Sometimes an idea is so powerful that it spreads
its tentacles through your whole intellectual life - transforming the
way you see the world. One such, for me, was the idea of the meme,
brought to life in Richard Dawkinss book The Selfish Gene.
Dawkinss aim was to explain what has been
called the best idea anybody ever had - that is, Darwins
explanation for evolution. If, said Darwin, you have creatures that vary,
and most of them die, and the survivors pass on whatever it was that helped
them survive to their offspring, then you must get evolution. Thats
it! Thats natural selection. Its so gloriously simple - so
utterly obvious - once you see it.
Dawkins saw it, and he helped a lot of other
people see it too. Through his eyes the world of biology is transformed,
becoming the complex consequences of a battle between the genes to get
replicated. There is no designer, and no plan. Creation springs out of
nowhere by the power of a mindless process. Far from diminishing the world,
for me this theory enriched it. I have never lost my delight in the evolutionary
But Dawkins ended The Selfish Gene with
a new thought of his own. This dumb process applies to anything that is
selectively copied. Ideas, habits, skills, words, stories and songs are
all selectively copied when we humans imitate each other. So they too
must evolve. He called them memes. Memes compete to use human brains,
books, TV and the Internet for their own selfish propagation. Sometimes
they succeed because they are good or useful, but sometimes just because
they are clever at getting replicated - like religions or urban myths.
From the trivial, like chain letters and school crazes, to the very fabric
of our culture, like languages, political systems, science and technology,
- they are all the results of memetic competition.
I first read The Selfish Gene long ago,
but only recently got infected with the meme meme. Since then its
been busily transforming my view of the world and using me to get itself