The Psychologist, 12, No 12, 599, 1999
Note – This is the version I originally submitted. It may have been slightly edited for publication.
The Millennium is a strange collection of surprisingly powerful memes.
Memes, in case you have not come across Richard Dawkins’s (1976) term for cultural replicators, are ideas, habits, skills, or behaviours that are passed from person to person by imitation. In other words, they are information copied by humans and selected in the harsh evolutionary environment of culture. Some, like Vivaldi’s “Four Seasons” are enormously successful while others, like that tune you heard last night and can’t quite remember, are failures. Some of these selfish memes survive because they are true, or beautiful, or useful, but many survive even though they are not.
We all know that the number 2000 is arbitrary, relevant in only one calendar, and doesn’t even mark 2000 years from the birth of the founder of a religion. Yet this is no reason to prevent its successful replication. I know from long years of research on psychic phenomena and New Age claims, that the success of an idea is not determined just by its truth, beauty or usefulness. Astrology thrives, though it’s provably false. Alternative therapies replicate whether effective or not (Blackmore, 1999).
So why are Millennium memes so successful ? One reason is that we humans like to construct categories and give them handy markers. Like the sun signs of astrology, or the bumps in phrenology, the end of a millennium is arbitrary, but once invented is hard to ignore. We expect life to be different after Y2K. Rituals to mark transitions are a common human activity and we are all searching for our own special ritual for “the night”.
But what interests me most is how these memes control the flow of vast amounts of money and other resources. In one way this seems bizarre – that a number of no intrinsic significance is directing the use of billions of pounds and the behaviour of millions of apparently intelligent people. But from the memetic perspective this is just what we should expect, because competition between memes is the driving force of culture.
The most powerful millennial meme is the bug itself. This habit of using two digits to represent dates when four are needed, thrived in the chaotic information explosion of the late twentieth century. As computers rapidly increased in power, they provided homes for more and more competing memes in a vast new evolutionary process. The bug survived because there was no pressing reason for getting rid of it. In the 1980s, and even the 70s a few brave souls tried to alert people to the danger, but were ignored. So the meme spread.
The important thing to remember is that replicators cannot look ahead. The fact that genes have no foresight explains, among other things, why our eyes are wired up back to front, and why big brains evolved in a creature with such a narrow pelvis. Once evolution had set off on one tack, there was no God to say “Hey, wait a minute, go back and wire that up the other way around”. Natural selection has to work with whatever is available. Memetic selection is the same, and the Millennium Bug is one (very expensive) result.
But – you may object – we conscious human beings have real foresight, and can intervene with our free will and consciousness. But can we really? That depends on how far you are prepared to push Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Dennett, 1995), and its application to memes. As far as I am concerned we humans are the product of two replicators – memes and genes – fighting it out to survive in a complex environment, and nothing more. Any sense that we can stand outside the process and change it, is pure illusion. If you doubt this, just consider the devastating power of the Millennial memes.
Blackmore,S.J. (1999) The Meme Machine, Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Dawkins,R. (1976) The Selfish Gene Oxford, Oxford University Press
Dennett,D. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, London, Penguin