WHEN RICHARD DAWKINS wrote The Selfish Gene in 1976, the book presented
a new perspective on genes. Up until that time, genes were looked
at from the organism's point of view. In other words,
the point of genes was to make a successful organism. If the
weather was getting colder, genetic adaptations created a thicker
coat. This served the organism.
The problem with this way of looking at
genes was that over time, scientists have found many genes that
do not serve the organism, that may even harm the
organism, and yet still get passed on to generation after generation.
Dawkins proposed that we look at genetic
evolution from the gene's point of view. Instead of the
genes serving the organism, it made more sense to think the organism
served the genes.
In the book, Dawkins makes an interesting
point: Evolution will happen whenever you have something that
can make copies of itself. As soon as something makes copies
of itself (like genes, for example), if there is any variation
in those copies at all, then some variations will eventually
copy themselves better than other copies. They'll copy
themselves faster, or with more fidelity (making more exact copies
of themselves), or in some way increase their proportion of the
That's evolution. Some things copy better
In the last chapter of the book, Dawkins
says something startling. He said genes aren't the only thing
that makes copies of themselves. We know of one other thing
that makes copies of itself.
The English language had no name for it,
so Dawkins made up a name: meme.
Anything that can be copied from one mind
to another is a meme. The custom of shaking hands is a meme.
At one time in your life, it was not in your mind. Then someone
else showed you or told you about greeting someone by shaking
hands, and that meme made a copy of itself in your mind.
A tune is a meme. And idea is a meme. The
word "meme" is a meme, and if you've never heard it
before now, that meme has just copied itself successfully into
Because memes make copies of themselves,
they evolve. Remember, anything that makes copies of itself will
evolve. Some memes copy better than others. They copy
faster or with better fidelity or whatever. Somehow they get
more copies of themselves into other minds.
One way memes have gotten better at copying
is by joining with other memes in what is known as a "memeplex."
A religion is a memeplex, for example. It is a collection of
memes that more or less work together to get copies of themselves
into other minds.
From a memetics standpoint, a religion
is a collection of memes. One of the memes might be, "This
is a holy book." And the holy book itself is, of course,
a collection of memes. And in this case, because it's a book,
the memes have found a way to copy themselves with extraordinary
fidelity: The printer pumps out thousands or millions of identical
copies of the memeplex.
Let's look at this for a minute, and then
I'll get to my point. Let's say you had a religion going already
(a memeplex). You already have a book and millions of people
already have a copy of the memeplex in their minds.And then there
is a slight variation.
Up until now, the memeplex had a kind of
"live and let live" attitude. But then someone comes
up with the idea that if you can persuade a non-believer to become
a believer, you earn some sort of merit.
Okay, now you have two variations on the
same memeplex: One says live and let live. The other motivates
people to sell the memeplex to others.
Then let's say a thousand years go by.
What do you think would happen? After a thousand years, which
of the two variations will have more copies in the minds of people?
I'm betting on the persuading version.
Now here's my point: A successful gene
doesn't necessarily benefit the organism. It is "successful"
in the sense that it has made lots of copies of itself and is
found in many organisms. But it may actually be harmful for the
organism. For example, if there is a gene for alcoholism, and
if that gene causes the organism with that gene to have even
slightly more offspring that those without the gene, then over
thousands of years, the alcoholism gene will be more successful
than the non-alcoholism gene even though it is bad for the
In the same way, the success of a meme
doesn't necessarily mean it is good for the person holding that
meme. If you have a meme that says you should spend all your
spare time trying to talk other people into adopting your memeplex,
it may be good for the memeplex but bad for you. It could make
you miserable. It could waste your life. You might be so involved
in it you neglect your health, so it could be bad for your health.
You might want to maximize the amount of time and money you can
spend on selling others on the memeplex, so you decide not to
have children. That means the very successful memeplex is actually
interfering with the success of your genes.
But in all that struggle to get converts,
your efforts have made more copies of themselves than a meme
that says, "I just want to enjoy my life." So over
time, it is possible to have more and more people believing in
stupid, counterproductive, and even destructive memes, and perhaps
even becoming more and more fanatical about their memeplexes.
There is only one thing that can save the
world from this horrible possibility: The memeplex of memetics,
of course! I'm only being partially facetious. I think an understanding
of memes and memetic evolution and how it works immunizes the
brain, at least to some degree, from the tyranny and blindness
of stupid memeplexes.
So spread the word. Share your understanding
(you will earn memetic merit if you do).
If you'd like to increase your understanding
of memetics, there are a few good books. I've read every book
on memetics that has so far been published, and I think the best
one is The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore. It is
readable and interesting and clearly articulates the meme of
memes. If you've already read that one, Thought Contagion: When Ideas Act Like Viruses
is also good. It's not as easy to read, but it has really good