"THE POWER OF - PDF"
THE POWER OF MEMES Behaviors and ideas copied from person to person by imitation— memes— may have forced human genes to make us what we are today by Susan Blackmore COPIED FROM BRAIN TO BRAIN, DUSAN PETRICIC memes proliferate through society, blindly evolving as they go and shap- ing our culture, says the author. Copyright 2000 Scientific American, Inc. EDITORS’ INTRODUCTION Did you know that you spend much of your life copying and transmitting entities called memes? A meme (pronounced “meem”) is “an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture.” Whenever you shake hands, sing “Happy Birthday”or cast your vote in an election, you are giving life to memes. So far, no debate. But controversy has erupted over the proposal, presented here by psychologist Susan Blackmore, that humans’ uncanny ability to imitate, and thus to transmit memes, is what sets us apart from other species. Memes, she argues, have been (and are) a powerful force shaping our cultural— and biological— evolution. To convey the debate, we have included three short counterpoints, written by behavioral ecologist Lee Alan Dugatkin, evolutionary anthropologist Robert Boyd and popula- tion biologist Peter J. Richerson, and psychologist Henry Plotkin. Enjoy this smorgas- bord of competing memes. H uman beings are strange not clarify why we humans have come with variations and with selection of animals. Although evolu- to apportion so much of our resources some variants over others, you must get tionary theory has bril- to so many abilities that are superﬂu- evolution. That is, over many iterations liantly accounted for the ous to the central biological task of fur- of this cycle, the population of surviv- features we share with ther propagating our genes, where else ing copies will gradually acquire new other creatures— from the can we look? properties that tend to make them bet- genetic code that directs the construction The answer, I suggest, lies in memes. ter suited to succeeding in the ongoing of our bodies to the details of how our Memes are stories, songs, habits, skills, competition to produce progeny. Al- muscles and neurons work— we still inventions and ways of doing things though the cycle is mindless, it gener- stand out in countless ways. Our brains that we copy from person to person by ates design out of chaos. are exceptionally large, we alone have imitation. Human nature can be ex- Dawkins called the information that truly grammatical language, and we plained by evolutionary theory, but gets copied the “replicator” and point- alone compose symphonies, drive cars, only when we consider evolving memes ed out that the most familiar replicator eat spaghetti with a fork and wonder as well as genes. is the gene. But he wanted to emphasize about the origins of the universe. It is tempting to consider memes as that evolution can be based on any The problem is that these abilities simply “ideas,” but more properly replicator, and so, as an example, he in- seem surplus to requirements, going memes are a form of information. vented the idea of the meme. The copy- well beyond what we need to survive. (Genes, too, are information: instruc- ing of memes from one person to an- As Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts tions, written in DNA, for building other is imperfect, just as the copying of Institute of Technology points out in proteins.) Thus, the meme for, say, the genes from parent to child is sometimes How the Mind Works, “As far as bio- ﬁrst eight notes of the Twilight Zone inaccurate. We may embellish a story, logical cause and effect are concerned, theme can be recorded not only in the forget a word of the song, adapt an old music is useless.” We might say the same neurons of a person (who will recog- technology or concoct a new theory out of art, chess and pure mathematics. nize the notes when she hears them) of old ideas. Of all these variations, Classical (Darwinian) evolutionary but also in magnetic patterns on a some go on to be copied many times, theory, which focuses on inheritable videocassette or in ink markings on a whereas others die out. Memes are thus traits of organisms, cannot directly jus- page of sheet music. true replicators, possessing all three tify such riches. Expressed in modern properties— replication, variation, selec- terms, this theory holds that genes con- The Birth of Memes tion— needed to spawn a new Darwin- trol the traits of organisms; over the ian evolutionary process. course of many generations, genes that give their bearers a survival advantage and that favor production of many off- T he notion that memes exist and evolve has been around for almost 25 years, but only recently has it gained Dawkins says that he had modest in- tentions for his new term— to prevent his readers from thinking that the gene spring (who will inherit the genes) tend attention as a powerful force in human was the “be-all and end-all of evolu- to proliferate at the expense of others. evolution. Richard Dawkins of the Uni- tion, the fundamental unit of selec- The genes, then, essentially compete versity of Oxford coined the word in tion”— but in fact his idea is dynamite. against one another, and those that are 1976, in his best-selling book The Self- If memes are replicators, then they, like most proﬁcient at being passed to the ish Gene. There he described the basic genes, compete to get copied for their next generation gradually prosper. principle of Darwinian evolution in own sake. This conclusion contradicts Few scientists would want to aban- terms of three general processes— when the assumption, held