From gene to meme

The concept ‘meme’ (from the Greek mimema, imitated thing) was introduced by biologist Richard Dawkins in his The Selfish Gene (1976). His central message was that, following Darwin’s theory, we can look at evolution by natural selection from the angle of the individual (the traditional way), but also from the angle of the gene. We are created by our genes, Mr Dawkins argues, and our genes are survivors in a competitive battle that, for some of them, has been going on for a million years or more. A successful gene is ruthlessly selfish in trying to achieve its own goals. Genes can adopt certain altruistic behaviour, but only if this is the best way to reach its selfish goals. All this, says Mr Dawkins, is a statement of fact (about how evolution actually works), not a moral statement of what ought to be the case.

He added to his book a chapter on ‘Memes: the new replicators’. It opened a discussion whether, and how, the spreading of ideas and cultural aspects can (or even should) be explained on the basis of evolutionary principles. According to Dawkins the meme, like the gene, evolves in accordance with the principles of natural selection: random variation, differences in fitness between ‘units’, selective pressure and selection, mutation, and hereditary transmission or replication. The meme, in Dawkins’ view, is a unit or building-block (comparable to the gene, but not identical) that transmits by means of replication. His original definition of a meme is not very specific: “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”. He mentioned some examples of memes: tunes, ideas, fashions in clothes, ways of making pots, or the belief in a life after death.

While genes propagate themselves from a parent-body to a child-body via sperm or egg, memes propagate themselves by ‘leaping’ from brain to brain via processes of imitation. What Dawkins basically says is that, taking the example of a tune, cultural transmission and evolution do not operate through the conscious person hearing, learning and repeating the tune (or teaching it to his children); instead it is the tune-meme that (as selfish in wanting to survive as the gene is) propagates itself. Though the conscious person is doing the imitating, it is the meme as a replicator that is the proper agent. Dawkins explicitly added, therefore, that a meme is a real living structure, physically taking root in the brain. In a similar way as I may sniff up a bacillus, which then like a parasite plants itself in my body and gives me a cold, I may sniff up some idea or tune, which as a meme then plants itself in my brain, staying there, forever changing my mental disposition, and waiting for an opportunity to replicate itself into another brain. It is not difficult to see that Dawkins’ advanced biology in a way ‘materialised’ Plato’s concept of a separate world of ideas.

A meme needs the human brain, and the human memory, to ‘live on’. In this, it is no different from any separate element from collective memory, which is passed on by means of social learning or imitation. The famous biologist Ernst Mayr remarked that, in his view, the ‘meme’ is an unnecessary synonym for ‘a concept’; for concepts, too, it holds true that they are not restricted to one person and are often in use for several generations or even for many centuries, being successfully transmitted again and again. So why would we need the meme, Mayr asked?

Memes can, and do, cluster. A political ideology is seen as a cluster of memes (a ‘meme complex’) replicating and adapting together. This would imply that, like all memes, political ideologies or doctrines are hereditary. However, as we know, people regularly free themselves from a doctrine, or change over to another one, which means that the concept of heredity loses much of its force.

Because the meme theory links heredity to the transmission of ideas and thoughts, and also assumes that in the process the mental abilities of humans improve, it introduces an element of Lamarckism in its Darwinian lay out.

Dawkins’ meme concept has received prominent support from E.O. Wilson and Daniel Dennett. On the other hand it has received severe criticism from John Gray and Ernst Mayr.

Although it is most interesting as a subject of speculation, I see several reasons to criticize the concept. To begin with, the meme as a replicator is all about copying and imitation. That takes away the idea’s originality. Dawkins does allow for the combination and recombination by a person of different memes to construct new ones. However, such (re)combination seriously inflates originality, turning the conviction of having found an original idea, all by oneself, into an illusion. Religious ‘convictions’ too are, in this view, mere combinations of existing memes, which more or less denies the possibility of genuine religious feeling. Here we see what biological reductionism does. For some reason, Dawkins believes it is necessary to reject a social or cultural explanation of learning, idea-transmission, or the forming of believes, in favour of a biological explanation. Such biological reductionism is, of course, not forbidden, but there should be a convincing reason for it.

Proponents of the meme theory seem to think that the simpler the meme, the faster it will propagate. This can mean two things: a ‘race to the bottom’ (because the simple ideas have an advantage over complex ones, and the most complex ones will be eliminated), or some kind of ‘digitalisation’ of ideas (splitting them up into small units, or ‘digits’).

A major weakness of the theory, I believe, is that it is not at all clear about the relation between a meme and an idea. Sometimes the idea is seen as a sort of a meme; and sometimes the idea is designated as the stimulus leading to the transmission of a meme. At other times one gains the impression that the meme is the transmitter (a unit of transport) and the idea the content that is being transmitted. Dawkins himself seems to believe that a meme can be a hereditary unit (replicator) as well as an idea. This, however, would mean that the idea would no longer be something you can, freely, accept or reject, or feel rather indifferent about, or return to after an earlier rejection. Ideas are mind changes, they are fluid or plastic. Even the idea we copy from someone else we still can change as we will, to be able to call it our own. A previous indoctrination can be broken, as experience shows.

Maybe the most interesting part of Dawkins’ vision is his remark that, because of man’s cultural evolution by means of this new replicator (the meme), an evolutionary change is achieved at a pace previously unknown. This speeding up of evolution obviously translates into increasing cultural complexity. But how can this growing complexity of ideas be explained if mental evolution is still – as Dawkins seems to think – bound by the original and slow mechanisms of material evolution?