The Power of the Meme Meme

Skeptic June 1997, Vol 5, #2, 43–49

Susan Blackmore
Department of Psychology
University of the West of England
Bristol BS16 2JP

Without the theory of evolution by natural selection nothing in the world of biology makes much sense. Without Darwin and neo-Darwinism, you cannot answer questions like “Why do bats have wings? Why do cats have five claws? or Why do our optic fibres cross in front of our retinas?” You can only fall back on appeals to an imaginary creator.

I am going to make a bold claim.

Without the theory of evolution by memetic selection nothing in the world of the mind makes much sense. Without memetics you cannot answer questions like “Why can’t I get that thought out of my mind? Why did I decide to write this article and not that one? Who am I?” Without memetics you can only fall back on appeals to an imaginary conscious agent.

In this article I want to lay the groundwork for a theory of memetics and see how far we can get. I shall outline the history and origins of the idea, explore how it has been used, abused, and ignored, and how it has provided new insight into the power of religions and cults. I shall then take on a meme’s eye view of the world and use this to answer five previously unanswered questions about human nature. Why can’t we stop thinking? Why do we talk so much? Why are we so nice to each other? Why are our brains so big? And, finally, what is a self?

I have tried to write the sections to stand alone. If you only want to read some of them I suggest you read the section Taking the meme’s eye view, and pick any others that take your fancy.

A History of the Meme Meme

In 1976 Dawkins published his best-selling The Selfish Gene. This book popularised the growing view in biology that natural selection proceeds not in the interest of the species or of the group, nor even of the individual, but in the interest of the genes. Although selection takes place largely at the individual level, the genes are the true replicators and it is their competition that drives the evolution of biological design.

Dawkins, clear and daring as always, suggested that all life everywhere in the universe must evolve by the differential survival of slightly inaccurate self-replicating entities; he called these “replicators”. Furthermore, these replicators automatically band together in to groups to create systems, or machines, that carry them around and work to favour their continued replication. These survival machines, or “vehicles” are our familiar bodies – and those of cats, e-coli and cabbages – created to carry around and protect the genes inside them.

Right at the end of the book he suggests that Darwinism is too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene. So he asks an obvious, if provocative, question. Are there any other replicators on our planet? Yes, he claims. 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 “dream” or “seem”) and as examples suggested “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” Memes are stored in human brains and passed on by imitation.

In just those few pages he laid the foundations for understanding the evolution of memes. He discussed their propagation by jumping from brain to brain, likened them to parasites infecting a host, treated them as physically realised living structures, and showed how mutually assisting memes will group together just as genes do. He argued that once a new replicator arises it will tend to take over and begin a new kind of evolution. Above all he treated memes as replicators in their own right, chastising those of his colleagues who tended always to go back to “biological advantage” to answer questions about human behaviour. Yes, he agreed, we got our brains for biological (genetic) reasons but now we have them a new replicator has been unleashed and it need not be subservient to the old. In other words, memetic evolution can now proceed without regard to its effects on the genes.

A few years later Douglas Hofstadter wrote about viral sentences and self-replicating structures in his Scientific American column Metamagical Themas. Readers replied, with examples of text using bait and hooks to ensure its own replication. They suggested viral sentences from the simplest instruction, such as “Copy me!”, through those with added threats (“Say me or I’ll put a curse on you”) or promises (“I’ll grant you three wishes”), to examples of virulent chain letters (Hofstadter, 1985, p 53). One reader suggested the term memetics for the discipline studying memes. Yet memetics did not really take off.

Why not? The basic idea is very simple. If Dawkins is right then everything you have learned by imitation from someone else is a meme. This includes all the words in your vocabulary, the stories you know, the skills and habits you have picked up from others and the games you like to play. It includes the songs you sing and the rules you obey. So, for example, whenever you drive on the right (and I on the left!), eat a hamburger or a pizza, whistle “Happy Birthday to You” or “Mama I love you” or even shake hands, you are dealing in memes. Memetics is all about why some memes spread and others do not.

