The Selfish Meme

  • Years ago, in an Oxford tutorial, I taught a young woman who affected an unusual habit. When asked a question that required deep thought, she would screw her eyes tight shut, jerk her head down to her chest and then freeze for up to half a minute before looking up, opening her eyes and answering the question with fluency and intelligence. I was amused by this and did an imitation of it to divert my colleagues after dinner. Among them was a distinguished Oxford philosopher. As soon as he saw my imitation, he immediately said, "That's Wittgenstein! Is her surname _____ by any chance?" Taken aback, I said that it was. "I thought so," said my colleague. "Both her parents are professional philosophers and devoted followers of Wittgenstein." The gesture had passed from the great philosopher, via one or both of her parents, to my pupil.

    Our cultural life is full of things that seem to propagate virus-like from one mind to another: tunes, ideas, catchphrases, fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. In 1976 I coined the word meme (rhymes with cream) for these self-replicating units of culture that have a life of their own.

    Since then, like any good meme, it has infected the culture. To quantify this "metamemetic" statement, I did a quick search of the World Wide Web. The adjectival form "memetic" clocked up 5,042 mentions. To put this into perspective, I compared a few other recently coined words or fashionable expressions. Spin doctor (or spin-doctor) got 1,412 mentions, dumbing down 3,905, docudrama (or docu-drama) 2,848, sociobiology 6,679, zippergate 1,752, studmuffin 776, post-structural (or poststructural) 577.

    Further searching of the Internet reveals a newsgroup, alt.memetics, which has received about 12,000 postings during the past year. There are online articles titled, to name a couple, "Memes, Metamemes and Politics" and "Memes, and Grinning Idiot Press." There are separate websites on "Meme Theorists on the Web" and the "Meme Gardening Page." There is even a new religion (tongue in cheek, I hope) called the "Church of Virus," complete with its own list of Sins and Virtues and its own patron saint (St. Charles Darwin). I was alarmed to discover a passing reference to "St. Dawkin."

    Memes travel longitudinally down generations, but they travel horizontally too, like viruses in an epidemic. Indeed, it is largely horizontal epidemiology that we are studying when we measure the spread of a word like memetic, docudrama or studmuffin over the Internet. Crazes among schoolchildren provide particularly tidy examples. When I was about nine, my father taught me to fold a square of paper to make an origami Chinese junk. It was a remarkable feat of artificial embryology, passing through a distinctive series of intermediate stages: catamaran with two hulls, cupboard with doors, picture in a frame--and finally the junk itself, fully seaworthy or at least bathworthy, complete with deep hold and two flat decks, each surmounted by a large square-rigged sail.

    The point of the story is that I went back to school and infected my friends with the skill, and it then spread around the school with the speed of measles and pretty much the same epidemiological time course. I don't know whether the epidemic subsequently jumped to other schools (a boarding school is a somewhat isolated backwater of the meme pool). But I do know that my father originally picked up the Chinese-junk meme during an almost identical epidemic at the same school 25 years earlier. The earlier virus was launched by the school matron. Long after the old matron's departure, I had reintroduced her meme to a new cohort of small boys.

    I am occasionally accused of having backtracked on memes, of having lost heart, pulled in my horns, had second thoughts. The truth is that my first thoughts were more modest than some memeticists might wish. For me the original mission was negative. The word was introduced at the end of a book that otherwise must have seemed entirely devoted to extolling the "selfish" gene as the be-all and end-all of evolution, the fundamental unit of selection. There was a risk that my readers would misunderstand the message as being necessarily about dna molecules. On the contrary, dna was incidental. The real unit of natural selection is any kind of replicator, any unit of which copies are made, with occasional errors, and with some influence or power over their own probability of replication. Perhaps we'd have to go to other planets to discover any other examples. But maybe we didn't have to go that far. Could it be that a new kind of Darwinian replicator was even now staring us in the face? This was where the meme came in.

    But I was always open to the possibility that the meme might one day be developed into a proper hypothesis of the human mind. I did not know, before I read Consciousness Explained and Darwin's Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett and then Susan Blackmore's new book, The Meme Machine, how ambitious such a thesis might turn out to be. Dennett vividly evokes the image of the mind as a seething hotbed of memes. He even goes so far as to defend the hypothesis that "human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes..."

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