It’s time I get back to my attempt to lay out a map of approaches to cultural evolution in a limited number of posts, say a half dozen or even less (in my first post I said three). This is the first of two or three posts in which I look at ideas of the microscale entities and processes. In this post I’ll take a close look at Dawkins’ concept of the meme as he laid it out in The Selfish Gene. In my next post or two I’ll lay out other positions while developing mine in the process.
Dawkins Defines the Meme
I’m going to take a close look at two paragraphs from the 30th Anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene (Oxford 2006). First I’ll quote the paragraphs without interruption and commentary. Then I’ll repeat them, this time inserting my own comments after passages from Dawkins.
The book, of course, is not primarily about culture. It is about biology and argues a gene-centric view of evolution. In the process Dawkins abstracts from the biology and extracts two roles, that of replicator and that of vehicle. Genes play the replicator role and phenotypes play vehicle role. From a gene-centric point of view, the function of phenotypes is to carry genes from one generation to the next.
Have set this out in ten chapters, Dawkins then turns to culture in the eleventh chapter, where he introduces the meme in the replicator role in cultural evolution. The paragraphs we’re examining are on pages 192-193:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter:’… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’
Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.
Dawkins says more about memes (the chapter runs from 189 to 201), but I’ll confine my commentary to those two chapters. Before I do that, however, I’d like to quote two short paragraphs from the end of the chapter (pp. 199-200):
However speculative my development of the theory of memes may be, there is one serious point which I would like to emphasize once again. This is that when we look at the evolution of cultural traits and at their survival value, we must be clear whose survival we are talking about. Biologists, as we have seen, are accustomed to looking for advantages at the gene level (or the individual, the group, or the species level according to taste). What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.
We do not have to look for conventional biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual dancing, though these may also be present. Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over. We do not even have to posit a genetic advantage in imitation, though that would certainly help. All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes will then evolve that exploit the capability to the full.
That I believe is the core of Dawkins’ contribution, that the entity that directly benefits from cultural evolution is some cultural entity, not any individual human being, though the cultural entity is necessarily dependent on individual humans for its existence.
Commentary on Dawkins
Now, to the two commentary. Dawkins’ text has proved extraordinarily influential and the word itself, “meme”, has entered into popular discourse, though in a meaning somewhat distant from what Dawkins had in mind. My commentary will reflect that influence. That is, I’m not going to attempt to read strictly in terms of what Dawkins meant or might have meant. I will, to some extent, be reading his words in terms of what others did with them. That’s not fair to Dawkins, I know, but I’m not concerned about that. I’m interested in getting a quick and crude fix on “orthodox” memetics.
With that in mind, let’s start with the first sentence, where he tosses out some examples:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.
Notice first of all that Dawkins is clearly thinking of ‘memehood’, if you will, as a role that certain things play in the processes of society. He’s not naming a class of heretofore unrecognized objects. In the case of the biological gene, there was a fairly long period of time between the coinage of the term (in 1909) and the identification of a physical substrate that could perform that function. That’s what Watson and Crick did in their 1953 paper in Nature. Note also the heterogeneity of examples Dawkins offers. We have more or less delimitable physical things, procedures, and “ideas.” Everything else in the list is detectable in the external world, but ideas exist only inside people’s minds or, if you will, brains. This ambiguity will remain in memetics discussions. Are memes things in the world, things in the mind, or both? Each of those positions has been maintained by someone (see the Wikipedia discussion of internalists and externalists).
Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.
Recall that the book is mostly about genes, which identifies with the role of replicator in the evolutionary process. He introduced the notion of memes as an example of another kind of replicator in another kind of evolutionary process. Dawkins talks of genes as agents – “leaping from body to body” – as he often does. But he is certainly able to cash out this metaphorical talk with a technical account that doesn’t depend of treating genes as little self-propelled robots. He now adopts the same way of talking about memes, they propagate themselves, and they leap. But he doesn’t really attempt to cash out this metaphor in technical terms. He calls the process imitation – “in the broad sense.” Is it the meme that’s doing the imitation, or is it the person. Dawkins doesn’t say, but surely it’s the person who is doing it.
If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter:’… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.