The greatest proponent of memetics since Dawkins has been the philosopher Dan Dennett. In his books Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995) he expands on the idea of the meme as replicator.

In The Origin of Species, Darwin (1859) explained how natural selection must happen if certain conditions are met. If there is heredity from parent to offspring, variation among the offspring, and not all the offspring can survive – then selection must happen. Individuals who have some useful advantage “have the best chance of being preserved in the struggle for life” (Darwin, 1859, p 127, and see Dennett, 1995, p 48) and will then pass on this advantage to their offspring. Darwin clearly saw how obvious the process of natural selection is once you have grasped it. It just must happen.

Dennett describes evolution as a simple algorithm – that is, a mindless procedure that when carried out must produce a result. For evolution you need three things – heredity, variation and selection – then evolution is inevitable. You need not get us, of course, or anything remotely like us; for evolution has no plans and no foresight. Nevertheless, you must get something more complex than what you started with. The evolutionary algorithm is “a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind” (Dennett, 1995, p 50). This, says Dennett, is Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.

No wonder people have been terrified of it, and fought so hard against it. It is outrageously simple and terrifyingly powerful.

If evolution is an algorithm then it should be able to run on different substrates. We tend to think of evolution as depending on genes because that is the way biology works on this planet, but the algorithm is neutral about this and will run wherever there is heredity, variation and selection. Or -as Dawkins puts it – a replicator. It doesn’t matter which replicator. If memes are replicators then evolution will occur.

So are memes replicators?

There is enormous variety in the behaviours human beings emit, these behaviours are copied, more or less accurately by other human beings, and not all the copies survive. The meme therefore fits perfectly with the scheme of heredity, variation and selection. Think of tunes, for example. Millions of variants are sung by millions of people. Only a few get passed on and repeated and even fewer make it into the pop charts or the collections of classics. Scientific papers proliferate but only a few get long listings in the citation indexes. Only a few of the disgusting concoctions made in woks actually make it onto the TV shows that tell you how to Wok things and only a few of my brilliant ideas have ever been appreciated by anyone! In other words, competition to get copied is fierce.

Of course memes are not like genes in many ways and we must be very careful in applying terms from genetics to memes. The copying of memes is done by a kind of “reverse engineering” by one person copying another’s behaviour, rather than by chemical transcription. Also we do not know just how memes are stored in human brains and whether they will turn out to be digitally stored, like genes, or not. However, the important point is that if memes are true replicators, memetic evolution must occur.

Dennett is convinced they are and he explores how memes compete to get into as many minds as possible. This competition is the selective force of the memosphere and the successful memes create human minds as they go, restructuring our brains to make them ever better havens for more memes. Human consciousness, claims Dennett, is itself a huge meme-complex, and a person is best understood as a certain sort of ape infested with memes. If he is right then we cannot hope to understand the origins of the human mind without memetics.

This makes it all the more fascinating that most people interested in the human mind have ignored memetics or simply failed to understand it. Mary Midgley (1994) calls memes “mythical entities” that cannot have interests of their own; “an empty and misleading metaphor”. In a recent radio debate, Stephen Jay Gould called the idea of memes a “meaningless metaphor” (though I am not sure one can actually have a meaningless metaphor!). He wishes “that the term “cultural evolution” would drop from use.” (Gould, 1996, p 219-20).

