by
association, or trial and error. Only by imitation are the fruits of
the learning passed on from one animal to the next--and humans are
unrivalled when it comes to copying one another.
But are memes replicators? In other words, do they fit into the
evolutionary algorithm of variation, selection and heredity? I say the
answer is yes. Memes are "inherited" when we copy someone
else's action, when we pass on an idea or a story, when a book is
printed, or when a radio programme is broadcast. Memes vary because
human imitation is far from perfect, and the vagaries of memory mean
that every time we retell a story we change some little detail, or
forget some minor point. Finally, there is memetic selection. Think of
how many things you hear in a day, and how few you pass on to anyone
else. Think of how many scientific ideas you have read in this
magazine, and how few you will remember.
To understand what makes a meme successful, let's take a
"meme's eye view". Imagine a world full of hosts for memes
(such as brains), and far more memes than can possibly find homes.
Which memes are likely to find a safe home and get passed on again?
Highly memorable ones should do well, as should useful ones (such as
science, perhaps), and ones that provoke strong emotional reactions.
Those that fit well with our genetic predispositions should
succeed--so sexy photos get everywhere, and recipes can spread around
Chain letters, like viruses, spread because they include
instructions to pass them on, along with threats or promises. The same
can be said of cults and religions--indeed Dawkins calls religions
"viruses of the mind". They succeed because of the tricks
they use to persuade us to copy them. If this sounds as though memes
have plans and intentions, remember that the only process going on is
selection. The memes that get copied--for whatever reason--stay with
us, the rest die out.
Some people object to the whole idea of memes on the grounds that
memes are not like genes. No, they are not. We cannot pin memes down
to a single molecule of DNA as we can with genes. Memes also vary
enormously in the size of their effective unit, from a few notes to a
whole symphony or from a single word to a whole book. And while genes
use the cellular machinery of protein synthesis for their replication,
memes use the human brain as their copying device.
So if we try to draw strict analogies between genes and memes we
will be led astray. The right starting point is not the analogy with
genes, but the principles of Darwinism. From this perspective, a human
being is the creation of two selfish replicators, genes and memes,
working together. And once we look at it this way, some of the
mysteries of the human mind begin to fall into place.
For example, why do we have language, a complex culture and such an
enormous brains? These evolutionary developments did not come cheap.
We can speak only because our neck, mouth and brain have been
completely restructured. In proportion to our body mass, our brain is
three times as large as that of our nearest relatives. This huge organ
is dangerous and painful to give birth to, expensive to build and, in
a resting human, uses about 20 per cent of the body's energy even
though it is just 2 per cent of the body's weight. There must be some
reason for all this evolutionary expense.
Early theorists suggested that our bigger-brained ancestors survived
because they were better at hunting or finding food, while more modern
theories emphasise complex social pressures. For example, the
Machiavellian intelligence hypothesis suggests that our ancestors
needed a larger brain to deceive others, detect deception, and
remember who had done what to whom (see "Liar!
Liar!", New Scientist, 14 February 1998, p 22). According to
psychologist Robin Dunbar of the University of Liverpool, the function
of language is gossip, and gossip is a substitute for grooming for
keeping large social groups together. Other theories emphasise the use
of symbols and their importance in communication.
These theories all have something important in common. They assume
that the ultimate function of the human brain and of language is to
serve the genes. If you are a Darwinian, you might think that this is
the only possible answer because design for a function can only be the
result of natural selection working through genes. Yet that would be
to take too narrow a view of Darwinism, for genes are not necessarily
the only replicators. Once you allow the idea that memes have been
coevolving with genes, a new possibility opens up--that the human
brain and language evolved not to spread genes, but to spread memes.
It could have worked like this. Members of a species of early
hominid acquired the difficult and rare skill of imitating each other.
At first they imitated things important for survival, such as new ways
of carrying food, hunting or making tools. Since these skills helped
them survive, it made sense for everyone else to imitate the best
imitators, and also to try to mate with them. This meant that genes
for being good at imitation spread and, since imitation is difficult
and requires a large brain, brain size increased.
And as early humans became ever more skilful imitators, any meme
that was good at getting itself copied, for whatever reason, would
tend to spread. The practice of copying sounds for communication was
one of the more useful memes for humans. Sound can be used to transfer
memes to many people at once. If it can be grouped into distinct
units--as it is with words--then the copying fidelity is improved, and
memes will spread farther and more easily without being corrupted.
If variations of word order can be copied, then more niches for
memes open up, allowing more memes to spread. As people both imitate,
and try to mate with, the best imitators, the ability to copy complex
words in precise orders will be spread, both memetically and
genetically. In other words, by what we might call "memetic
driving", the memes put pressure on the genes to create ever
better apparatus for spreading them. This means big brains designed
especially for language.
This process might seem unfamiliar, but in fact something similar
occurred long ago, when genes coevolved with the cellular mechanisms
that copy them. In their new book The Origins of Life, John
Maynard-Smith and Eörs Szathmáry urge us to view life on the largest
scale, starting with the first simple replicating molecules. They
describe all the major changes in the way information is transmitted,
copied and stored. The appearance of memes can be seen as the latest
stage in this evolutionary process. It explains the appearance of a
species capable of language and complex culture. We are meme machines.
