Do memes have the same explanatory power in the social world that genes have in the physical world?by John Maynard-Smith / May 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Imagine that i invent a limerick, and tell it to several of my friends. If it is a good limerick, they will pass it on to their friends; if it is very good, it will spread around the English-speaking world. But if, like the Old Man of Japan, it does not scan, my friends will rightly forget it. Limericks, in other words, like many other ideas, resemble genes in being “replicators”: they can reproduce their kind, and different limericks will differ in their success in doing so. Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, noted this similarity with genes, and coined the term “meme” to emphasise it. The word meme is itself a meme, and a very successful one, to judge by the frequency of its use.
I used to regard the meme as a fun idea-helpful in explaining to students that there can be more than one kind of replicator, and that all replicators evolve by natural selection-but not as an idea which could be used to do much serious work. Genes have clear rules of transmission (in sexual organisms, Mendel’s laws) whereas you can learn memes not only from parents, but from friends, books, films and so on. Consequently population genetics can generate precise, testable predictions, whereas it seemed to me difficult to make such predictions about memes. Susan Blackmore’s book, The Meme Machine, has gone some way to changing my mind. Perhaps we can make the meme idea do some work.
Her book is certainly a good read, and it takes on big problems: human altruism; sexual behaviour; the origin of language; religion; new age cults from UFOs to aroma therapy; the internet; human individuality and freedom. She has also thought hard about these problems. Some people will find some of her conclusions uncomfortable, but they will not find it easy to wriggle off the hook.
Just as genes get together inside organisms to form what biologists call, rather pompously, a “co-adapted gene complex,” so a group of mutually supportive memes may form what Blackmore calls a “memeplex.” Imagine a group of memes which include wearing peculiar clothes, singing particular songs, using a recognisable accent and vocabulary, and, most important, supporting others who share the same characteristics and despising those who do not. Such a memeplex can be disturbingly successful. The reader may think that I have in mind a turban or fez as an example of peculiar clothing, and Onward Christian Soldiers as a typical song. Indeed, religions are examples of the kind of memeplex I have just described, but I was thinking of the memeplex which surrounded me as a boy. The peculiar clothes were a top hat and tail- coat, and the song was the Eton Boating Song. As a minor component of this system of memes, at the end of their first term new boys were examined in the arcane customs they were meant to have learnt, and if they proved ignorant in any particular they were beaten (by older boys).
Altruistic traits can also become components of such memeplexes. What Blackmore calls the “altruistic trick” works as follows. Imagine two memes, one for being kind to others, and the other for ignoring them. Which will spread? The former, she suggests, because, if people are kind, others will associate with them, and thus have a chance of copying their behaviour; whereas if people are inconsiderate, others will not associate with them or copy them. Of course, this does not mean that people will become nicer and nicer, because there is also a cost to being nice. But it does explain why successful religious (and other) memeplexes acquire altruistic components, just as they may acquire the belief that paradise is the reward of those who die for the faith. Indeed, the same successful memeplexes may acquire both components.
The snag with this way of thinking is that it is too easy. With a bit of ingenuity, it can be used to explain anything. This sounds like a more serious criticism than it is. After all, as I learnt when I worked as an engineer, Newton’s laws can be used to explain anything, if “anything” means “anything that happens”: they cannot explain levitation. So can memes be used to predict, or to explain, why some things don’t happen? I am not sure. But there is one context in which the notion of a meme can be used to make our ideas more precise. I have been interested for some time in the origin and evolution of language. This is a difficult topic: on the one hand, our capacity to talk depends on our genetic makeup, and so had to evolve, presumably by natural selection. On the other hand, language has now replaced-or at least supplemented-genes as a means of transmitting information between generations, and has profoundly altered the environment in which genes now evolve. Blackmore refers to this as the process of meme-gene co-evolution. This is such a difficult problem that I find it impossible to think about it without the prop of simple mathematics. Mathematics forces us to say precisely what we mean: you cannot formulate a mathematical model without making explicit assumptions. The discovery of genes made it possible to develop a mathematical theory of evolution, which is a lot clearer than the theory which preceded it, and which answers questions such as “is the direction of evolution determined by mutation or by selection?” I think that the notion of a meme is making it possible to formulate theories of meme-gene co-evolution. I am tempted to have a go myself.
The last section of the book discusses individuality and the notion of a self which is conscious, has memories, and takes decisions. This is the section readers are most likely to reject: I found myself disagreeing with much of it. Blackmore sees the self as a fallacy; that is, as a memeplex with survival value, but not referring to anything real. Here are a few quotations, unfairly out of context, but they give a flavour of her ideas. On memory: “We are just human beings doing complex things that need memory and who then construct a story about a self who does the remembering.” On beliefs: “By acquiring the status of the personal belief a meme gets a big advantage. Ideas that can get inside a self-that is, become ‘my’ ideas or ‘my’ opinions, are winners.” On free will: “Free will, like the self who has it, is an illusion.”
Part of her argument I fully accept. I do not think that there is a conscious self, existing independently of my physical brain, but able to influence my actions. The notion of a non-physical entity able to interfere with my synapses, and thus alter my behaviour, seems to me incoherent. “I” is just a name for my physical body, influenced by the genes it inherited and the memes which entered through its sense organs. But it is also a concept I cannot do without. I don’t think that Blackmore can do without it either. She says: “When the word “I” appears in this book, it is a convention that both you and I understand, but it does not refer to a persistent, conscious, inner being behind the words.” But is this true? For example, earlier in the book she compares science and religion, and concludes: “I do defend the idea that science, at its best, is more truthful than religion.” I agree. But what is the “I” which holds this view, if it is not “persistent” (she will still believe it tomorrow), “conscious” (she would not write about it otherwise) and “inner” (where else could it be)?
There are two contexts in which the concept of self is hard to do without. The first is the relation to memory. My memory is lousy, and getting worse, but I notice that in writing this review I have twice referred to my earlier self-as a schoolboy and as an engineer. Much has changed since then, but there is a physical continuity between myself then and now, and I recognise ideas-memes, if you like-which I acquired then as an important part of myself now.
The other context is that of decision-making, free will and responsibility. Although she denies free will, Blackmore recognises that human beings make decisions all the time. For her, taking a decision is not an act of free will, because the latter requires “a conscious self who takes the decision.” Later, in the context of her choice of a route home, she explains how decisions which could be taken after conscious deliberation can, with practice, be taken without thought. Nothing much depends on the choice of a route home. But there are choices which affect other people, and which may alter one’s future in complex ways, that do seem to need thinking about.
I have an old friend who once told me that when she had an important decision to take she would toss a coin-“heads I’ll marry him, tails I won’t.” She did not obey the result of the toss, but observed whether her instantaneous feeling was pleasure or disappointment, and obeyed her feeling. But I suspect that the method wouldn’t work unless one did some hard thinking, first. I may be too much influenced by the meme of personal responsibility, although I have abandoned the religious memes which were used to inculcate it, but I fear that if we abandon the notion of a self, we may act so as to confirm Auden’s dictum: To the man in the street, who I’m sorry to say/Is a keen observer of life,/The word intellectual suggests straight away/A man who’s untrue to his wife. The meme machine
Oxford University Press 1999, ?18.99