Natural selection applies to everything

(note this was not my title – natural selection doesn’t apply to quite everything!)

New Humanist May/June 2006, 23-24

This article is part of a feature on “Meme Wars” and is a response to Adam Kuper’s article entitled “Evolution cannot explain culture”

Adam Kuper provides a wonderful example of a thriving memeplex in the rituals of King’s College Founder’s Day. Every year members of the college find themselves enacting all sorts of odd behaviours from wearing clothes they would otherwise never wear to eating special foods and reciting weird words. Why? The simple answer is because other people did it before them. They may enact the rituals slightly differently, or embellish them a touch, so essentially they are copying them with slight variations.

And this is the crux. These memes – these rituals, communal meals and choral performances – are information that is copied with variation and selection. Not every variant is passed on and so the memes compete, thus fitting the evolutionary algorithm. To answer Kuper’s question, the “big idea” is nothing less than universal Darwinism.

Darwin’s great insight was to realise that when something is copied with variation and selection then evolution must occur. Oddly Darwin himself assumed that languages and customs evolved this way, and then made the daring leap to suggest that plants and animals do too. Nowadays we are so used to the idea of biological evolution that we find it harder to make the leap back. But what matters is the underlying principle of universal Darwinism. This is why Dawkins pointed out that there is nothing necessarily unique about genes – rather, they are just one example of a replicator. He then invented the term “meme” to point out not only that there can be other replicators, but that there is one evolving around us all the time in culture.

This should make it clear that memetics is not based on an analogy with biology; it is based on the principle that copying with variation and selection drives evolution, and this is precisely what happens with rituals, songs, stories, technologies, financial institutions, and scientific theories (to give just a few examples of memeplexes). All of these can be seen as selfish information using us to get itself replicated. In the case of the Founder’s Day rituals all of the actions that are copied from year to year are memes.

Are we supposed, asks Kuper, to believe that their destiny depends on their innate talent for reproducing themselves? Not quite – at least, not if he is suggesting that they can replicate themselves in isolation. This they cannot do, but then nor can genes or prions or learned behaviours. They all need copying machinery, and in the case of memes we humans are the copying machines.

Does it matter whether we think of culture as evolving by memetic selection? I say yes. Humans are a bizarre species, with their language, culture and unique capacity to destroy their own planet. They got this way, I would say, not because they started using tools or language for their own benefit or for the benefit of their genes, but because they became capable of imitation, and once they could imitate a new replicator was let loose. As Dawkins said when he invented the term meme, “Once this new evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subservient to the old”.

In The Meme Machine I argued that once memes took off the world was changed forever, and the genes could not take back their unwitting invention. As soon as our hominid ancestors could imitate with high enough fidelity (and just how high that needs to be is a live question) memes began to spread. This meant that people who were bad at imitation were disadvantaged, and so genes for imitation spread in the gene pool. This in turn meant more memes and an escalating process of memetic drive – leading not only to bigger brains but to brains designed to copy the sorts of memes that had already flourished; brains good at copying sounds, songs, stories and rituals for example.

In this view the memes (the sounds, songs and rituals) are selfish information competing to get copied, using human resources to do so: language and culture are not human adaptations, but parasites that humans cannot avoid carrying because of their capacity for imitation.

This view is not at all popular among evolutionary biologists who still, as Dawkins complained thirty years ago “wish always to go back to ‘biological advantage’”. It is not popular among anthropologists, social scientists or psychologists, some of whom wish to have no evolutionary basis to culture, and others who wish to stick with evolution based on just one replicator. I think they are wrong.

One reason is the predictions that have come true. For example, I predicted that if language evolved as a memetic parasite then it should spontaneously emerge in groups of imitating robots, and this is now well known in robotics, even though the research is not called memetics. Then there is the big brain hypothesis which has been tested with mathematical modelling and computer simulations, and confirmed by brain scan studies revealing that the areas of the brain most enlarged during human evolution are the very same areas used in imitation.

Meme theory makes sense of the world we live in. We humans did not create this crazy, overloaded, dangerous world for or by ourselves; memetic evolution drove the creation of language, writing, printing presses, telephones, and now the world wide web. The memes used us as their copying machinery, and they will go on driving the creation of more and better meme machines regardless of their effect on either us or the planet. This is what we need to understand, and only memetics makes this clear.