by most evolu- don Darwinian theory. But if it does information is copied again and again, tionary psychologists, that the ultimate www.sciam.com Scientiﬁc American October 2000 65 Copyright 2000 Scientific American, Inc. function of human culture is to memes—as occurs with a celibate serve the genes by aiding their sur- priesthood. vival. The founder of sociobiology, Of course, not every cult (or E. O. Wilson, famously said that chain letter) with the appropriate the genes hold culture on a leash. viral structure will actually succeed. Culture might temporarily develop Some threats and promises are in some direction that is counter- more effective, or virulent, than productive to spreading the genes, others, and all compete for the lim- but in the long run it is brought ited resource of human attention in back in line by gene-based natural the face of experience and skepti- selection, like a straying dog curbed cism (which, in the viral metaphor, by its owner. In this view, memes act as a kind of immune system). would be slaves to the genes that Arguably, religions are not en- built the brains that copy them, tirely viral; for example, they pro- prospering only by helping those vide comfort and a sense of belong- genes to proliferate. But if Dawk- ing. In any case, we must not make ins is right and memes are replica- the mistake of thinking that all tors, then memes serve their own memes are viruses. The vast major- selﬁsh ends, replicating whenever UNIVERSAL DARWINISM produces evolution in ity make up the very stuff of our they can. They sculpt our minds any system of replicators that exhibit variation, selec- lives, including languages, political and cultures as they go— whatever tion and heredity. Variation arises by recombination systems, ﬁnancial institutions, edu- their effect on the genes. and imperfect copying. Selection occurs when limited cation, science and technology. All The most obvious examples of resources cannot support all the variants. Heredity en- these are memes (or conglomera- this phenomenon are “viral” sures that good properties are passed on. This mind- tions of memes), because they are memes. Chain letters (both hard- less algorithm generates highly sophisticated entities. copied from person to person and copy and e-mail) consist of little bits vie for survival in the limited space of written information, including a matic leaders that have sprung up in of human memories and culture. “copy-me” instruction backed up with human history, only a few had what it Thinking memetically gives rise to a threats (if you break the chain you will took to survive— copy-me instructions new vision of the world, one that, when suffer bad luck) or promises (you’ll re- backed up with threats and promises. you “get” it, transforms everything. ceive money and you can help your In religions the threats are of death or From the meme’s-eye view, every human friends). It does not matter that the eternal damnation, and the promises is a machine for making more memes—a threats and promises are empty and are of everlasting bliss. The costs are a vehicle for propagation, an opportunity your effort in copying the letters is wast- proportion of one’s income, a lifetime for replication and a resource to com- ed. These memes have an internal struc- devoted to propagating the word, or re- pete for. We are neither the slaves of our ture that ensures their own propagation. sources spent on building magniﬁcent genes nor rational free agents creating The same can be said, Dawkins ar- mosques and cathedrals that further culture, art, science and technology for gues, of the great religions of the world. promote the memes. The genes may our own happiness. Instead we are part Of all the myriad small cults with charis- even suffer directly at the hands of the of a vast evolutionary process in which memes are the evolving replicators and we are the meme machines. MEMES AND COMPLEXES OF MEMES This new vision is stunning and scary: stunning because now one simple theo- Stories, urban legends, myths Belief in UFOs, ghosts, Santa Claus ry encompasses all of human culture Clothing, hairstyles, body piercing Racist slogans, sexist jokes and creativity as well as biological evo- lution; scary because it seems to reduce Cuisine, cigarette smoking Religions great swathes of our humanity, of our Applauding, cheering Inventions, theories, science activities and our intellectual lives, to a Language, accents, catchphrases Judicial systems, democracy mindless phenomenon. But is this vision Songs, music, dances Proust’s story of the madeleine cake true? Can memetics help us to under- stand ourselves? Can it lead to testable predictions or do any real scientiﬁc NOT MEMES work? If it cannot, memetics is worthless. Subjective experiences, complex Conditioned responses: fear at I believe that the idea of the meme as emotions, sensory perceptions the sound of a dentist’s drill replicator is what has been missing Eating, breathing, having sex Cognitive maps: knowing the from our theories of human evolution way around your neighborhood and that memetics will prove immense- Innate behaviors, even if contagious: ly useful for explaining our unique at- yawning, coughing, laughing Associations with sounds and smells tributes and the rise of our elaborate cultures and societies. We are different DUSAN PETRICIC Note: Many human behaviors are complicated mixtures of innate, learned and from all other animals because we imitated— for example, riding a bicycle. alone, at some time in our far past, be- came capable of widespread generalized 66 Scientiﬁc American October 2000 