I mentioned in my Previous Post that there are two chapters in this book which are absolutely brilliant. I wrote about one in my previous post. In this post I am going to write about the other and I believe it is best chapter in the book. It is titled “Memes: the new replicators”.
We talked about all living beings being the survival machines for the genes. Are human beings any different? Are we special? Yes, we are special and our specialness can be summed up in one word – “culture”. It evolves by non-genetic means and at rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution. Although cultural transmission is exhibited by some birds and animals, they are just interesting oddities in animal kingdom. It is only our species that really show what cultural evolution can do.
Like laws of physics are there are any universal laws that govern biology. He says he would put his money on one fundamental principle. All life evolves by replicating entities. He says we need not go to distant planets to examine the truth of this statement. New kind of replicators are staring in our face and are being multiplied at a rate which leaves the genes panting far behind. They are surviving in a new soup called human culture!!!! Dawkins terms a unit of cultural transmission as a meme.
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases. Just like genes leaped from one body to another through sperms or eggs, memes leap from brain to brain through a process called imitation.
Here is an amazing quote from the chapter “….memes should be regarded as living structures not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the memes propagation in just the way a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. This isn’t just a way of talking – the meme for say ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over”. He actually claims that thoughts are living organisms!!!!!
Dawkins claims it is wrong to talk about the biological advantage of a meme (like faith in god). We are still stuck with the notion that DNA is the only replicator. Whenever conditions arise in which new kind of replicators can make copies then they will start a new kind of evolution. It need not always be driven by the genes. In effect he says memes are independent of genetic evolution and may not necessarily benefit the genes. For eg a meme for celibacy is working against the genes whose aim is to multiply. Thus a meme for celibacy selfishly propagates itself at the cost of the genes in the body it inhabits.
Dawkins claims meme complexes evolve in the same way as gene-complexes. Selection favors those memes which exploit their cultural environment to their own advantage. Inspite of their selfishness, there is a positive side to these meme replicators. When we die we leave behind our memes and our genes. As generations pass the contribution of our genes keep on reducing and reaches negligible proportions. Whereas if you contribute to the world culture it remains intact long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. The meme complexes of Socrates, DaVinci, and Copernicus are still going strong.
Dawking ends the chapter in a hopeful note. “One unique feature of man is his capacity for conscious foresight. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can discuss ways of cultivating pure altruism – something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on the earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”