What's more, this process has not stopped. It is still creating new
meme-copying devices. While human language is a vast system for
transmitting memes with high fidelity, it took the invention of
writing to enable memes to be stored. Now telephones, fax machines,
photocopiers, computers and the Internet all increase the speed and
ease of meme-replication. We may think that we invented all these
machines for our own convenience, but once memes got going, these
devices--or something like them--were inevitable. The real driving
force is the evolutionary algorithm. And the real beneficiaries are
not us but the selfish memes.
Just as selfish genes group together for mutual protection, so
whenever memes can propagate better as part of a group than on their
own they form co-adapted meme complexes, or memeplexes. Memeplexes
include languages, religions, scientific theories, political
ideologies and belief systems such as acupuncture or astrology. Like
memes, memeplexes spread as long there is some reason for them to be
copied. Some are true or useful, others are copied despite being
These vast memeplexes, with their varied means of propagation, form
the very stuff of our lives. Yet there is one memeplex, perhaps the
most powerful of all, that we readily overlook. That is our own
familiar self. Like other animals, we have a body image--a plan of our
body used for organising sensations and planning skilled actions. We
also have, as some other animals do, the ability to recognise other
individuals and understand that they, too, have desires and plans. So
far so good--but now we add the capacity to imitate, the use of
language and the word "I".
Heart of the selfplex
At first "I" may mean just "this body", but soon
it begins to change. We say "I like ice cream", "I
can't stand shopping malls", "I want to be famous", or
"I believe in Father Christmas". And the "I" no
longer refers just to a body, but to some imagined inner self that has
intentions, possessions, fears, beliefs and aspirations.
This "I" forms the heart of the selfplex. And all the
memes in your selfplex thrive because you work to defend them in
arguments, to promote them in discussions, perhaps even to write about
them in books and articles. In this way these self-related memes
succeed where others fail, and so the selfplex grows.
Once the "self" has begun to form, it meets each new idea
it comes across with "Yes, I agree with this" or "No, I
don't like that". Although each self is unique in the body it
describes as "mine", and in the ideas it picks up along the
way, those ideas are all memes and the self offers them a safe haven.
I think modern neuroscience makes it clear that the self cannot be
what it appears to be. We may feel as though we have a special little
"me" inside, who has sensations and consciousness, who lives
my life, and makes my decisions. Yet, this does not fit with what we
know about the brain. Look inside a brain and what do you see? There
is no central place into which all the impressions come and from where
the orders go out. Rather, there is a massive processing system
dealing with numerous things at once, only very few of which ever
It may feel as though "my" consciousness starts the
actions this body performs, but as Libet's experiments showed,
conscious awareness takes about half a second to build up, far too
long for it to initiate reactions to a fast changing world. And the
brain is constantly being changed by everything that happens to it, so
that "I" am not the same as I was ten years, or even a few
There is a long and venerable tradition of thinkers who have
rejected the idea of a real and persistent self. The Buddha proclaimed
that actions and their consequences exist, but that the person who
acts does not. According to the Buddhist doctrine of anatta,
the self is more like an ever-changing construction than a solid
entity. The 18th-century philosopher David Hume likened the self to a
bundle of sensations tied together by a common history.
Using more contemporary metaphors, Dennett argues that the brain
builds multiple drafts of what is happening as information flows
through its parallel networks. One of these drafts becomes the story
we tell ourselves and includes the idea of an author of the story, or
a user of the brain's virtual machine--consciousness is a "benign
user illusion". So rather than being a permanent, persisting
entity, the self may be more like a story about a self that does not
I believe these ideas have implications for the way we live. As
society becomes more complex, and memes spread faster and farther, so
our selves become more complicated. The unhappiness, desperation and
psychological ill-health of many modern people may reflect the fact
that increasing numbers of memes are using our poor over-stretched
brains to construct a false self for their own propagation. Perhaps
the user illusion is not so benign after all. Some would even say that
belief in a permanent self is the cause of all human suffering--of
fear, jealousy, hatred and unkindness.
But is it possible to live life without the illusion? One way might
be to calm your mind. Techniques such as meditation, say, can still
the memes that are constantly competing for your brain space, forcing
you to keep thinking. Long traditions of training in meditation show
this is possible: that years of practice can bring emptiness,
compassion and clarity of mind. Meditation, at its simplest, consists
of just sitting quietly and clearing the mind of all thoughts, and
then, when more arise, just letting them go.
Meditation is itself a meme, but is, if you like, a meme-clearing
meme. Its effect is not to obliterate all awareness, but rather to
create an awareness that is more spacious and open, and seems, perhaps
paradoxically, to be without a self who is experiencing it.
If this memetic analysis is correct, the choices you make are not
made by an inner self who has free will, but are just the consequence
of the replicators playing out their competition in a particular
environment. In the process they create the illusion of a self who is
Dawkins ends The Selfish Gene with his famous claim that:
"We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish
replicators". Yet, if we take his idea of memes seriously, and
push it to its logical conclusion, we find that there is no one left
SUSAN BLACKMORE is a lecturer in psychology at the University of
the West of England, Bristol. Her new book, The Meme Machine, is
published by Oxford University Press and will be reviewed next week
From New Scientist, 13 March 1999
Copyright New Scientist, RBI Limited 1999