Books: The Selfish Gene (Part 2 – Memes)

September 10, 2010 |  by

by Richard Dawkins, 1976

Dawkins conceived the idea of the meme in a brilliant finish to the The Selfish Gene. Suddenly, what had been a tightly-focused tale of biological evolution was widened to include another kind of evolution: cultural. The result of Dawkins’ meme theory has been far reaching – and not without problems.

First, the word: meme. Taken from the Greek mimeisthai, meaning “to imitate, to mimic.” Dawkins originally considered naming his idea the mimeme (the word mimetic means “something imitative”), but wanted the term to sound like gene. Therefore meme. It rhymes with “cream.” OK. Moving on..

For Dawkins, the all-important bridge between genes and memes is replication. Just as genes copy (“replicate”) the biological building blocks of an organism through the splitting of DNA, memes – which Dawkins labels as “units of culture” like songs, ideas, catch-phrases and fashions – are said to replicate themselves through the process of one person imitating another. It’s hard to understate the importance of replication to the Dawkins’ model of memes. It is the key. It’s also its Achilles heel…as we’ll see later.

The reason a pop song is catchy (according to Dawkins) is that it makes good copies of itself, specifically in the brains of its “hosts.” Just as in gene theory, where we are nothing more than hosts for our genes, so it’s the same with the meme theory. It’s memes that compete against other memes in a survival of the fittest. We are just the bodies and brains that memes use to spread themselves. I know – sounds like a bad horror movie, doesn’t it? And not to mention (yawn)…it’s kind of boring. I mean, what’s the point? What’s the purpose in all this? To live out our lives as evolutionary stooges – as hosts for genes and memes?

Anyway, this is the theory of traditional memetics.

Dawkins deserves credit for this: he ignited a debate on the workings of culture. And the concept of memes – it’s great, it works (even if ill-defined). Truly, the whole of Chapter 11 of The Selfish Gene has the feeling of something inspired…but misapplied. His main mistake was in transplanting the replication idea from genes to memes. It’s like applying principles of geology to plant life. They’re different things. Apples and oranges. Biology and culture.

But Dawkins loves replicators. You can hear it in the way he writes. It made me wonder if he was so enamored with the concept – and his attempt to unify all evolution through the idea of replication – that he didn’t bother to vet the theory as logically as he should.

What I mean is this: Genes replicate. We know this by studying DNA. But meme replication is a theory. No one has ever seen meme replication. The Selfish Gene is honest enough to admit this. Again and again, Dawkins describes his ideas on meme replication as “analogy,” conjecture”¬† and “speculative.”

In a coming post, I’ll present a model of memes based on resonance. I’ll show why it makes more sense than the replication model – and why it’s more meaningful.


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