Don’s Delight – The Guardian 13.4.99
Also in the Guardian Archives.
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 Dawkins’s book The Selfish Gene.
Dawkins’s aim was to explain what has been called the ‘best idea anybody ever had’ – that is, Darwin’s 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. That’s it! That’s natural selection. It’s 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 vision.
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 it’s been busily transforming my view of the world and using me to get itself spread.
Susan Blackmore is Reader in Psychology at the University of the West of England, Bristol. The Meme Machine was published on March 4th by Oxford University Press.