The Power of Memes Copyright 2000 Scientific American, Inc. COUNTERPOINT Animals Imitate,Too by Lee Alan Dugatkin I applaud Susan Blackmore’s attempt to infect people’s minds with the meme “imitation is important.” But I take issue with her view that memes— the imitated entities— inﬂuence the evo- BLACKBIRDS can be convinced to fear creatures that are not a threat, because they learn to recognize predators by watching what spooks their companions. lution of behavior in humans alone. Animals from ﬁsh to pri- mates copy one another in making such decisions as what to eat his colleagues discovered that the false message “friarbirds are and with whom to mate. That being the case, I will argue that predators”can spread down a chain of at least six other blackbirds. memes may inﬂuence the habits of many animals just as they Yet the simple fact that something is copied does not make it drive human behavior. A close look at blackbirds can help to il- a full-ﬂedged meme. Blackmore argues that a message has to lustrate that memes are not necessarily unique to humans or meet three additional criteria: it must be copied accurately,many even to other primates,such as chimpanzees and other apes. But copies must be made, and the copies must last a long time.The ﬁrst I should clarify the deﬁnition of the word imitation. Psychologists seem to revel in debating the meaning of imita- tion, and dozens of papers divide its meaning into an array of Memes may inﬂuence the habits of subcategories. In a discussion of memes, however, it seems only fair to use Blackmore’s own description. Her book The Meme Ma- many animals just as they drive chine presents two different perspectives. The strictest deﬁnition human behavior. states that imitation involves three complex stages: deciding what to imitate, transforming one point of view to another and producing a matched bodily action. Under such strict criteria, no message “friarbirds are predators” was accurately transmitted, rock-solid cases of animal imitation may exist. It is extraordinarily and copies of the message spread from individual to individual, difﬁcult to decipher whether animals can transform one view- thus demonstrating some degree of fecundity. It is impossible to point to another and, if so, whether we know what exactly they assess the longevity of this meme based on laboratory experi- are choosing to imitate. ments, but in principle there is no reason that the information Blackmore also promotes a much more liberal idea of imita- wouldn’t stick around once established in natural populations. tion when she describes a story being passed from one friend to In my work as a behavioral ecologist I have run across dozens another.“You have not precisely imitated your friend’s every ac- of other examples of animal behavior that ﬁt the deﬁnition of a tion and word, but something (the gist of the story) has been meme, and I would not be surprised if the total number were copied from her to you and then on to someone else,” she writes. quite large. Memes may be older and more fundamental to bio- Surely hundreds of examples of animal imitation fall within this logical evolution than Blackmore or anyone else has argued to broad deﬁnition, and the way blackbirds learn about predators is date. More speciﬁcally, the difference between animal and hu- no exception. man memes may be quantitative rather than qualitative. Memeti- In 1978 Eberhard Curio of Ruhr University of Bochum in Ger- cists may well take hold of the idea that animal memes are real many and his colleagues created a small theater in which one and use this to bolster the claim that memes truly are a univer- blackbird could view a second one squawking and ﬂicking its tail sally important force in evolution. But if memes do not separate in reaction to a nearby predator. The second bird was responding us from animals, as Blackmore suggests, then they alone cannot to a true predator—a little owl—but a series of partitions hid the explain why human culture is uniquely advanced. owl from the ﬁrst blackbird’s view.Thanks to some clever manipula- tions, the observer was made to think that its companion was re- LEE ALAN DUGATKIN is an associate professor in the biology depart- DUSAN PETRICIC acting to a noisy friarbird,which blackbirds do not normally regard ment at the University of Louisville.He has studied imitation in animals as a threat. The researchers then put the observer blackbird near a for 10 years.His new book on this subject, The Imitation Factor:Evolu- friarbird, and it, too, reacted with squawks and tail ﬂicks. Curio and tion Beyond the Gene (The Free Press),will be published in January. www.sciam.com Scientiﬁc American October 2000 67 Copyright 2000 Scientific American, Inc. RISE OF CULTURE could have begun when our early hominid ized imitation. Later, as humans became more genetically selected ancestors learned to imitate one another (left). Individuals best to imitate (center), the genes would need to evolve strategies to able to imitate new survival skills such as ﬁre making would pros- ensure imitation of the most valuable behaviors. Tactics such as per, favoring the genes that made them better adapted for general- “imitate the best imitators” would result in better copying of new imitation. This let loose new repli- through childbirth complications caused a new predator, involves merely the use cators— memes— which then began to by the size of the head. Why has evolu- of an innate behavior in a new situation. propagate, using us as their copying ma- tion allowed the brain to grow so haz- Even chimpanzees’ imitation is limited chinery