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Meme versus Evolution

The term meme was coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976
book, The Selfish Gene, which explored the principles of Darwinism.
Charles Darwin's insight is simple, yet often misunderstood. It is
this. If organisms vary, if only some of them can survive, and if
whatever helped them survive is passed to their offspring, then the
offspring will be better adapted than their parents were. In this way
the organisms become designed, by the blind processes of copying and
selection, for the environment in which they live. As Dawkins puts it,
if you have variation, selection and heredity, then you must have

Darwin did not have the benefit of our modern concept of an algorithm,
nor our tendency to look at everything from fundamental physical
processes to life itself in terms of information (see "I is the law",
New Scientist, 30 January1999, p. 24). Yet he saw how this mindless
procedure could produce design without a designer. It was the American
philosopher Daniel Dennett who dubbed the process "the evolutionary
algorithm". At its heart is the information that is copied, or the

In biological evolution, the replicators are genes, but there is no
reason why there should not be other evolutionary systems, with other
replicators. This was Dawkins's point--that Darwin's insight was too
important to confine it solely to biology--and he wanted another
example. So he invented the meme.

Everything you have learnt by copying it from someone else is a meme.
This includes your habit of driving on the left or right, eating beans
on toast, wearing jeans or going on holiday. You would do none of
these things if someone else hadn't done them, or something very like
them, before you did. Imitation, unlike other forms of learning, is a
kind of copying or replication. Other animals can be masters of
learning, as when squirrels remember their hundreds of food stores, or
cats and dogs build extensive mental maps. But this is learning by
association, or trial and error. Only by imitation are the fruits of
the learning passed on from one animal to the next--and humans are
unrivalled when it comes to copying one another.

But are memes replicators? In other words, do they fit into the
evolutionary algorithm of variation, selection and heredity? I say the
answer is yes. Memes are "inherited" when we copy someone else's
action, when we pass on an idea or a story, when a book is printed, or
when a radio programme is broadcast. Memes vary because human
imitation is far from perfect, and the vagaries of memory mean that
every time we retell a story we change some little detail, or forget
some minor point. Finally, there is memetic selection. Think of how
many things you hear in a day, and how few you pass on to anyone else.
Think of how many scientific ideas you have read in this magazine, and
how few you will remember.

To understand what makes a meme successful, let's take a "meme's eye
view". <snip>---end of excerpt---

SUSAN BLACKMORE is a lecturer in psychology at the University of the
West of England, Bristol. Her new book, The Meme Machine, is published
by Oxford University Press and will be reviewed next week
From New Scientist, 13 March 1999
Copyright New Scientist, RBI Limited 1999

A meme is merely
--begin excerpt---
"self-replication information [which] leaps infectiously from mind to
mind like (what we now know as) computer viruses. Whether or not we
use the name 'meme' for these mind viruses, the theory needs to be
taken seriously. If rejected, it must be rejected for good reasons.

One of those who have taken it very seriously is Susan Blackmore, in
her admirable book, _The Meme Machine_.
... From 1976 onwards, I always thought religious provided the prime examples of memes and meme
complexes (or 'memeplexes'). In _Viruses of the Mind_
[a chapter in _A Devil's Chaplain_]
I developed this theme of religions as mind
parasites, and also the analogy with computer viruses. It first
appeared in an edited book of responses to the thinking of Daniel
Dennett, a philosopher of science whom scientists like because he
bothers to read science. My choice of topic acknowledged Dennett's
fertile development of the meme concept in _Consciously Explained_ and
_Darwin's Dangerous Idea._."
---end of excerpt---
_A Devil's Chaplain_, Dawkins, 2003


After Susan gave birth to a baby, her doctor stood solemnly at her
bedside."I have something I must tell you about your baby." Alarmed, Susan
demanded: "What's wrong?" "Your baby is a hermaphrodite." "What's that?" It
means your baby has both male and female parts."
"Oh my Gosh that's wonderful!" Susan exclaimed. "You mean it has a penis
and a brain?"

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