The word “Meme” does not even appear in the index of important books about human origins and language (e.g. Donald, 1991; Dunbar, 1996; Mithen, 1996; Pinker, 1994; Tudge,1995; Wills,1993), in an excellent collection on evolutionary psychology (Barkow, Cosmides and Tooby, 1992), nor in books about human morality (Ridley, 1996; Wright, 1994). Although there are many theories of the evolution of culture, almost all make culture entirely subservient to genetic fitness, as in Wilson’s (1978) metaphor of the genes holding culture on a leash or Lumsden and Wilson’s claim that “the link between genes and culture cannot be severed” (1981, p 344). Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) treat “cultural activity as an extension of Darwinian fitness” (p 362) and even Durham (1991), the only one to use the word “meme”, sticks to examples of cultural features with obvious relevance to genetic fitness, such as color naming, dietary habits and marriage customs. Perhaps Boyd and Richerson (1990) come closest to treating the cultural unit as a true replicator. However, they still view “genetic and cultural evolution as a tightly coupled coevolutionary process in humans” (Richerson & Boyd, 1992, p 80).

As far as I can understand them, no one except Cloak (1975) and Dawkins treats their unit of cultural exchange as a true replicator. If there is a continuum from Gould’s outright rejection at one end, to Dawkins and Cloak at the other, then most lie in between. They accept cultural evolution but not the idea of a second replicator. When they say “adaptive” or “maladaptive” they mean for the genes. When it comes to the crunch they always fall back on appeals to biological advantage, just as Dawkins complained that his colleagues did twenty years ago.

Dawkins is clear on this issue when he says “there is no reason why success in a meme should have any connection whatever with genetic success”. I agree. I am going to propose a theory of memetics that lies at the far end of this continuum. I suggest that once genetic evolution had created creatures that were capable of imitating each other, a second replicator was born. Since then our brains and minds have been the product of two replicators, not one. Today many of the selection pressures on memes are still of genetic origin (such as whom we find sexy and what food tastes good) but as memetic evolution proceeds faster and faster, our minds are increasingly the product of memes, not genes. If memetics is true then the memes have created human minds and culture just as surely as the genes have created human bodies.

Religions as Co-Adapted Meme-Complexes

Dawkins (1976) introduced the term co-adapted meme-complex. By this he meant a group of memes that thrive in each others’ company. Just as genes group together for mutual protection, leading ultimately to the creation of organisms, so we might expect memes to group together. As Dawkins (1993) puts it “there will be a ganging up of ideas that flourish in one another’s presence”.

Meme-complexes include all those groups of memes that tend to be passed on together, such as political ideologies, religious beliefs, scientific theories and paradigms, artistic movements, and languages. The most successful of these are not just loose agglomerations of compatible ideas, but well structured groups with different memes specialising as hooks, bait, threats, and immune system. (Memetic jargon is still evolving and these terms may change but see Grant’s “memetic lexicon” (Grant, 1990)).

When I was about ten years old I received a post card and a letter that contained a list of six names and instructed me to send a post card to the first name on the list. I was to put my own name and address at the bottom and send the new list to six more people. It promised me I would receive lots of postcards.

This was a fairly innocuous chain letter as these things go, consisting just of a bait (the promised postcards) and a hook (send it to six more people). Threats are also common (send this on or the evil eye will get you) and many have far worse consequences than a waste of stamps. What they have in common is the instruction to “duplicate me” (the hook) along with co-memes for coercion. These simple little groups can spread quite well.

With the advent of computers viral meme-groups have much more space to play in and can leap from disk to disk among “unhygienic” computer users. Dawkins (1993) discusses how computer viruses and worms use tricks to get themselves spread. Some bury themselves in memory only to pop up as a time bomb; some infect only a small proportion of those they reach, and some are triggered probabilistically. Like biological viruses they must not kill their host too soon or they will die out. Their final effect may be quite funny, such as one that makes the Mackintosh’s loudspeaker say “Don’t Panic!”, but some have clogged up entire networks and destroyed whole doctoral theses. My students have recently encountered a virus in WORD6 that lives in a formatting section called “Thesis” – tempting you to get infected just when your year’s work is almost finished. No wonder we now have a proliferation of anti-virus software – the equivalent of medicine for the info-sphere.

