On the origin of culture by means of natural selection
Monday 12 February 2007, Darwin Lecture Theatre, University of Central Lancashire
Darwin’s basic insight was so simple and yet so powerful that it has been called “the best idea anybody ever had” – and I agree. Most people are familiar with the idea of evolution by natural selection as applied in biology, but part of the power of Darwin’s wonderful idea is that it applies to anything that is copied with variation and selection. This is the concept of universal Darwinism, and one of its most controversial applications is to the world of human culture. Songs, stories, ideas and theories, technologies and works of art are all copied with variation and selection, and so they too must evolve. Dawkins calls them memes.
Once you look at the world from a meme’s eye view everything looks different. We humans are the evolved creatures of two replicators, not one; of memes as well as genes. The memes our ancestors copied have sculpted our brains to become ever better meme machines, giving us a love of art and music, as well as a peculiar propensity to religious belief. Now these primitive meme machines have created more meme machines in the form of printing presses, computers and the world wide web, and our future is increasingly inseparable from the memetic explosion we have unwittingly let loose.
I think Darwin would have enjoyed the concept of memes. He did not have that word, of course, nor the concepts of universal Darwinism, the evolutionary algorithm or replicators, but he wrote about the evolution and extinction of languages and the effects of culture. I like to think he would be pleased with how his own great meme has evolved.