Richard Dawkins – The Selfish Gene

Dawkins 1976 book The Selfish Gene is where the term “meme” is first used. The relevant chapter, chapter 11, is called “Memes: the new replicators” (p 189-201), and was originally the last chapter of the first edition of the book.

Cultural transmission is a major characteristic of humanity, but is not unique to man. Dawkins discusses the research of P.F. Jenkins on the the saddlejack, (p 189) a bird native to New Zealand, which has developed a repertoire of nine distinct songs, and for each of these songs several “dialects” have been recorded in neighbouring regions. A particular dialect could be shared by one bird and its offspring, but this is not a genetic inheritance. The song would be copied by one individual from its territorial neighbours. Occasionally, the invention of a new song was witnessed, caused by a mistake in the copying of an existing one. This new variation could remain in a stable existence for years. Jenkins called this origin of new songs “cultural mutations”, and Dawkins supposes that an analogy can be drawn between cultural and genetic evolution.

Dawkins expresses dissatisfaction with the idea that the gene alone can explain the origins of human behaviour, and with his colleagues’ emphasis on seeking out biological advantages in an attempt to account for various human attributes. The concept of Darwinism, or natural selection, he argues, is far too all-encompassing and significant a theory to concern itself with the gene alone. He suggests if there turns out to be one characteristic that may be truly universal in the development of life (universal in the literal sense, as there may be life elsewhere in the universe) it will turn out to be that “all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.” The DNA molecule, or gene, is simply the dominant replicator that we have for biological evolution here on Earth. It has simply no reason to assume it’s the only one though. Cocky bastard. But in the absence of the ability to visit a distant planet, Dawkins wonders if there may be another way to see an alternative replicator at work, here on our own planet.

He suggests that we can find the answer in the “soup of human culture”, and decides to give it the name “meme”, coming from the Greek root “mimeme”, and resembling the word “memory”. In the endnotes of later editions, he gratefully acknowledges that the word “meme” came to be a pretty successful meme, while playing down the notion that he was trying to construct a grand theory of human cultural development. He was more interested in nudging the gene off its pedestal a bit. Among examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, ideas, and ways of making pots or building arches. The meme is capable of being spread in the meme pool, from one person to another, and may be thought of as a type of parasite inhabiting a carrier. It is propagated from one brain to another where it resides as a particular pattern of interconnected neurons.

The God meme is clearly a very successful one and has a very long history, It is replicated by spoken and written word, and is propped up by many works of music and art. Dawkins argues it has great survival value as a meme because it has a great psychological value in the cultural environment. It provides superficial answers to troubling questions of existence and destiny, and comforts people by having them believe that traumas in this life may be rectified in the next. Dawkins is all too aware of colleagues who still insist that there still must be a survival advantage giving rise to this particular idea inhabiting our genetically evolved brains. To counter this Dawkins points out that the mistake that is commonly being made is failing to see the meme as a replicator in its own right, which, like the selfish gene, has no purpose other than to get itself copied. Once evolution had provided us with our complex brains, a suitable vehicle was available and the meme, as a replicator, simply took off of its own accord. It need not be subservient to the gene at all.

Dawkins now discusses the meme in comparison to the gene regarding its development through natural selection, as it appears that some memes do well at copying themselves, while others are soon forgotten. He looks at the three qualities a replicator must have for natural selection to take place; longevity, fecundity and copying fidelity. Longevity for an individual meme will vary from person to person, but successful memes will nevertheless persist in various formats for a considerable time. Fecundity he considers to be much more important, and points out that some memes, such as pop songs, achieve great short term success but then fizzle out, while others last for thousands of years. Copying fidelity is given much more attention, and Dawkins admits to being on shaky ground here. He points out that more complex ideas may be spread from person to person, each having their own different variations, and that which remains common to all may be considered the true meme.

He considers further the similarities between memes and genes in the context of how they may group together. Co-adapted gene complexes have developed in animals, stable groupings of individual genes which get passed on together and can be effectively thought of as single entities. As a comparison to memes, Dawkins says the God meme may be associated with the meme for hell and eternal damnation, as one reinforces the propagation of the other, strengthening both their positions in the meme pool. The meme for faith comes into play here too, as a meme which discourages rational enquiry and a desire for evidence will naturally tend to survive as its viability won’t be questioned. Conversely, a gene for celibacy would surely quickly reach a genetic dead end, but a meme for celibacy would fare much better. In the priesthood, the celibacy meme would stand the best chance of being passed on if the carrier were able to devote as much time as possible to spreading it. Therefore it would have greater survival value than the meme for marriage, which would compete far too much for the priest’s time and resources. These co-adapted meme complexes are therefore very significant, as they take into account the cultural environment (other memes) in which the memes find themselves, and where they must battle for supremacy. Dawkins reflects that whereas the genetic information of an individual gets heavily diluted after a few generations, ideas, academic achievements and works of art can last for a very long time indeed.

Dawkins reiterates the point that when we are looking at the survival of memes in the meme pool, we in no way need to see any biological advantage – memes needn’t provide any advantage to anyone or anything other than themselves.

The chapter ends on an optimistic note, as Dawkins expresses the hope that despite the evolutionary evidence to the contrary, we as a species have developed to the point where we are capable of foresight and true altruism. He supposes that even if we are fundamentally selfish beings, we have the power to resist the selfish genes (and memes) that created us. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators. (p 201)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.