Internet viruses are a relatively new arrival. Last week I received a very kind warning from someone I’ve never met. “Do not download any message entitled “Penpal Greetings”” it said – and went on to warn me that if I read this terrible message I would have let in a “Trojan Horse” virus that would destroy everything on my hard drive and then send itself on to every e-mail address in my mail box. To protect all my friends, and the world-wide computer network, I had to act fast and send the warning on to them.

Have you spotted it? The virus described does not make sense – and does not exist. The real virus is the warning. This is a very clever little meme-complex that uses both threats and appeals to altruism to get you – the silly, caring victim – to pass it on. It is not the first – “Good Times” and “Deeyenda Maddick” used a similar trick – and it probably won’t be the last. However, as more people learn to ignore the warnings these viruses will start to fail and perhaps that will let in worse viruses, as people start to ignore warnings they ought to heed. So Watch Out!

What does this have to do with religions? According to Dawkins, a great deal. The most controversial application of memetics is undoubtedly his treatment of religions as co-adapted meme-complexes (Dawkins 1976, 1993). He unashamedly describes religions as “viruses of the mind” and sets about analysing how they work.

They work because human brains are just what info-viruses need; brains can soak up information, replicate it reasonably accurately, and obey the instructions it embodies. Dawkins uses the example of Roman Catholicism; a gang of mutually compatible memes that is stable enough to deserve a name. The heart of Catholicism is its major beliefs; a powerful and forgiving God, Jesus his son who was born of a virgin and rose again from the dead, the holy spirit, and so on. If these aren’t implausible enough you can add belief in miracles or the literal transubstantiation of wine into blood. Why should any one believe these things? Dawkins explains.

Threats of hell-fire and damnation are an effective and nasty technique of persuasion. From an early age children are brought up by their Catholic parents to believe that if they break certain rules they will burn in hell forever after death. The children cannot easily test this since neither hell nor God can be seen, although He can see everything they do. So they must simply live in life-long fear until death, when they will find out for sure – or not! The idea of hell is thus a self-perpetuating meme.

And did I say “test” the idea? Some religious beliefs could be tested, such as whether wine really turns into blood, or whether prayer actually helps; hence the need for the anti-testing meme of faith. In Catholicism, doubt must be resisted, while faith is nurtured and respected. If your knowledge of biology leads you to doubt the virgin birth, – or if war, cruelty and starvation seem to challenge the goodness of God – then you must have faith. The story of Doubting Thomas is a cautionary tale against seeking evidence. As Dawkins puts it “Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence” (Dawkins, 1976, p 198) and religions, unlike science, make sure they discourage it. Also unlike science, religions often include memes that make their carriers violently intolerant of new and unfamiliar ideas so protecting themselves against being ousted in favour of a different religion – or none at all.

Finally the meme-complex needs mechanisms to ensure its own spread. “Kill the infidel” will dispose of the opposition. “Go forth and multiply” will produce more children to pass itself onto. So will forbidding masturbation, birth control or inter-faith marriages. If fear of going blind doesn’t work, there are prizes in heaven for missionaries and those who convert unbelievers (Dawkins, 1993; Lynch, 1996).

Catholicism generally spreads from parent to child but celibate priests play a role too. This is particularly interesting since celibacy means a dead end for the genes, but not for the memes. A priest who has no wife and children to care for has more time to spread his memes, including that for celibacy. Celibacy is another partner in this vast complex of mutually assisting religious memes.

Dawkins (1993) gives other examples from Judaism, such as the pointlessness of Rabbis testing for the kosher-purity of food, or the horrors of Jim Jones leading his flock to mass suicide in the Guyana jungle. Today he might add “Heaven’s Gate” to the catalogue. “Obviously a meme that causes individuals bearing it to kill themselves has a grave disadvantage, but not necessarily a fatal one. …. a suicidal meme can spread, as when a dramatic and well-publicised martyrdom inspires others to die for a deeply loved cause, and this in turn inspires others to die, and so on.” (Dawkins, 1982, p 111).