much as genes use the copying ardously large? Traditional theories look to a small range of behaviors, such as machinery inside cells. From then on, to genetic advantage, in improved hunt- methods of ﬁshing for termites. In con- this one species has been designed by ing or foraging skills or the ability to sus- trast, generalized imitation of almost two replicators, not one. This is why we tain larger cooperating groups with any activity seen— as seems to come naturally to humans— is a much more difﬁcult and correspondingly more valu- From the meme’s-eye view, every human able trick, letting the imitator reap the beneﬁts of someone else’s learning or in- is a machine for making more memes— genuity as often as possible. For exam- a resource to compete for. ple, in experiments conducted in 1995 at the Yerkes Regional Primate Research Center in Georgia, when the same prob- are different from the millions of other complex social skills. Memetics provides lems were presented to orangutans and species on the planet. This is how we a completely different explanation. human children, only the humans readi- got our big brains, our language and all The critical transition for hominids ly used imitation to solve the problems. our other peculiar “surplus” abilities. was the dawn of imitation, perhaps two It is easy to imagine that our early an- and a half million years ago, before the cestors imitated useful new skills in Big Brains for Memes advent of stone tools and expanding making ﬁre, hunting, and carrying and brains. True imitation means copying a preparing food. As these early memes M emetics neatly resolves the mys- tery of the human brain’s vast- ness. The human brain is about as big novel behavior or skill from another an- imal. It is difﬁcult to do, requires a lot of brainpower and is correspondingly rare spread, the ability to acquire them be- came increasingly important for sur- vival. In short, people who were better as the genes can make it— three times in the animal kingdom. Although many at imitation thrived, and the genes that bigger, relative to body weight, than the birds copy songs, and whales and dol- gave them the bigger brains required brains of our closest relatives, the great phins can imitate sounds and actions, for it consequently spread in the gene apes. It is expensive to build and main- most species cannot. Often animal “im- pool. Everyone got better at imitation, tain, and many mothers and babies die itation,” such as learning to respond to intensifying the pressure to enlarge the 68 Scientiﬁc American October 2000 The Power of Memes Copyright 2000 Scientific American, Inc. survival skills— but also of extraneous behaviors such as decorat- an intrinsic part of human nature, and ever evolving memes would ing clothing. Good imitators would gain social status, attract mates gradually produce entire cultural systems (right), complete with and have more offspring, further driving the genes to develop big- activities such as monument building and human sacriﬁce that have ger brains capable of elaborate imitation. Imitation would become no payoff for the genes but serve to transmit the associated memes. brain still further in a kind of cerebral in modern life may be “trendsetters” or Through this effect, sexual selection, arms race. “role models.”) In addition to their bag guided by memes, could have played Once everyone started imitating, the of useful tricks for survival, the best im- a role in creating our big brains. By second replicator was let loose on the itators would thereby acquire higher choosing the best imitator for a mate, world, changing human evolution for- social status, further improving their women help propagate the genes need- ever. The memes started to take control. survival chances and helping to propa- ed to copy religious rituals, colorful Alongside useful skills, such as building gate the genes that made them talented clothes, singing, dancing, painting and ﬁres, people copied less useful ones like imitators— the genes that gave them big so on. By this process, the legacy of past fancy body decoration and downright brains specialized at accurate general- memetic evolution becomes embedded costly ones such as energetic but futile ized imitation. in the structures of our brains and we rain dances. The genes faced a problem: The genes would continue to respond become musical, artistic and religious how to ensure that their carriers copied with improvements in people’s innate creatures. Our big brains are selective only the useful behaviors. Newly arisen preferences about what to imitate, but imitation devices built by and for the memes can spread through a population the genes’ response, requiring genera- memes as much as for the genes. by imitation in a single generation, faster tions of people to act on, would always than genetic evolution can respond. By lag far behind the memetic develop- Origin of Language the time the genes could evolve a hard- ments. I call the process by which memes wired predilection for making ﬁres and an aversion to performing rain dances, completely different fads could arise control gene selection “memetic drive”: memes compete among themselves and evolve rapidly in some direction, and L anguage could have been another ex- quisite creation of this same process of meme-gene coevolution. Questions and hold sway. The genes can develop genes must respond by improving selec- about the origins and function of lan- only broad, long-term strategies to try tive imitation— increasing brain size guage have been so contentious that in to make their bearers more discriminat- and