The Selfish Memetic Machine
I wrote this essay for one of my classes this year. When I said a while ago I would try to explain memetics on my blog, that ended up turning into an essay for a class.
Where did the ideas for this essay come from? I didn’t make any of them up, they all came out of the books I read. I might contrast them and expand slightly on them with my own prior knowledge, but nothing you will read in this essay came out of a void. Where did the author of my prime source, Susan Blackmore, get her ideas? They came from an idea that was developed by Richard Dawkins. And on what main idea was Richard Dawkins working from? Natural selection as initially theorized by Darwin. The chain of knowledge does not end at Darwin, all of his ideas were simply a mix of the ideas that were passed on to him from others. The chain goes back as far as history can remember and keeps going. It goes back before technologies were invented, before art was being made, before language was spoken. The chain goes all the way back to when one early humanoid creature imitated what another early humanoid creature was doing and was able to survive better than before. Maybe it was as simple as using a rock as a weapon, or learning how to open a particular fruit, but in that moment the history of mankind, the earth, the solar system and quite possibly the galaxy, changed for ever. The first meme had been replicated. Memetics, the study of memes is an extremely recent development. Memetic theory is a means of understanding why humanity exists on the earth as it does. Why do we have a network of roads crisscrossing the continents? Why do we have a mesh of wires and fibre optics that wrap the earth relaying a torrent of information amongst the inhabitants of the planet? Why are our libraries filled to the brim with volume after volume of books. Meme theory gives a great amount of insight to answer these questions, but it does more. There are many different interpretations of it and the purposes it can serve. This paper will begin with a general explanation of the theory of memetics, lead into some of the controversy which surrounds the current thinking about memetics, and end with some of the ideas which are brought forth by memetics. Memetics is a plausible theory because it is based on sound scientific reasoning, and it is useful as it can be applied to an extremely wide variety of topics because it explains the underlying forces which drive humanity.
For the purpose of this essay a few fundamental ideas need to be briefly explained, the first being the replicator. A replicator is anything that produces copies of itself. If a replicator is given resources, it and all of the copies it makes, will continue to make more copies until the resources required to replicate begin to run out. At this point, competition to replicate will begin. If there is the smallest bit of variation in the copies, the versions that have the greatest ability to replicate due to their differences will end up making more copies (Dawkins 17). The new copies that have retained the variations that allowed for more effective copying will begin to grow in numbers. This process of replication, variation and selection is the process of evolution.
Evolution is generally thought to be a DNA specific process by which life developed on Earth. This however is not the case. DNA just so happened to be an extremely successful example of evolution because DNA is a very good replicator. The theory of general evolution is applicable to any replicator that has the necessary traits of heredity, selection and retention (Blackmore 14). Memetic theory is based on the idea that memes are replicators, and are controlled by the same evolutionary algorithm that created life.
The term ‘Meme’ comes from the Greek ‘Mimeme’ meaning imitation. The ‘Mi’ letters are dropped for the sake of being similar to ‘gene’ (Dawkins 206). The question of what is a meme can be answered simply. It is whatever is passed on by imitation (Blackmore 56). This simple answer is the center of much of the debate that surrounds memetics and will be re-examined later. But first it is important to explain what memetics actually is.
Memetics is a way of understanding how humanity came about. An early human would be able to see another human do something useful to solve a problem. The human would repeat the action to gain the same advantage that the other human had (Blackmore 75). Thus, the human who could copy others would have a survival advantage. This seemingly minor advantage would allow for a greater survival rate amongst humans who could imitate.
There is a fundamental difference that must be pointed out to explain the significance of imitation. Suppose that another species learned the same behavior that gave the humans the first advantage of which I wrote. Suppose it got ingrained into them, generation after generation until it was instinct. This process of evolving an instinct would take an incredibly long time to occur compared to imitation. It would after some time spread to the entire species, but that would only be after an exponentially longer period of time than would be required for a behavior to travel via imitation (Dawkins 203). It is quite possible that a large population of imitators could all learn a useful behavior in a period of days. Now suppose the environment were to change, suddenly an instinct could become useless. Thousands of years of evolution would be seemingly thrown away. However for the imitators, a change in the environment is a minor inconvenience. A new behavior will be discovered by the species to cope with the new environment and the new behavior will spread throughout the species (Blackmore 75). Many less lives will be lost and the process of evolution will not be pushed back, instead the imitators will thrive.