He might equally have chosen Islam; a faith that includes the concept of the jihad or holy war, and has particularly nasty punishments for people who desert the faith. Even today the author, and heretic, Salman Rushdie lives in fear of his life because many Muslims consider it their holy duty to kill him. Once you have been infected with powerful memes like these you must pay a high price to get rid of them.

Lynch (1996) explores in depth some tricks used by religions and cults. “Honour thy father and mother” is an excellent commandment, increasing the chance that children will take on beliefs from their parents, including the commandment itself. As a secular meme it might not succeed very well, since kids would surely reject it if they thought it came straight from the parents. However, presented as an idea from God (who is powerful, all-seeing and punishes disobedience) it has a much better chance – a good example of memes “ganging up”.

Dietary laws may thrive because they protect against disease, but may also keep people in the faith by making it harder for them to adapt to other diets outside. Moral codes may enhance effective cooperation and survival but may also be ways of punishing lapses of faith. Observing “holy days” ensures lots of time for spreading the memes, and public prayers and grace at meals ensure that lots of people are exposed to them. Learning sacred texts by heart, and setting them to inspiring or memorable music ensures their longevity.

In the long history of religions most of them have spread vertically – that is from parent to child. Even today the best predictor of your religion is your parent’s religion – even if you think you rationally chose the “best” or “truest” one! However, today more and more new religions and cults spread horizonally – from any person to any other person. The two types use different meme tricks for their replication.

As an example of the first type Lynch (1996) gives the Hutterites. They average more than ten children per couple, a fantastic rate that is possibly helped by the way they distribute parental responsibility, making each extra child only a slightly greater burden for its natural parents. Other religions put more effort into conversion, like the evangelical faiths which thrive on instant rewards and spiritual joy on conversion.

In case I seem to be implying that people have deliberately manufactured religions this way, that is not at all what I mean. Look at it this way – imagine in the long, long history of human religious endeavour, all the millions and millions of different statements, ideas, and commandments that must have been uttered at some time or another. Which would you expect to have survived through to the present? The answer is, of course, the ones that just happened to have included clever tricks or come together with other ideas they could gang up with. The countless millions of other ideas have simply been lost. This is memetic evolution.

Taking the Meme’s Eye View

We are now ready to take on the meme’s eye view. The basic approach I take is this – imagine a world full of hosts for memes (e.g. brains) and far more memes than can possibly find homes. Now ask – which memes are more likely to find a safe home and get passed on again? It’s that simple.

In doing this I try to follow some simple rules.

First, remember that memes (like genes) do not have foresight!

Second, consider only the interests of the memes, not of the genes or the organism. Memes do not care about genes or people – all they do is reproduce themselves. Short-hand statements like “memes want x” or “memes try to do y” must always be translatable back into the longer version, such as “memes that have the effect of producing x are more likely to survive than those that do not.”

Third, memes, by definition, are passed on by imitation. So learning by trial and error or by feedback is not memetic, nor are all forms of communication. Only when an idea, behaviour or skill is passed on by imitation does it count as a meme. Now, remembering these rules, we can ask the question and see where it leads.

Imagine a world full of brains, and far more memes than can possibly find homes. Which memes are more likely to find a safe home and get passed on again?

Some of the consequences are startlingly obvious – once you see them. And some are frighteningly powerful.

I shall start with two simple ones, partly as exercises in thinking memetically.

1. Why can’t we stop thinking ?

Can you stop thinking? If you have ever meditated you will know just how hard this is – the mind just seems to keep blithering on. If we were thinking useful thoughts, practising mental skills, or solving relevant problems there might be some point, but mostly we don’t seem to be. So why can’t we just sit down and not think? From a genetic point of view all this extra thinking seems extremely wasteful – and animals that waste energy don’t survive. Memetics provides a simple answer.

Imagine a world full of brains, and far more memes than can possibly find homes. Which memes are more likely to find a safe home and get passed on again?

