The Invasion of the Memes: Is It Science Fiction?

Presented: 07/2001

There is much ado in evolutionary biology and some of the social sciences these days about an imperialistic paradigm known as “universal Darwinism,” and the related concept of “memes.” Memes, it seems, are the “new, new thing” (to quote the title of a best-selling book on the high technology boom and Silicon Valley). According to the promoters of universal Darwinism, any form of evolutionary change may be viewed as Darwinian in character if it exhibits three key properties: (1) a system of “replicators” (genes are the model, of course), (2) variations among the replicators, and (3) differential “selection” among the varying replicators in each generation via competition. Some adherents also espouse a fourth, sometimes implicit assumption, namely that the replicators have a degree of autonomy that allows them actively to pursue their selfish interests. On the other hand, the selection process is viewed as a purely impersonal, amorphous (mindless) process. Accordingly, in universal Darwinism the replicators are often touted as the primary actors. The fountainhead for this paradigm is, of course, Richard Dawkins’ best-seller, The Selfish Gene.

Some universal Darwinists, Daniel Dennett, Gary Cziko and, most notably, psychologist Susan Blackmore in her new book The Meme Machine (1999), see this reductionist evolutionary dynamic at work in human societies as well. In cultural evolution, Blackmore claims, the replicators are hypothetical entities called memes, a term coined by Dawkins as a cultural analogue for genes. Dawkins intended it as a metaphor, but Blackmore (and others) argue that memes are real physical entities, like genes (DNA). Moreover, memes have a mind of their own; they compete among themselves “for their own sake” [Blackmore’s emphasis]. Just as Dawkins characterized organisms as “machines” for making more genes, so every human is “a machine for making more memes….We are meme machines,” Blackmore tells us. Citing the dubious assertion by Stephen Pinker that humans have “surplus” mental abilities (especially imitative abilities) that cannot be accounted for as adaptations for survival and reproduction, Blackmore contends that the selfish interests of memes can explain the evolution of these otherwise inexplicable surplus abilities. Memes have taken control of our cultural evolution, she says. (In fact, Pinker’s thesis contradicts evolutionary theory. Such costly anatomical characters would have been subject to stringent adverse selection if they had not been adaptive for evolving humans. See the discussion of this issue in my new book, Nature’s Magic: Synergy in Evolution and the Fate of Humankind.)

The trouble is, memes don’t really exist as a distinct causal agency in evolution, and saying they do won’t make it so; I predict that they will prove to be more elusive than the Higgs boson. As a metaphor for various forms of learned cultural “information”, the term might be quite useful. It has the advantage of being more generic than such familiar terms as “ideas”, “inventions”, “behaviors”, “artifacts”, etc., and it is certainly preferable to such clumsy neologisms as Edward Wilson’s “culturgens”. But as a shaper of cultural evolution independently of the motivations, goals, purposes, compulsions and judgments — in short the minds — of human actors, memes rank right up there with the fiery phogiston and the heavenly aether. Indeed, there is no way I can conceive of to demonstrate (or falsify) the assertion that memes exercise an autonomous influence in human societies. Genes, and the coils of DNA that comprise the germ plasm, have an independent physical existence and known causal influences. Memes are labels that have been given to whatever we learn from one another — “stories, songs, habits, skills, inventions,” according to Blackmore. We are told that anything we imitate — hair styles, clothes, applauding, dances, cigarette smoking, superstitions, jokes, religion, and democracy, not to mention science and technology, is a meme.

The conceit that minds are “robots vehicles” — passive receptacles for various external inputs — vastly oversimplifies both the neurobiology and the psychology of human learning processes, not to mention the dynamics of cultural life. “Memetics”, as its practitioners like to call their hopeful monster (to borrow term), is a curious throwback to the Behaviorist tabula rasa hypothesis — the claim that human behavior is wholly determined by external inputs (“reinforcers”). To the contrary, memes are always embedded in minds (anything external is only a “latent” meme), and it is minds that do the selecting and use of memes. Humans do not slavishly imitate whatever they see, or hear. They are highly selective, and manipulative, both in terms of their personal choices and in what they may attempt to foist on others. Denial of the primacy of human actors in the selection and transmission of social behavior and cultural information is bad psychology — and bad anthropology. I’m reminded of a whimsical old poem about ghosts that I will take the liberty of bowdlerizing: “Yesterday upon the stair, I met a meme who wasn’t there. He wasn’t there again today. I wish that he would go away.”

But can’t it also be said that ideas, ideologies, religions, books, music, technologies, etc., “compete” with one another? Yes, of course, but only metaphorically. To be precise, memes are differentially selected by prospective users, based on the users’ preferences. Memes themselves are “powerless” despite the uncharacteristic “hype” of Scientific American, which recently featured a promotional article by Blackmore on “The Power of Memes”. False analogies can do a lot of mischief, so it is important to keep the meme in its proper place as a term of convenience for a broad category of social phenomena and not as a distinct, self-serving causal agency. In so doing, we can also lend support to the null hypothesis: we call the shots on whether or not to imitate the purveyors of this particular meme.

Category: Publications