And so now we have a scientist passing an idea on in various ways. But “if the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself.” Now it’s the idea that is the agent, but, of course, we know and Dawkins knows that this is metaphorical talk. But then he introduces his colleague, Nicholas Humphrey, to say that, no, it’s not metaphor, it’s technical. What’s going on? Well, by introducing Humphrey Dawkins distances himself from the idea just a bit. Obviously he endorses Humphrey, but still, “he said it, not me.” And since the both of you believe it, that makes it just a bit more real.
When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.
Now we have another metaphor, that of a virus. More importantly, we have another role, that of vehicle. In his gene-centric view of biology, phenotypic individuals are vehicles for replicators (genes); they carry replicators from one generation to the next.
And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’
Well, yes it is. But is viral replication a good model for a technical account of ideas spreading? Dawkins is asserting it is, without actually having to specify how the mechanism works. We know a great deal more about how the mechanics of viral propagation than we do about what happens in brains.
My chief complaint about memetics is that memeticists endow memes with agency but never manage to come up with a technical account of how that works. According to Jeffrey Burman (The misunderstanding of memes, 2012), it was Daniel Dennett who tipped the discussion in this direction.
Consider the idea of God.
I have two comments here. The first is about what’s called granularity is cognitive science. Whatever the idea of God is – and are we to assume from the capitalization that Dawkins means the Judeo-Christian God, and not just any old god? Dawkins next sentence suggests the latter – it is not a simple thing, it is not a primitive cultural object. It’s not the sort of thing to choose for a basic example. F. T. Cloak (Cultural Darwinism: Natural Selection of The Spoked Wood Wheel, PDF, 1968), for example, was a lot closer to the mark when he talked of the spoked wooden wheel. Those are things we can examine and we can watch them being made. But “God”? It’s too big and too ineffable.
Memetics-based discussions use such examples all the time; the granularity is wrong, my second major complaint about memetics. That’s just not the place to look for the genetic elements of culture. Sure, at some point we’re going to have to account for “God”, and “capitalism”, “entropy”, “soul”, “phlogiston” and a lot else. Such examples can wait until we’ve got some experience under our belts and have a better idea of how these things can be constructed.
My second comment is that God seems to be something of a privileged example in memetics discussions. Memeticists pride themselves on being rational and they believe that human beings are, or damned well ought to be, rational. The idea of God is not a rational idea. That the idea is so prevalent thus requires an explanation. Well, memes, in all their parasitic agency, provide a convenient explanation. Consider Dan Dennett’s TED talk for 2002 (see Appendix 2). The God as virus notion is right there.
We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it is very old indeed.
Dawkins is not a student of either the history or the anthropology of religion, so one wouldn’t expect him to know that literature. I don’t know it either, though I have read a bit of it. And, in a sense, I’m sure we don’t quite know how the idea arose. But is it too much to suggest that, wherever the idea arose, it arose as the modification of earlier ideas?
How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art.
Are we to think that the god meme commandeered the brains of great artists and musicians and commanded them to write masses and paint inspirational pictures?
I’m at a loss here. This is not serious thinking. Dawkins is playing around. That’s fun. Unfortunately all too often his successors decided to work at this level of generality in offering and discussing examples. No one, so far as I know, decided to follow up on Cloak’s preliminary of the wood-spoked wheel to refine it, or to consider other examples of the manufacture of simple artifacts.
Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that ‘survival value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal.
This is important, for it contains what is perhaps Dawkins most important insight. The accounting system of cultural evolution is concerned with value accrued to cultural entities, not to human beings. Whatever problems I have the memetics in its various forms, I believe this insight is crucial.
It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next.
This, of course, is culturally specific idea and is not true of god-beliefs in general. But it’s one thing to find this kind of sloppiness in the context of a core idea that is well-thought out and well-stated. In that context one can simply ignore it. It’s not clear what to do in the context of Dawkins’ meme idea, which Dawkins did not think through very well, either then or subsequently.
The ‘everlasting arms’ hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor’s placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.
Notice that now it’s “generations of individual brains” that are doing the copying. That’s not quite the same as talking about human individuals adopting religious ideas, but, by the same token, it’s some distance from memes propagating themselves.