Imagine a meme that encourages its host to keep on mentally rehearsing it, or a tune that is so easy to hum that it goes round and round in your head, or a thought that just compels you to keep thinking it.

Imagine in contrast a meme that buries itself quietly in your memory and is never rehearsed, or a tune that is too unmemorable to go round in your head, or a thought that is too boring to think again.

Which will do better? Other things being equal, the first lot will. Rehearsal aids memory, and you are likely to express (or even sing) the ideas and tunes that fill your waking hours. What is the consequence? The memosphere fills up with catchy tunes, and thinkable thoughts. We all come across them and so we all think an awful lot.

The principle here is familiar from biology. In a forest, any tree that grows tall gets more light. So genes for growing tall become more common in the gene pool and the forest ends up being as high as the trees can make it.

We can apply the same principle again.

2. Why do we talk so much?

Imagine a world full of brains, and far more memes than can possibly find homes. Which memes are more likely to find a safe home and get passed on again?

Imagine any meme that encourages talking. It might be an idea like “talking makes people like you” or “It’s friendly to chat”. It might be an urgent thought that you feel compelled to share, a funny joke, good news that everybody wants to hear, or any meme that thrives inside a talkative person.

Imagine in contrast any meme that discourages talking, such as the thought “talking is a waste of time”. It might be something you dare not voice aloud, something very difficult to say, or any meme that thrives inside a shy and retiring person.

Which will do better? Put this way the answer is obvious. The first lot will be heard by more people and, other things being equal, simply must stand a better chance of being propagated. What is the consequence of this? The memosphere will fill up with memes that encourage talking and we will all talk an awful lot. And we do!

A simpler way of putting it is this:- people who talk more will, on average, spread more memes. So any memes which thrive in chatterboxes are likely to spread.

This makes me see conversation in a new light. Is all that talking really founded on biological advantage? Talking takes a lot of energy and we do talk about some daft and pointless things! Do these trivial and stupid thoughts and conversations have some hidden biological advantage?

I would at least like to offer the suggestion that they do not. That we do all this talking and all this thinking merely because the memes that make us do it are good survivors. The memes seem to be working against the genes.

This sets the stage for a more audacious suggestion.

3. Why are we so nice to each other?

Of course we aren’t always nice to each other, but human co-operation and altruism are something of a mystery – despite the tremendous advances made in understanding kin selection and inclusive fitness, reciprocal altruism and evolutionarily stable strategies (see e.g. Wright, 1994; Ridley, 1996). Human societies exhibit much more cooperation than is typical of vertebrate societies, and we cooperate with non-relatives on a massive scale (Richerson and Boyd, 1992). As Cronin puts it, human morality “presents an obvious challenge to Darwinian theory” (Cronin, 1991, p325).

Everyone can probably think up their own favourite example. Richard Dawkins (1989 p 230) calls blood doning “a genuine case of pure, disinterested altruism”. I am more impressed by charitable giving to people in faraway countries who probably share as few of our genes as anyone on earth and whom we are unlikely ever to meet. And why do we hand in wallets found in the street, rescue injured wildlife, support eco-friendly companies or recycle our bottles? Why do so many people want to be poorly paid nurses and counsellors, social workers and psychotherapists, when they could live in bigger houses, attract richer mates, and afford more children if they were bankers, stock brokers or lawyers?

Many people believe all this must ultimately be explained in terms of biological advantage. Perhaps it will, but I offer an alternative for consideration; a memetic theory of altruism. We can use our, by now, familiar tactic.

Imagine a world full of brains, and far more memes than can possibly find homes. Which memes are more likely to find a safe home and get passed on again?

Imagine the sort of meme that encourages its host to be friendly and kind. It might be a meme for throwing good parties, for being generous with the home-made marmalade, or just being prepared to spend time listening to a friend’s woes. Now compare this with memes for being unfriendly and mean – never cooking people dinners or buying drinks, and refusing to give your time to others. Which will spread more quickly?

