Fascinating parallels exist between the way biological life has evolved and the more recent and rapid evolution of human ideas, thoughts, and mental constructs. The latter are known to an increasing body of specialists as “memes”. These specialists are applying memetic analysis to existing disciplines in the social sciences with interesting results. Basically what is involved is the methodical application of evolutionary theory to history, political science, and a host of other social sciences.
This essay describes the nature of the meme and suggests a need for greater clarity as to just what we are talking about. The social sciences need to agree on a phylogenetic structure for memes, and a classification system analogous to the Linnaean sytem for classifying living things. Once we have those structures more or less in place, our capacity to understand our mental workings, our personal and institutional relations, and a host of other aspects of human nature and behavior should be substantially enhanced.
The concept of the meme is not just for the specialist. It describes a new life form that had to wait for the advent of our own species before it could take off. So there is in fact something special about humanity after all, something that separates us from other forms of animal life. We descend from apes to be sure, but we are different; unlike other creatures we have spawned a new form of life. The implications, it seems, ought to be considered by philosophers and humanists as well as social scientists.
A Different Form of Life:
Is there a single operative principle underlying the evolution of living things? According to Richard Dawkins, Oxford don, zoologist, ethologist, and author of The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker, it is this: “all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities”. The first requirement is an entity that is capable of replicating itself. Put it in an environment where it is able to replicate itself, and soon you have a lot of copies. They are not all exact copies; a little variation creeps in over time. Some copies are better suited to the environment than others. Natural selection takes over, and evolution is off and running.
Evolution is random. Beyond the simple principle outlined above there is no purpose, no direction, no inherent system or order. All the enormous variety of our planetary flora and fauna can be explained on the basis of individual biological entities getting a jump on the competition through small variations that gave them a competitive advantage in the particular environment they inhabited.
In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins pointed out that there is a replicating thing that exists only in the realm of ideas. It is a mental construct and it can be recognized as an idea, an approach, a technique–or a melody, a joke, a fashion, or a style. He calls this kind of thing a “meme”. Memes start in an individual human mind and pass on through replication into other minds, where they join with other memes while competing for space in the finite universe in which they exist. In short, memes replicate, compete, and survive or die, all in the space provided by human thought and records. If one can accept the counterintuitive notion that life can exist in other than biological forms, the only requirement being “the differential survival of replicating entities” then memes qualify as another form of life.
The creatures of the land, sea, and air originated in a vast ocean of inorganic chemicals. It took them a very long time, billions of years, to evolve into more complex forms through the process of natural selection. Much later, the creatures of the mind began. Their sea, their “primordial soup”, consisted of the mental capabilities of living organisms. Every once in a while one or more of the increasingly complex biological organisms that populated our planet would come up with something that one could not touch or feel but was nonetheless real, and often endowed with survival value. One example would be a new way of uttering a bird call, useful in contacting a desired mate. Dawkins cited certain birdcall variations, and pointed out that they are learned, not transmitted genetically. But this random production of intangible “things” was limited, and the chance of such “creatures of the mind” recombining into something more complex was even more limited.
Dawkins called the birdcall he cited a “meme”, but I find this usage confusing and unhelpful. I would rather compare intangible mental constructs that have existed and continue to exist in life forms less complicated than ours (in this memetic sense) to the early stages of organic life, starting with free radicals swimming around in the ocean that covered our planet during that enormously long period when biological life was just beginning. At this stage biological life existed more as a potential than as a reality, with a few increasingly complex molecules just beginning to develop the capacity to replicate themselves. It was a gradual process, and very slow at first. Molecules that acquired the capacity to replicate did so, and gradually combined into cells, which in turn, much later, grouped themselves into multicellular organisms.
The analogy between the way biological life originated and the course followed by memetic evolution is just that, an analogy. The specific steps through which each life form evolved are not necessarily the same, or even very similar. In each case one thing led to another. For creatures of the mind, the critical threshold occurred when a fairly sophisticated brain evolved in the biological world–the brain of our human ancestors. Only then could a new kind of creature, one that I call “meme”, develop and effloresce into the enormously rich and varied jungle of concepts we now inhabit.
When homo sapiens arrived on the scene, armed with speech and a new kind of brain capable of abstract thought, the meme came into its own. Almost instantly in terms of geological time, memes began to govern relations between individual tribal members, between tribes, and between people and the environment. Shamans developed meme-based tribal religions, which may have been the first large agglomerations of memes.