There is an advantage to memes that goes far beyond what I have just described. I have described the ability for a good behavior to be quickly propagated amongst a population. The amazing power which memes hold is that the behaviors themselves will begin to evolve. The humans who are able to choose the best behaviors to imitate will be the most successful, yet this also means a symbiotic relationship will be formed between the humans and the memes (Blackmore 79). The best memes will start to flourish and evolve on their own, except their reproduction cycle is not limited to that of human biology. New generations of memes could be replicated within minutes of one another; they exist on vastly different scales of time.
Thus memes provide an amazing survival advantage which drove humans to develop brains which are massive when compared with other species (Blackmore 67). Yet memes did not stop at changing human brains. Memes were the driving force behind other fundamental characteristics of human existence, the memes were always trying to spread and when they ran out of space they made more for themselves.
As memes evolve and replicate with great speed they take control over much of the genetic process. Memes will begin to apply evolutionary pressure that leads to developments that will aid in their replication. Take for instance the development of human language (Blackmore 102). Imagine the difference between spreading a meme using only sight or only language. In the case of sight, the memes are limited to the physical setting and careful attention must be paid to recreate the meme, however with language an entirely new realm of possibilities is opened up. Actions, places, things and people can be discussed in a more abstract manner without them being physically represented. Large groups of people can be addressed at once. Because the proliferation of memes provides a survival advantage, any variation in the imitator's ability to copy memes will also have an advantage. It is this ability of memes to exert evolutionary pressure which resulted in humans having such faculties as speech (Blackmore 99).
Memes did not however end with language in exerting pressure which increased their capacity to exist. Memes had a massive effect on the development of human technology. Technological advancements help memes spread in three distinct ways (Blackmore 100). Some technologies make more accurate copies of memes, such as the change between drawing and photography. Some technologies allow for more copies to be made of memes, such as the photocopier. And finally, other technologies allow the copies of memes to last longer. Most great technological advances are examples of increases of all three characteristics. When memes went from being spoken to being written down, they became more accurate, more copyable and had a greater life-span.
Memes weren’t simply evolving in their own right, they were changing the environment in which they existed by developing the human mind and expanding into new technologies as they were invented. From this brief description of memetic theory hopefully the idea of memes is becoming clear. Memes are particular ways of performing tasks. Memes are words. Memes are jokes. Memes are how you cut your hair and the way you tie your shoes. Memes are music, painting, drawing, dancing. Memes are pictures of cats on the internet. Memes are the lightbulb and the iphone. Memes are celebrities and saints. A song that simply won’t stop playing in your head is a meme. Memes are the files on the internet that get copied a million times. Memes are what fill our libraries and our store shelves. Memes are the worries in your head. Complex sets of memes make up religions and every other institution on the planet. Hopefully what I have just described seems like too vast a list of things, because that is the central point of much of the debate around the topic of memetics.
There is certainly not a large group of people who are supporting the idea of memetics as a science at this time in history. Books have been written and papers are being published but there is a sense that the whole topic is at a standstill. Two of the more recent sources that I have found on the topic have pointed to a similar issue with the initial theory of memetics. They want to find a fundamental unit of a meme. They want to find a definition or a physical structure to which they can point to and say with authority that “this is a meme”.
Kate Distin, the author of The Selfish Meme, disagrees with my primary source Susan Blackmore in many respects to memetic theory. One of her fundamental differences of opinion is the definition of a meme as whatever is passed on by imitation (40 Distin). Distin works to create a different definition of a meme which is based around “representational content” (Distin 20). Representational content is the mental information that is stored within the mind about things. Distin theorizes that memetic theory is better served by this definition as it allows for the genetic analogy between meme and genes to be better understood (Distin 16). However where her theory seems to fall short is that it does not take into consideration the technological aspects I described previously. I feel that her use of a new definition is only useful in pointing out a weakness of the explanation given by Susan Blackmore.
