The forget meme not theory

Times Higher Education Supplement, 26 February 1999

Note that this is the version submitted. It may have been edited slightly for publication.

We humans are odd creatures. Like other animals we are born and die, and enjoy food and sex, but unlike other species we wear clothes and cook our food, watch movies, go hang gliding, and read newspapers. Why? Is it just that we are more intelligent, or more conscious?

A completely new answer is provided by the theory of memes. Memes are ideas, skills, habits, stories or inventions, that are passed from person to person by imitation. Like genes they compete to get copied, but unlike genes their competition is for space in our memories, and for the chance to get into books, magazines and television programmes. The survivors in this game are the ones we see all around us. Just as genes have created our bodies, so memes have created our minds and our cultures.

This explains, so the theory goes, our incurably religious nature, our unusual forms of cooperation and altruism, our use of language, and our ability to defy our genes with birth control and genetic engineering. We humans, alone on this planet, are meme machines.

The term ‘meme’ (to rhyme with cream or dream) was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene. The purpose of his book was to explain the power and generality of Darwin’s great insight. What Darwin had realised was that a simple mindless process can account for evolution – without a designer. If you have creatures that vary, and if only some of them can survive, and if the survivors pass on to their offspring whatever it was that helped them survive, then the next generation must be better adapted than the first – and so the process goes on. In more modern terms, if you have variation, heredity and selection, then you must get, as philosopher Dan Dennett puts it “Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind”. And this inevitable process works on anything that is copied – not just genes.

To push home his point, Dawkins wanted another example, and so he invented the meme. He included “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” He mentioned scientific ideas and religions, fashions in dress or diet, ceremonies, customs and technologies – all of which are spread by one person copying another. Memes are inherited every time they are passed on. They vary all the time, as when you tell the story slightly differently, or mix up two ideas to produce a new one. And they undergo enormous selection pressure. Just think how many ideas you have come across in this newspaper. Only a tiny fraction will survive in your memory, and even fewer will be passed on again to someone else. These successful memes are the survivors, and are the ones that shape our minds and cultures. If we could understand what makes for a successful meme, then we would have a whole new way of understanding our minds. This is the promise that memetics holds out – but can it really work?

At the heart of memetics is the idea that memes compete with genes, causing effects that could not be predicted by biology alone. This is nowhere more obvious than in the arena of sex. Sex sells. People pay attention, get aroused, and pay money for sex. The genes made us that way, for their own propagation. But this gives sex memes a boost. They get all over the place, and some of them do not benefit our genes. Take birth control. Pills and condoms and coils thrive because they promise all the pleasure of sex without the responsibility of childbirth. They get an unfair advantage too, by a simple bit of logic.

Compare two women – one with one child and one with six. Which of them is likely to spread more of her memes? The woman with one child has more time to meet people and chat, more time for a career, more time to become a politician, television presenter, or writer. So her memes spread far and wide, including those for birth control and a small family. This simple inequality helps the memes along.

Other gene-challenging memes include celibacy, martyrdom and, most recently, genetic engineering. We all appreciate the threat of genetic modification getting out of control but memetics allows us to see just how and why that can happen. If the memes can spread they will, and given human need and greed they will.

One of the strengths of memetics is to explain not only why we like good ideas, but why false and even harmful ones have such power over us – because they are good replicators. Take religions. Dawkins has made himself extremely unpopular in some circles by calling religions “viruses of the mind”. They sneak into our minds, avoid our memetic defences, and get themselves propagated all around the world, even though their claims are false. Millions of people believe in God, the afterlife, the transubstantiation, and the virgin birth, without a shred of evidence. Why? Because these memes use clever tricks to get themselves copied, just like viruses do. Believers, once infected, will fight for their beliefs, build great cathedrals to inspire others, bring up their children to fear God and go to church, and spend inordinate amounts of time singing, praying, and reading holy books – in other words, passing on the memes. And if they start to doubt, they will be told that the faithful go to heaven – an invisible place you cannot visit until you are dead. No wonder religions spread.

Alternative therapies do too. You visit the homeopath who gives you a long explanation and some water to take. Like everyone else you are susceptible to the placebo effect, and feel better from the attention. So you keep taking the water and are convinced by the homeopathy memes as well. Or you consult your stars, or a Tarot reader, or a psychic. The psychic homes in on your personal troubles using feedback and subtle body cues. If you are lucky she is gifted and empathic and can really help. So you go away, not just feeling better and poorer, but more convinced by her memes and likely to tell your friends.