The first type, of course. People like to be with nice people. So those who harbour lots of friendliness memes will spend more time with others and have more chances to spread their memes. In consequence many of us will end up harbouring lots of memes for being nice to others.

A simpler way of putting it is this:- people who are altruistic will, on average, spread more memes. So any memes which thrive in altruistic people are likely to spread – including the memes for being altruistic.

You may wish to challenge any of the above steps. It is therefore reassuring to learn from many experiments in social psychology, that people are more likely to adopt ideas from people they like (Eagly and Chaiken, 1984). Whether this is a cause or a consequence of the above argument is debatable. It would be most interesting if psychological facts like this, or others such as cognitive dissonance, or the need for self esteem, could be derived from simple memetic principles – but that is a topic for another time!

For now we should consider whether the idea is testable. It predicts that people should act in ways that benefit the spread of their memes even at some cost to themselves. We are familiar with buying useful information, and with advertisers buying their way into people’s minds for the purposes of selling products, but this theory predicts that people will pay (or work) simply to spread the memes they hold – because the memes force them to. Missionaries and Jehovah’s Witnesses seem to.

Many aspects of persuasion and conversion to causes may turn out to involve meme-driven altruism. Altruism is yet another of the meme tricks that religions (those most powerful of meme-complexes) have purloined. Almost all of them thrive on making their members work for them and believe they are doing good.

Of course, being generous is expensive. There will always be pressure against it, and if memes can find alternative strategies for spreading they will. For example, powerful people may be able to spread memes without being altruistic at all! However, that does not change the basic argument – that altruism spreads memes.

You may have noticed that the underlying theme in all these arguments is that the memes may act in opposition to the interest of the genes. Thinking all the time may not use much energy but it must cost something. Talking is certainly expensive, as anyone who has been utterly exhausted or seriously ill will attest. And of course any altruistic act is, by definition, costly to the actor.

I would say that this is just what we should expect if memes are true replicators. They do not care about the genes or the creatures the genes created. Their only interest is self-propagation. So if they can propagate by stealing resources from the genes, they will do so.

In the next example we see the memes forcing the hand of the genes in a much more dramatic way.

4. Why are our brains so big?

Yes, I know this is an old chestnut, and there are lots and lots of good answers to the question. But are they good enough? Let us not forget how mysterious this issue really is. Brains are notoriously expensive both to build and to run. They take up about 2% of the body’s weight but use about 20% of its energy. Our brains are three times the size of the brains of apes of equivalent body size. Compared to other mammals our encephalisation quotient is even higher, up to about 25 (Jerison, 1973; Leakey, 1994; Wills, 1993). On many measures of brain capacity humans stand out alone. The fact that such intelligence has arisen in an animal that stands upright may or may not be a coincidence but it certainly adds to the problem. Our pelvises are not ideally suited for giving birth to huge brains and so childbirth is a risky process for human beings – yet we do it. Why?

The mystery was deepened for me by thinking about the size of the biological advantage required for survival. In a study concerned with the fate of the Neanderthals, Zubrow (Leakey, 1994) used computer simulations to determine the effect of a slight competitive edge. He concluded that a 2% advantage could eliminate a competing population in less than a millennium. If we needed only such a tiny advantage why do we have such a huge one?

Several answers have recently been proposed. For example, Dunbar (1996) argues that we need large brains in order to gossip, and we need to gossip as a kind of verbal grooming to keep very large bands of people together. Christopher Wills (1993) argues that the runaway evolution of the human brain results from an increasingly swift gene-environment feedback loop. Miller (1993) proposes that our vast brains have been created by sexual selection; and Richerson and Boyd (1992) claim they are used for individual and social learning, favoured under increasing rates of environmental variation.

What these authors all have in common is that their ultimate appeal is to the genes. Like Dawkins’ bewailed colleagues, they always wish to go back to biological advantage. I propose an alternative based on memetic advantage.