Again, I’m at a loss. One can’t blame Dawkins for the sloppiness of his successors. And if his insight had been followed up with meticulous attention to well-considered examples of an appropriate scale it would be easy to overlook his own casual treatment of examples. But that’s not what happened. What happened is that people just strung other poorly analyzed examples on the thread of his initial insight.
Appendix 1: Replication and Reproduction
Here’s a longish passage from, Replication and Reproduction, in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. The article was written initially by the late David Hull and then taken over by John Wilkins. This will give you some feel for the confused legacy of Dawkins’ idea.
Dawkins (1976) also places considerable emphasis on human brains as the “vehicles” for memetic evolution. He defines “meme” as an entity capable of being transmitted from one brain to another. Computers are also plausible vehicles for memes. Dawkins’ discussion of memes is, once again, marred by the pervasiveness of the gene-organism perspective. For example, he defines “replicator” in terms of transmission of information—memes leaping from brain to brain or from brains to computers and back again. But memes do not leap from brain to brain or from computer to computer. Their content is transmitted in a variety of ways, including books, audiotapes, conversations and the like. As much as the physical basis changes, the message remains sufficiently unchanged. All instances of this message are equally memes, not just the ones residing in human brains and computers. Memeticists have offered several accounts of memetic replication. Some consider that there is no replication in cultural evolution, but that memes are “attractor points” in culture (Atran 1998) or that cultural transmission is imitation rather than replication (Gatherer 1998). Others consider that the interactor is the meme itself (Blackmore 1999) or that the meme is the selected cultural hereditable information just as Williams’ “evolutionary gene” is the selected genetic hereditable information, and the memetic interactor is the repertoire of behaviors it elicits (Wilkins 1998). One view that has been offered several times is that memes are active neural structures (Delius 1991; Aunger 1998, 2002).
All the objections to the gene-meme analogy to one side, Dawkins (1976: 211) finds the chief difference between genetic and memetic change is that biological evolution is at bottom a war between alleles residing at the same locus. “Memes seem to have nothing equivalent to chromosomes and nothing equivalent to alleles.” First, the usual depiction of alleles residing at the same locus on homologous chromosomes so central to Mendelian genetics is an oversimplification, but more importantly, for at least half of life on earth, replication and selection took place in the absence of chromosomes, meiosis and the like. If gene-based biological evolution took place for so long in the absence of the Mendelian apparatus and still does so in many extant organisms, then just possibly we should not demand that memetic evolution proceed by this very special and possibly aberrant sort of inheritance. The cost of meiosis remains a serious problem in ordinary biological evolution. Demanding that SCC evolution incorporate this same highly problematic element in its own makeup seems strange in the extreme. If we are to develop a general analysis of selection, then we must distinguish between essential and contingent features of this process.
Numerous evolutionary biologists question how fundamental to selection the perspective of alleles at a locus actually is. Almost everyone agrees that evolution involves changes in gene frequencies. However, few go on to add that evolution is nothing but changes in gene frequencies. When one looks at the work of evolutionary biologists, one discovers that it involves much more than changes in gene frequencies. Selection in meme-based evolution must be fleshed out. It remains to be seen how different well-worked-out versions of SCC theory will differ from more familiar forms of selection. And where they differ, it does not follow automatically that the meme-based theory must be modified. One might well change the traditional gene selectionist view of biological evolution. Selection in gene-based theories of evolution was worked out first, but historical precedence does not entail conceptual priority.
Appendix 2: Dennett 2002 talk on memes
Here is Dennett’s 2002 TED Talk on dangerous memes. Though he is isn’t speaking to a specialist academic audience he is certainly there as an expert from the academy. I’ve embedded the video and, after that, have included the full transcript (which I got from the TED site). This talk would be one thing of Dennett knew how to cash out the meme-as-agent idea with a technical account. But that didn’t exist then, nor does it exist now.
How many Creationists do we have in the room? Probably none. I think we’re all Darwinians. And yet many Darwinians are anxious, a little uneasy – would like to see some limits on just how far the Darwinism goes. It’s all right. You know spiderwebs? Sure, they are products of evolution. The World Wide Web? Not so sure. Beaver dams, yes. Hoover Dam, no. What do they think it is that prevents the products of human ingenuity from being themselves, fruits of the tree of life, and hence, in some sense, obeying evolutionary rules? And yet people are interestingly resistant to the idea of applying evolutionary thinking to thinking – to our thinking.