The next major breakthrough for the meme came with the invention of writing. At last, the meme was no longer limited to the memories of individual human brains. Memes could be recorded, transported, stored, and accessed by people who were physically remote from their originators. The invention of writing, the first effective way of storing ideas outside the human brain, gave the process of meme evolution a shot in the arm similar to that which biological evolution received when the first genes appeared on the scene.
I was tempted when I first started this essay to draw an explicit equation: writing is to the creatures of the mind what genes are to the creatures of the earth. But that is almost certainly an oversimplification. Nevertheless, it is interesting that each of these two very different life forms, biological and memetic, seems to have evolved through similar stages, each involving the eventual evolution of accurate means of recording complicated information.
The Next Issue: Defining and Classifying Memes:
I am not the only one to pick up on Dawkins’ idea about memes as a new form of life. There is a whole new body of science rapidly growing up around the concept. In fact, in Holland there is a scientific journal dedicated to exploring its various dimensions. (< http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit/>) I’ve studied several of the articles that have been printed so far on that journal. The authors are burrowing into almost every conceivable discipline in the social sciences. For example, one of many areas where the meme-ologists are active is international relations. Here they are studying decision-making, political strategies, the evolution of international norms, and the principles behind long-term economic growth, among other things. According to one observer, these studies offer “…a creative and innovative application of contemporary evolutionary theory to international relations…updates an earlier, simpler Social Darwinist legacy and provides an opening into the flow of contemporary evolutionary discourse…”.
It seems to me, however, that all these experts are laboring under a considerable problem, namely that there is as yet no clear idea or definition of the central thing, the meme, that they are talking about. Or rather, there are too many definitions–each pundit working from his own. The time, it would seem, is ripe for an effort to bring a little order into the discussion. For a parallel, let’s go back in time.
Early in the eighteenth century an enterprising Swedish naturalist, Carolus Linnaeus, undertook the formidable task of organizing both the nomenclature and relationships of all living creatures. He collected vast numbers of samples of individual species; his collection is still maintained and used by contemporary scientists. But his contributions went far beyond merely collecting: he developed the modern standard classification system for the biosphere’s living creatures. He introduced the system of binomial Latin names for individual species which is still the standard today.
For a century after Linnaeus, the so-called “naturalist” was on the cutting edge of the science of his times. The new frontier of knowledge, for him, was the identification of the different kinds of flora and fauna in all the known parts of the world. He observed, dissected, analysed, compared, and classified. If you are a fan of Patrick O’Brien’s series of historical novels of the period, the Aubrey-Maturin epic, then you will know what I mean when I cite Stephen Maturin as a role model for the mindset I am talking about.
These people were as bright as the specialists today who are pushing out the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding. Charles Darwin was one of them; he started as a naturalist and a classifier. His observations built on the accumulated knowledge of others and provided the platform for his brilliant theorising about the nature of evolution. Please note that he could not have done it without that basis of accumulated knowledge.
He also couldn’t have done what he did without the conceptual structure his predecessors had hammered out allowing for the classification of the living creatures of our planet into families, genera, species, and so on. This classification is is based on lineages, on the resemblance of a biological entity to the entities that produced it. A German Shepherd is a lot more like the wolf it is descended from than it is like the ibex that may have produced the goat next door. Stephen Maturin’s real-life contemporaries found out a lot about how blood-lines and how various plants and animals related to each other from careful analysis of available data. Now of course we have the evidence of blood groups and DNA and know a great deal more.
Even so, our taxonomic categories are by no means perfect; there are grey areas, unresolved issues galore. Even the most expert taxonomists can disagree on particulars. The system by which we classify the life around us is a construct of the human mind that reflects the infinitely more complex reality of nature with a fair degree of accuracy, but imperfectly–like the reflection you see of yourself in a dusty, cracked mirror.
Nature does not classify itself. The principle that explains life on this planet is evolution, and the principle underlying evolution is the differential survival of replicating entities. But the human mind, in coping with the vast array of different life forms in the environment, had to classify to understand, and classify we did. The resulting structure, even though it existed only in our minds, made possible a great leap in our understanding.
We need a Linnaean approach to the classification of memes. What kinds of mental constructs follow the basic principle of evolution? Can we group them into something analogous to kingdoms, orders, families, species? Can we trace lineages and determine at what point certain categories of memes first appeared on the scene, and why?
Probably not. You can only carry the analogy between memes and genes so far. Just from the commonsense perspective that is the best I can offer, it seems obvious that if, as and when the scientific community decides on a hierarchical structure and a uniform nomenclature for memes, it will bear only a superficial resemblance to the Linnaean system.