Blackmore is extremely adamant in her text about the importance of imitation in the theory of memetics. And while I don’t feel her definition is wrong, it needs to be expanded to aid in comprehension. Blackmore is referring to general imitation in the sense that an imitator can replicate an extremely broad spectrum of behaviors. In the same way a computer can run a variety of programs, all of completely different types and purposes, a general imitator will be able to imitate a multitude of behaviors. Where the definition of imitation really seems to break down is when we try to explain contemporary memes in terms of imitation. The idea that going to university to become an engineer is simply a matter imitation seems ridiculous, yet if it is considered as a complex system of hundreds or thousands of different means of imitation that have developed over thousands of years it becomes more understandable.
Another author, Robert Aunger, has similar issues with Susan Blackmore's definition of a meme. In his book The Electric Meme, he theorizes that memes are replicating signals inside a single brain which can, through communication or artefacts, be replicated in other brains (Aunger 326). This theory is different than Blackmore’s theory because it is based on the physical structure of the human brain. He theorizes that empirical evidence for memes will be found in the field of neuroscience (Aunger 330). I strongly suspect that such evidence will never be found. Memes do not exist on a different scale than we do, they are not microscopic signals that self replicate. They exist at a very human scale, they surround and engulf us because memes make up our civilization.
A meme can’t be thought of only as something that is passed on by general imitation, yet it also shouldn’t be considered a miniscule signal created in the brain. It is anything that can be passed on by the complex systems which supplement the original processes of imitation, such as language, reading, writing, math, computers, books and universities. At this point many memetics would probably feel that I have overstepped my bounds and called everything a meme. By broadening the definition, suddenly everything around us becomes a meme, but the truth is that that really is the point. If memes really are such a powerful replicator which are responsible for our modern world, we would expect an over abundance of them, it should be no surprise when we do find them everywhere.
With every bound and leap in technology the space which exists for memes is increased, and rapidly the memes will work to fill the void. If we look at the last century in memetic terms, a very peculiar observation can be made. In the last century numerous technological innovations have sprung up which have dramatically increased the speed with which memes can spread and the quantity of memes that can exist. There was the development of mass production. The introduction of the automobile and plane. Electricity became widespread. Radio broadcast became popular. Television was invented. Vast quantities of print media was constantly published. The telephone took over. More recently we have seen the rise of the internet and the cell phone. All of these advancements have made much more room for memes, and made memes spread faster than ever before. What I would suggest is that we still haven’t been able to keep up with this massive influx of memes, which resulted in what we call post modernism.
Postmodernism is described by Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind. Much of what is said in this text suggests a strong undercurrent of the memetic evolution which I have described. “… The extreme fluidity and multiplicity of the contemporary intellectual scene can scarcely be exaggerated.”(Tarnas 402) “ The fund of data available to the human mind is of such intrinsic complexity and diversity that it provides plausible support for many different conceptions of the ultimate nature of reality.” (406) “ The intellectual question that looms over our time is whether the current state of profound metaphysical and epistemological irresolution is something that will continue indefinitely…” (410). All of these quotations can be interpreted in a memetic sense to be referring to the rapid expansion of memes in the last century. The gigantic leaps of technological innovation have let a torrent of new memes rapidly gush into the world, but our capacity to sort through all of those memes has not yet caught up with their numbers. The effect of this overgrowth of memes is the postmodern world which we currently live in. This interpretation of postmodernism is quite compelling in the sense that it gives us a role. The era of simply being a great meme creator is over, it is now becoming more important to be good a selecting memes, classifying and organizing them. The “space” in which memes can thrive will soon be refilled and the selection pressure on memes will return. After some semblance of stability returns to the ecosystem of memes, we can hope that what will be left will be memes that hold more truth and benefit all of us.
I have just described the large question of the postmodern condition using memetics, but how can memetics explain the subcategory of post modernism which is art? The reasoning behind art has always been quite a point of contention. The very question of what is art comes up often. Yet memetics provides a fairly simple way of understanding what art is. Art can be simply described as memes that have survived for reasons not related to human survival. Take for instance a piece of rhyming poetry. It may be a nonsense poem which has no important content in the words, but because it rhymes it is easy to remember. It could be transferred between people through imitation, and because it is easier to remember because it rhymes, it will have an advantage against other poems which do not rhyme (Blackmore 56). Over a long period of time a rhyming poem could proliferate across a continent, there will be no survival advantage or reason for its being, other than the fact that it could be remembered.