Imagine early hominids who, for good biological reasons, gained the ability to imitate each other and to develop simple language. Once this step occurred memes could begin to spread, and the second replicator was born. Remember – once this happened the genes would no longer be able to stop the spread! Presumably the earliest memes would be useful ones, such as ways of making pots or knives, or ways of catching or dismembering prey. Let us assume that some people would have slightly larger brains and that larger brains are better copiers. As more and more people began to pick up these early memes, the environment would change so that it became more and more necessary to have the new skills in order to survive.

A person who could quickly learn to make a good pot or tell a popular story would more easily find a mate, and so sexual selection would add to the pressure for big brains. In the new environment larger brained people would have an advantage and the importance of the advantage would increase as the memes spread. It seems to me that this fundamental change in selection pressures, spreading at the rate of meme propagation, provides for the first time a plausible reason why our brains are totally out of line with all other brains on the planet. They have been meme-driven. One replicator has forced the moves of another.

5. Who am I?

We can now see the human mind as the creation of two replicators, one using for its replication the machinery created by the other. As Dennett pointed out, people are animals infested with memes. Our personalities, abilities and unique qualities derive from the complex interplay of these replicators. What then of our innermost selves – the “real me”, the person who experiences “my” life?

I would say that selves are co-adapted meme complexes – though only one of many supported by any given brain (Blackmore, 1996). Like religions, political belief systems and cults, they are sets of memes that thrive in each other’s company. Like religions, political belief systems and cults, they are safe havens for all sorts of travelling memes and they are protected from destruction by various meme-tricks. They do not have to be true.

In fact we know that selves are a myth. Look inside the brain and you find only neurons. You do not find the little person pulling the strings or the homunculus watching the show on an inner screen (Dennett, 1991). You do not find the place where “my” conscious decisions are made. You do not find the thing that lovingly holds all those beliefs and opinions. Most of us still persist in thinking about ourselves that way. But the truth is – there is no one in there!

We now have a radically new answer to the question “Who am I?”, and a rather terrifying one. “I” am one of the many co-adapted meme-complexes living within this brain. This scary idea may explain why memetics is not more popular. Memetics deals a terrible blow to the supremacy of self.

The Future for Memes

The memes are out! For most of human history memes have evolved alongside genes. They were passed on largely vertically – from parent to child – and therefore evolved at much the same rate as genes. This is no longer true. Memes can leap from brain to brain in seconds – even when the brains are half a planet apart.

While some memes hang around in brains for weeks, months or years before being passed on, many now spread in multiple copies at the speed of light. The invention of the telephone, fax machine and e-mail all increase the speed of propagation of memes. As high speed, accurate, horizontal copying of memes increases we can expect some dramatic developments in the memosphere.

First, the faster memes spread the weaker is the hold of natural (genetic) selection. This relative uncoupling of genes and memes may mean that more than ever before memes will spread that are detrimental to their carriers. We may be seeing this already with some of the dangerous cults, fads, political systems, copy-cat crimes and false beliefs that can now spread so quickly.

Second, we may expect memes to build themselves ever better vehicles for their own propagation. Genes have built themselves organisms to carry them around in. What is the memic equivalent? Artifacts such as books, paintings, tools and aeroplanes might count (Dennett, 1995) but they are feeble compared with computers or the Internet. Even these recent inventions are still largely dependent on humans for their functioning, and on the genes those humans are carrying – after all, sex is the most popular topic on the internet. So can the second replicator ever really break free? It might if ever we construct robots that directly imitate each other. Fortunately this is such a difficult task that it will not be achieved very soon and perhaps by then we will have a better understanding of memetics and be in a better position to cope with our new neighbours.


I have shown how a theory of memetics provides new answers to some important questions about human nature. If I am right, then we humans are the product of two replicators, not just one. In the past hundred years we have successfully thrown off the illusion that a God is needed to understand the design of our bodies. Perhaps in the next millenium we can throw off the illusion that conscious agents are needed to understand the design of our minds.


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