Do memes make sense?

Free Inquiry, Summer 2000, 42-44

Reprinted as “The new science of memetics”
in Think: Philosophy for Everyone, No 5. Autumn 2003 21-26

This is the version originally submitted under the title “The new science of memetics”. It may have been slightly edited for publication.
In both cases it was followed by an article giving the case against by Michael Bradie.

The term ‘meme’ was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 bestseller The Selfish Gene. Memes are habits, skills, or behaviours that are passed from person to person by imitation. Familiar memes include words and stories, TV and radio programmes, famous symphonies or mindless jingles, games and sports, religions, cults and scientific theories. The important point about memes – and indeed the reason why Dawkins invented the term – is that they are replicators. That is, they are information that varies and is selectively copied. While genes compete to get replicated when plants and animals reproduce, memes compete to get stored in our memories (or books, tapes and computers) and get passed on to someone else.

On this view, our minds and culture are designed by the competition between memes, just as plants and animals are designed by the competition between genes. Thus we can imagine a unified evolutionary theory of both culture and biology. The relationship between memes and genes is important here. This is not an analogy. The point is that both are replicators and in that sense they are the same, while in other respects they are quite different; one being stored and replicated inside cells; the other requiring the complexities of human brains and behaviour. Understanding this point is critical for avoiding some of the confusions into which memetics can fall.

Among the many criticisms of memetics are that memes have not been proved to exist, cannot be identified with any chemical or physical structure as genes can, cannot be divided into meaningful units, provide no better understanding of culture than existing theories, and that memetics undermines the important notions of free will and personal responsibility.

These are interesting, but not fatal, objections. Memes obviously exist, since humans imitate widely, and memes are defined as whatever they imitate. The demand for a physical basis is premature. The structure of DNA was not discovered until a century after Darwin, so we may be in the equivalent of the pre-DNA phase in memetics. The question of units is tricky for genes too and geneticists use different units in different circumstances. We can do the same with memes, so that sometimes, for example, an entire symphony may be replicated, while at other times just a few notes are passed on. In this case those few notes are the relevant meme.

More important to science is whether memetics provides any new insights into human behaviour or culture. I am convinced that it does, and that we need a science of memetics to understand human origins and culture just as much as we have needed the theory of evolution in biology. To explain this I will begin with a simple example; Dawkins’s idea of religions as viruses of the mind. A biological virus is a small package of information that uses someone else’s copying machinery for its own replication. An equivalent in memes might be a chain letter or e-mail virus. For example, you might receive an e-mail message that says “A deadly virus called ‘Free Inquiry’ is circulating by e-mail. IBM and Microsoft warn that it is powerful and untreatable. It will destroy all the information in your computer. Pass this warning on to all your friends immediately”. This little piece of information is a complete lie but by using threats (to your computer), promises (you can help your friends), and an instruction to pass it on, it thrives. Religions, argues Dawkins, have a similar structure. They use threats (hell and damnation), promises (heaven, salvation, and God’s love), and instructions to pass them on (teach your children, read the texts, pray and sing in public). Moreover, they use other tricks to protect themselves from scepticism. A child who asks why she can’t see God is told to have faith, not doubt.

This approach also explains something that is inexplicable in purely biological terms – the celibate priest. A true celibate cannot pass on his genes, but having no children means he can devote his time and resources to spreading more memes – including the meme for celibacy, which therefore thrives. Apart from religions, other viral memes include alternative therapies that don’t work, New Age fads and cults, and the ever-popular astrology.

I started with viral memes because they are easy to explain, but the vast majority of memes are not viruses – they are the very foundation of our lives and cultures, including transport and communications, political and monetary systems, and all of the arts and sciences. And note that science has a very different structure from religions. Both are memeplexes (groups of memes that work together), and science certainly contains viral memes such as false theories and fraudulent claims, but the very basis of science is its method of questioning its own claims. This means that science can throw out any ideas that prove useless or false in a way that religions cannot.

This applies to memetics too. It should only be accepted if it provides useful, new and testable, theories. So does it? Perhaps its most powerful claims concern the question of human origins. Humans alone on this planet are capable of widespread, generalised imitation (dolphins, some birds, and a few primates are capable of limited imitation but most other species almost certainly are not). This means that we alone are the product of two replicators (memes and genes), not just one. This insight provides new theories about two persistent mysteries in human origins – that is, our big brains and language.

If we assume that imitation is difficult and requires a big brain, then the following argument applies. Any of our early ancestors who had slightly bigger brains (and therefore slightly better imitation) would have been at an advantage because they could pick up and use the latest memes – whether these were ways of hunting, cooking food, wearing clothes, or dancing and singing. These people would therefore have attracted more mates and had more offspring. So, as the memes spread, so did genes for having big brains capable of spreading (and selecting) them. In other words, big brains evolved to spread memes, not genes.

If this is so, the whole of human evolution has been shaped by the successful memes of the past – both the useful ones and the useless viruses. Language is an example. As early hominids began copying sounds, some spread more than others, and people with brains better able to spread the successful sounds were at an advantage. Gradually human brains became shaped to be especially good at spreading language. In other words language too evolved not primarily for the genes, but for the memes.

Human altruism is another of our odd characteristics. Many people put enormous efforts into helping others who are not their relatives (i.e. do not share their genes) and who are unlikely or unable to reciprocate. In other words these behaviours are hard to explain biologically. These include pacifism, vegetarianism, charity work, recycling, the Green movement, and the caring professions. The memetic approach is to ask why these particular memes spread. One theory is that people want to be liked and therefore copy behaviours from those they perceive as altruistic. Another is that we spend more time with generous people, giving their memes more chances to spread – including their altruistic memes. There are other memetic theories of altruism and they lead to testable predictions, in terms of who imitates which behaviours from whom.

One final application of memetics is to the origins of the self. I suggest that the reason we have a self at all is that ideas that become ‘my’ beliefs, or ‘my’ hopes, or ‘my’ intentions, are more likely to get passed on, and when they do they spread the false idea of a self that holds those beliefs, makes the decisions, and has free will. On this view, all our actions are the consequences of memes and genes competing to be copied in a complex environment, and one result is the illusion of a powerful inner self.

This is where the moral objections of the critics come to the fore. They argue that without a sense of self – with free will and personal responsibility – we could not have effective legal systems or expect people to behave morally. I disagree. We have already seen that altruism can arise from memetic competition. There is no reason to believe we would all behave much worse if we accepted the illusory nature of the self. Indeed many people argue that the self is the root of all human suffering, and that practices like meditation, which aim to undermine it, lead people to behave better, not worse.

In any case, I am not prepared to reject any theory just because it may have dubious consequences for morality and legal systems. If a theory is valid then I will accept it. So what about memetics?

Taking the meme’s eye view can have as dramatic an effect as taking the gene’s eye view. That is, we begin to see the world around us as the result of selfish memes competing to use us for their own propagation, rather than seeing us as rational beings in charge of our world. But is this view better? Certainly the theories I have outlined provide testable predictions, for example concerning the nature and time-course of human evolution, the structure of religions and cults, and how and when we copy behaviours from one another. But the necessary research is only beginning. So we must be patient for our answer – and determined to accept or reject memetics, not because we like or dislike it, but because of the results of that research.

Further reading

Blackmore,S.J. (1999) The Meme Machine, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Dawkins,R. (1976) The Selfish Gene Oxford, Oxford University Press (new edition with additional material, 1989)

Dennett,D. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, London, Penguin