Like these superstitions, science itself is a system of memes, and inevitably includes false memes and viruses, but the difference is this. Right at the heart of science lies the principle of testing all new memes against the facts. If they fail they are thrown out. This is the ultimate arbiter against which memetics itself will be judged. Unlike God, if it helps us explain and predict human nature, then it will thrive. Otherwise – out it goes.

But we had better start finding out soon. For the memes are rapidly taking off. We might think we humans designed all those computers and phone links for our own pleasure, but from the meme’s eye view we are just their copying machines, and they are using us to design a vast planet-wide system for their own propagation. The mechanism is frighteningly simple. Like genes, memes have no foresight and no plans, they just multiply when they can. Memes that get onto computers are successful and easily copied. Memes that jump from city to city and continent to continent, in multiple accurate copies, do even better, and take with them the idea of the Internet itself. We can’t stop this evolutionary process and we are not, and never have been, in control. We may have been the first meme machines on this planet, but we won’t be the last.

 What is a meme?

“meme /mi:m/ n. L20.(f. Gk mimema. that which is imitated, after GENE.) Biol. An element of a culture or system of behaviour that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means, esp. imitation”.  (Shorter Oxford English Dictionary)

Derivatives: memetic a.,  memetics n. the science of memes. memeplex n. abbreviated from ‘co-adapted meme complex’; a group of memes passed on together, e.g. religions, political ideologies and belief systems. meme pool n. all the memes in a population at a particular time. memetic engineering n. manipulating memes, as in psychotherapy, advertising or education.

Before ‘meme’ entered the OED in 1997 there were many other definitions, from the unhelpfully encompassing “anything that can be the subject of an instant of experience” to the awkwardly narrow “constellations of activated and non-activated synapses within neural memory networks”. But the basic principle of memes is that people copy each other, and copying lets loose a new evolutionary process. From this perspective the best definition must be “A meme is that which is passed on by imitation”.

The tricks memes play

Dear Friend, pass on this letter and you will have good luck for a year.

Have you ever fallen for a chain letter? Perhaps you got one urging you to send money or postcards or stamps, or the more sinister –

Pass this on to ten of your friends or you will fall ill, die, suffer a fate worse than death ….

These memes succeed because they use crude tricks to get themselves copied, together with threats or promises.  Their modern versions are winging their way around the Internet, using up valuable resources for their own selfish propagation. A long-running warning from “Penpal Greetings” begins “received this morning from IBM”. It tells you (at great length) to warn all your friends not to open the dangerous “Trojan Horse” virus. So you pass on the friendly warning, not realising, unless you are very wily, that the warning itself is the virus – this is what gets into millions of e-mail boxes all over the world.

Fortunately most memes succeed because we want to copy them, from useful inventions like cars and central heating to beautiful paintings, stories and music. There are languages and customs, political ideologies and scientific theories. All these count as memes because they are copied from person to person. But what we must remember is that memes succeed because we copy them – some for good reasons – others not.


What the experts say about memetics

“I think memes provide a neat way of explaining some of the paradoxes of cultural transmission and, if they help with explaining something that important, there had better be a science of them.” Nicholas Humphrey, senior research fellow, London School of Economics

“The idea of memes is a meaningless metaphor”. Stephen Jay Gould, professor of zoology, Harvard University

“A surprising number of people these days even talk about ‘memes’ … Absurd as it may seem to imagine the seamless web of culture being disaggregated and transmitted between minds by gene-like replication, even some sociologists and philosophers have become captivated by the metaphor.” Steven Rose, biologist, Open University

“It is an empty and misleading metaphor to call religion, science, or any other human activity a ‘virus’ or ‘parasite’”. Memes are a “useless and essentially supersitious notion.” Mary Midgley, philosopher, Newcastle.

“Memetics needs to come up with supported, unique predictions and/or an existence proof to become valuable. The challenge to our speakers is to provide some support – either theoretical or empirical – for the meme hypothesis.” Robert Aunger, anthropologist, Cambridge.

Susan Blackmore is Senior Lecturer in Psychology at the University of the West of England, Bristol, and author of The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press. The first academic conference on memes will be held at King’s College Cambridge, June 3 and 4. Speakers include Dan Sperber, Dan Dennett, John Maynard Smith and Susan Blackmore