Now, this explanation of art may initially sound fairly harsh, but I think a defining factor about art is that the best art will generally have the longest life span and will thus be able to win the memetic survival race in the end. Every week a new popular song will spread across the radio waves, a new song will take over, but the fact is those new songs will be replaced the very next week or the next day. Some great masterpieces of classical music have been able to survive for hundreds of years (Blackmore 53). Art is an organic process by which memes are mixed around and presented, memes are selected and the process continues onward. It is always changing and progressing, but with no one leading the way other than evolutionary theory. When we look at art history, we often find definite links between one artist's individual works, between artists and between artistic movements. There are progressions, combinations and dramatic shifts which change the art landscape forever. All of this art history is evidence of the memetic nature of art. Art doesn’t come out of the void; it comes out of evolution.
A memetic interpretation of humanity provides a new outlook for artists. Artists don’t work with instruments, paints, cameras, computers and pencils: artists work with memes. Being an artist is fundamentally about selecting memes, recombining them and releasing them back into the world in hopes that these new memes will spread. The most popular and successful artist will always be the ones whose memes can spread and last the best in the world. This may seem simply like a popularity contest, which is true when we think about art on a small time scale, but in general, some art will manage to be selected from the rest and be held up for what it is: great art. The acknowledgement that art is formed out of memes allows for an ease of comprehension when considering all of the new forms of artistic practice that are beginning to propagate. In a traditional sense, performance art is difficult to interpret as its existence is fleeting and immaterial; however in a memetic sense, it is simply a combination of memes being recreated and passed on to others.
It may be apparent how all pervasive memes can be thought to be in our external lives, however memetics can also be used to explain us to our very core. Susan Blackmore’s conclusion in the Meme Machine is that human consciousness is the outcome of a complex construction of an enormous number of memes. She argues that our ability to become self aware was of great survival advantage to the memes which could take advantage of it (Blackmore 231). The ability of a meme to be related to a sense of self gave it an enormous advantage. ‘My idea’ is much more likely to be spread than simply an idea. This idea that we are nothing more than a bunch of memes is another great point of dissension in memetic theory as it can be seen as refuting the idea of free will. However, it can also be seen as a rational explanation for a concept that has been suggested for centuries. The concept of the “ego” suggests that the “I” inside your head does not really exist (Tolle 27). There is no entity who owns your properties. The “ego” is interchangeable with the complex of memes. The memes are trying to replicate and propagate, and they resulted in the production of the human ego.
What is truly fascinating is the endgame which is described in two vastly different books. Susan Blackmore’s book The Meme Machine was written from a thoroughly scientific perspective. Eckart Tolle’s book A New Earth is a combination and explanation of various spiritual sources: religious teachings, philosophies and inward self observation. While both of the texts use different terminology, they come to the same conclusion. The process by which we can free ourselves from the memes or the ego is to simply pay attention. By observing, and understanding what they are, they suddenly lose much of the power they were exerting on our lives (Blackmore 243: Tolle 239). There is much anxiety and unhappiness in the world which can be attributed to memes and the ego, and while it is definitely not a certainty that both of these authors are completely right, I find that the strong parallels between their works to be compelling evidence that a fairly accurate conception of humanity has been found.
There is a fundamental reason why memetics is a field which is not drawing a large following of research behind it. The simple fact is there is little new ground to cover with memetics, the theory has been well laid and there is simply little room for more expansion. All of the evidence for memetics is around us. It doesn’t require microscopes or telescopes or archaeological digging to find. You don’t need to go further than your mind to find memes. It is both an obvious theory, and completely hidden behind veils of unnecessary importance that we attribute to everything around us. Memetic theory is probably never going to progress as a science because it isn’t something that can be physically measured, it is already something that is unconsciously sensed by many people. This makes the reasoning for even thinking about memetics an important point. Interpreting the world with memetics allows us to take a step back and see what is going on from a new perspective, to see a continuation of evolution. Replicators don’t evolve for anyone's good, they simply evolve to replicate more. If we ignore this fact, it will continue to work as it always has, with the possibility of leading humanity to its destruction. Or we can see it, and start to guide it back in a more desirable direction.
Word Count: 3907
Aunger, Robert. The Electric Meme. New York: The Free Press, 2002.
Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.
Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.
Distin, Kate. The Selfish Meme. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Tarnas, Richard. The Passion of the Western Mind. New York: Ballantine Books, 1991.
Tolle, Eckhart. A New Earth. New York: Plume, 2005.