1:07 And so I’m going to talk a little bit about that, keeping in mind that we have a lot on the program here. So you’re out in the woods, or you’re out in the pasture, and you see this ant crawling up this blade of grass. It climbs up to the top, and it falls, and it climbs, and it falls, and it climbs – trying to stay at the very top of the blade of grass. What is this ant doing? What is this in aid of? What goals is this ant trying to achieve by climbing this blade of grass? What’s in it for the ant? And the answer is: nothing. There’s nothing in it for the ant. Well then, why is it doing this? Is it just a fluke? Yeah, it’s just a fluke. It’s a lancet fluke. It’s a little brain worm. It’s a parasitic brain worm that has to get into the stomach of a sheep or a cow in order to continue its life cycle. Salmon swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds, and lancet flukes commandeer a passing ant, crawl into its brain, and drive it up a blade of grass like an all-terrain vehicle. So there’s nothing in it for the ant. The ant’s brain has been hijacked by a parasite that infects the brain, inducing suicidal behavior. Pretty scary.
2:46 Well, does anything like that happen with human beings? This is all on behalf of a cause other than one’s own genetic fitness, of course. Well, it may already have occurred to you that Islam means “surrender,” or “submission of self-interest to the will of Allah.” Well, it’s ideas – not worms – that hijack our brains. Now, am I saying that a sizable minority of the world’s population has had their brain hijacked by parasitic ideas? No, it’s worse than that. Most people have. (Laughter) There are a lot of ideas to die for. Freedom, if you’re from New Hampshire. (Laughter) Justice. Truth. Communism. Many people have laid down their lives for communism, and many have laid down their lives for capitalism. And many for Catholicism. And many for Islam. These are just a few of the ideas that are to die for. They’re infectious.
4:10 Yesterday, Amory Lovins spoke about “infectious repititis.” It was a term of abuse, in effect. This is unthinking engineering. Well, most of the cultural spread that goes on is not brilliant, new, out-of-the-box thinking. It’s “infectious repetitis,” and we might as well try to have a theory of what’s going on when that happens so that we can understand the conditions of infection. Hosts work hard to spread these ideas to others. I myself am a philosopher, and one of our occupational hazards is that people ask us what the meaning of life is. And you have to have a bumper sticker, you know. You have to have a statement. So, this is mine.
5:05 The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are and dedicate your life to it. Most of us – now that the “Me Decade” is well in the past – now we actually do this. One set of ideas or another have simply replaced our biological imperatives in our own lives. This is what our summum bonum is. It’s not maximizing the number of grandchildren we have. Now, this is a profound biological effect. It’s the subordination of genetic interest to other interests. And no other species does anything at all like it.
5:41 Well, how are we going to think about this? It is, on the one hand, a biological effect, and a very large one. Unmistakable. Now, what theories do we want to use to look at this? Well, many theories. But how could something tie them together? The idea of replicating ideas; ideas that replicate by passing from brain to brain. Richard Dawkins, whom you’ll be hearing later in the day, invented the term “memes,” and put forward the first really clear and vivid version of this idea in his book “The Selfish Gene.” Now here am I talking about his idea. Well, you see, it’s not his. Yes — he started it. But it’s everybody’s idea now. And he’s not responsible for what I say about memes. I’m responsible for what I say about memes.
6:36 Actually, I think we’re all responsible for not just the intended effects of our ideas, but for their likely misuses. So it is important, I think, to Richard, and to me, that these ideas not be abused and misused. They’re very easy to misuse. That’s why they’re dangerous. And it’s just about a full-time job trying to prevent people who are scared of these ideas from caricaturing them and then running off to one dire purpose or another. So we have to keep plugging away, trying to correct the misapprehensions so that only the benign and useful variants of our ideas continue to spread. But it is a problem. We don’t have much time, and I’m going to go over just a little bit of this and cut out, because there’s a lot of other things that are going to be said.