I cannot from where I sit even begin to propose the outlines of some future standardized classification system for memes. I can, however, legitimately observe that in the absence of such a system, I cannot get very far in my analysis of the subject. What are we talking about? A book competing for wider readership? An invention competing for wider acceptance and use? A new product competing for market share? A stock on Wall Street seeking to go up in value? A song aiming to get on the Hit Parade? An off-color joke careening across the Internet? This year’s women’s fashions? Last century’s symphonies? A previous millenium’s distilled perceptions about truth and reality? Maybe they all are memes, but if so they fit into different categories, each with its own set of rules governing how it is created, how it replicates, and what conditions it has to meet to survive.
These and many other kinds of memes occupy radically different roles in human existence, play different parts, follow different principles, tap their feet to different drummers. It follows that how we define each must differ. They operate according to different principles and must be analysed accordingly. The only thing that unifies them is that, as memes, they are all capable of surviving and replicating themselves, but only if they compete successfully with other memes of the same nature for limited resources.
Some brave souls need to get to work on classification schemes for memes. The schemes will themselves be memes, floating around in what is still, alas, a primordial soup for this kind of idea. They will be imperfect and many will die young. But the survivors will attain acceptance and even become useful conceptual tools for the rest of us.
Armed with an emerging agreement on what it is that we are talking about, we shall then be able to address a whole array of questions and issues with a lot more confidence than we now. Here are a few examples:
–How do memes relate to cultures? Can we consider a culture as a vast agglomeration of memes, in somewhat the same way that a biological organism consists of cells? Will this help us understand how cultures emerge, flourish, and wither away? Will this help us understand how cultures interact with each other, what the focal points may be for penetration, resistance, etc? Or why some cultures survive under certain circumstances while others do not?
–What are the mechanisms that give memes replicating power? Could the advertising business profitably employ this approach (an unappealing prospect), or conversely, what can meme-ologists learn from the ad industry?
–What can a study of memes tell us about human history, particularly the evolution of human societies?
When we learned to classify the creatures of the biosphere we gained enormously in our understanding of life in general. What new frontiers will open up when we think with equal clarity about our own human thoughts?
Analogies between memes and living creatures can be misleading, but they lead to interesting speculation. Dawkins’ point in The Selfish Gene is that the human body exists essentially as a mechanism for replicating and passing on the genetic pattern it embodies. It would seem to follow that the human mind’s purpose, insofar as it has one, is to serve as a transmission belt for concepts. There is an added twist, in that the human mind is much more likely to originate new memes than the body is to originate new variations in its genetic message. But this difference can be explained by the different time scales between the two forms of life. A human lifetime for the meme could equate with a million years for the gene, in terms of the amount of variability that can be introduced.
This concept of human thought as a new life form could revolutionize the way we look at our species in relation to the rest of the natural, biological world from which we sprang. In the era before Darwin, it was fashionable to think of Man as a special creation of the Almighty, separate and distinct from the lower animals. There are still those who hold to the Biblical version of human origins, and dispute the accumulated evidence that we indeed descend from apes. But now, if we accept the notion of human thought as making possible a new life form, we have reestablished a special place for our species, one that creates a qualitative distinction between ourselves and all the other animal and vegetable life on our planet. We still are descended from apes, but we are something different. Scientists and philosophers can be expected to explore this difference and argue about its implications for generations to come.
I find that this whole concept of memes as a separate life form, dependent on my species for its existence, is thoroughly compatible with Progressive Humanism. The Progressive Humanist rejects the old religions on the grounds that their validity can only be postulated, not demonstrated. But everyone has to accept something on faith, everyone has to have a basic belief or two as anchor points to build out from. I accept as a matter of faith that there is something special about my species, and that humanity, all of it, is what I am here for and what life is all about. Humanity is the home team. This causes me relatively little cognitive dissonance in terms of what I know about the world around me that has been scientifically tested and validated. But any theory that supports my decision that humanity is special, and appears either to grow out of scientifically validated experience, or is likely to be so validated soon, lessens my discomfort at having to accept humanity on faith. I have already thought of several respectable reasons why humanity is special, and now I have another one. Maybe I will see it validated in my lifetime. This era of information explosion is bound to have an exhilarating effect on meme production, so it wouldn’t surprise me.
One last thought: if biological evolution produced a new medium, humanity, which in turn spawned a new life form, the meme, is this the end of the line? Is it possible that memes in turn will create a new environment in which a third life form will arise? I leave this question to others; this essay is already speculative enough.