7:39 So let me just point out: memes are like viruses. That’s what Richard said, back in ’93. And you might think, “Well, how can that be? I mean, a virus is – you know, it’s stuff! What’s a meme made of?” Yesterday, Negroponte was talking about viral telecommunications but – what’s a virus? A virus is a string of nucleic acid with attitude. (Laughter) That is, there is something about it that tends to make it replicate better than the competition does. And that’s what a meme is. It’s an information packet with attitude. What’s a meme made of? What are bits made of, Mom? Not silicon. They’re made of information, and can be carried in any physical medium. What’s a word made of? Sometimes when people say, “Do memes exist?” I say, “Well, do words exist? Are they in your ontology?” If they are, words are memes that can be pronounced.
8:44 Then there’s all the other memes that can’t be pronounced. There are different species of memes. Remember the Shakers? Gift to be simple? Simple, beautiful furniture? And, of course, they’re basically extinct now. And one of the reasons is that among the creed of Shaker-dom is that one should be celibate. Not just the priests. Everybody. Well, it’s not so surprising that they’ve gone extinct. (Laughter) But in fact that’s not why they went extinct. They survived as long as they did at a time when the social safety nets weren’t there. And there were lots of widows and orphans, people like that, who needed a foster home. And so they had a ready supply of converts. And they could keep it going. And, in principle, it could’ve gone on forever, with perfect celibacy on the part of the hosts. The idea being passed on through proselytizing, instead of through the gene line.
9:59 So the ideas can live on in spite of the fact that they’re not being passed on genetically. A meme can flourish in spite of having a negative impact on genetic fitness. After all, the meme for Shaker-dom was essentially a sterilizing parasite. There are other parasites that do this – which render the host sterile. It’s part of their plan. They don’t have to have minds to have a plan.
10:33 I’m just going to draw your attention to just one of the many implications of the memetic perspective, which I recommend. I’ve not time to go into more of it. In Jared Diamond’s wonderful book, “Guns, Germs and Steel,” he talks about how it was germs, more than guns and steel, that conquered the new hemisphere – the Western hemisphere – that conquered the rest of the world. When European explorers and travelers spread out, they brought with them the germs that they had become essentially immune to, that they had learned how to tolerate over hundreds and hundreds of years, thousands of years, of living with domesticated animals who were the sources of those pathogens. And they just wiped out — these pathogens just wiped out the native people, who had no immunity to them at all.
11:37 And we’re doing it again. We’re doing it this time with toxic ideas. Yesterday, a number of people – Nicholas Negroponte and others – spoke about all the wonderful things that are happening when our ideas get spread out, thanks to all the new technology all over the world. And I agree. It is largely wonderful. Largely wonderful. But among all those ideas that inevitably flow out into the whole world thanks to our technology, are a lot of toxic ideas. Now, this has been realized for some time. Sayyid Qutb is one of the founding fathers of fanatical Islam, one of the ideologues that inspired Osama bin Laden. “One has only to glance at its press films, fashion shows, beauty contests, ballrooms, wine bars and broadcasting stations.” Memes.
12:41 These memes are spreading around the world and they are wiping out whole cultures. They are wiping out languages. They are wiping out traditions and practices. And it’s not our fault, anymore than it’s our fault when our germs lay waste to people that haven’t developed the immunity. We have an immunity to all of the junk that lies around the edges of our culture. We’re a free society, so we let pornography and all these things – we shrug them off. They’re like a mild cold. They’re not a big deal for us. But we should recognize that for many people in the world, they are a big deal. And we should be very alert to this. As we spread our education and our technology, one of the things that we are doing is we’re the vectors of memes that are correctly viewed by the hosts of many other memes as a dire threat to their favorite memes – the memes that they are prepared to die for.
13:58 Well now, how are we going to tell the good memes from the bad memes? That is not the job of the science of memetics. Memetics is morally neutral. And so it should be. This is not the place for hate and anger. If you’ve had a friend who’s died of AIDS, then you hate HIV. But the way to deal with that is to do science, and understand how it spreads and why in a morally neutral perspective.
14:33 Get the facts. Work out the implications. There’s plenty of room for moral passion once we’ve got the facts and can figure out the best thing to do. And, as with germs, the trick is not to try to annihilate them. You will never annihilate the germs. What you can do, however, is foster public health measures and the like that will encourage the evolution of avirulence. That will encourage the spread of relatively benign mutations of the most toxic varieties. That’s all the time I have, so thank you very much for your attention.