power along the way. Successful 1866 the Linguistic Society of Paris ing about what they imitate. memes thus begin dictating which genes banned any more speculation on the is- A useful general heuristic that the will be most successful. The memes take sue. Even today scientists have reached genes could bestow might be a predis- hold of the leash. no general consensus, but the most pop- position to copy the best imitators— the In a ﬁnal twist, it would pay for peo- ular theories appeal to genetic advan- DUSAN PETRICIC people most likely to have accurate ver- ple to mate with the most proﬁcient im- tage. For example, evolutionary psy- sions of currently useful memes. (More itators, because by and large, good imi- chologist Robin Dunbar of the Universi- familiar terms for “the best imitators” tators have the best survival skills. ty of Liverpool argues that language is a www.sciam.com Scientiﬁc American October 2000 69 Copyright 2000 Scientific American, Inc. communication. Then, stringing words together in different orders, and adding Memes are best thought about not by analogy preﬁxes and inﬂections, would provide with genes but as new replicators, with their own fertile niches for new, more sophisticat- ed vocal memes. In sum, the highest- ways of surviving and getting copied. quality replicable sounds would crowd out the poorer ones. Now consider the effect of this on the substitute for grooming in keeping large those with high fecundity, ﬁdelity and genes. Once again the best imitators (the social groups together. Evolutionary an- longevity: ones that make many accu- most articulate individuals) would ac- thropologist and neuroscientist Terrence rate and long-lived copies of themselves. quire higher status, the best mates and Deacon of Boston University proposes Sounds are more fecund than gestures, the most offspring. In consequence, genes that language made symbolic communi- particularly sounds analogous to “hey!” for the ability to imitate the winning cation possible, which in turn allowed or “look out!” Everyone within earshot sounds would increase in the gene pool. I improved hunting skills, tighter social can hear a shout, whether they happen to suggest that by this process the successful bonds and group defense. be looking at the speaker or not. Fidelity sounds—the foundations of spoken lan- In contrast, the theory of memetic of spoken memes is higher for those built guage— gradually drove the genes into drive explains language by its conferring from discrete units of sound (phonemes) creating a brain that was not merely big survival advantages on memes. To un- and divided into words—a kind of digiti- but especially adept at copying those par- derstand how this works, we must ask zation that reduces errors in copying. As ticular articulations. The result was the which kinds of memes would have sur- different actions and vocalizations com- remarkable human capacity for lan- vived best and proliferated in the emerg- peted in the prehistoric meme pool, guage. It was designed by memetic com- ing meme pool of our early ancestors. such spoken words would prosper and petition and meme-gene coevolution. The general answer for any replicator is displace less well adapted memes of The process of memetic driving is an COUNTERPOINT Meme Theory Oversimpliﬁes How Culture Changes by Robert Boyd and Peter J.Richerson G enes are replicators. They pass faithfully from parent to child and control the machinery of life. This faithful transmis- sion is what enables natu- ral selection to operate: genes that cause their bearers to survive better or reproduce faster than bearers of other genes will spread through the population. Oth- IDEAS are often systematically transformed as they pass from er processes,such as mutation,play crucial roles in evolution, but one person to another or from one generation to the next. most adaptation can be explained by asking which genes will replicate at the highest rate. This simple rule has astonishing nisms analogous to natural selection can affect which ideas power, allowing biologists to understand phenomena as diverse spread and which ones disappear. But Blackmore is probably as the shape of the human pelvis and the timing of sex changes wrong in thinking that cultural evolution can be explained in in hermaphroditic ﬁsh. terms of natural selection alone. Instead scientists need to com- Susan Blackmore argues that beliefs and ideas, which she calls bine research from psychology, anthropology and linguistics to memes, are also replicators. They are copied faithfully from one clarify the multiple processes that actually shape human culture. mind to another and control the behavior of the people who ac- Unlike genes, ideas usually are not passed intact from one per- quire them.That being the case, Blackmore suggests, the evolu- son to another. Information in one person’s brain generates a be- tion of ideas is also shaped by natural selection, and cultural havior, and then someone else tries to infer the information re- change can be understood by asking which memes replicate quired to do the same thing.Breakdowns in the accurate transmis- most quickly. sion of ideas can occur because differences in the genes,culture or DUSAN PETRICIC We think Blackmore is at least half right. Ideas from biology are personal background of two individuals can cause one person to certainly useful for studying cultural evolution.Culture does con- make a wrong assumption about what motivated the other’s be- sist of ideas stored in a population of human brains, and mecha- havior. As a result, memes are often systematically transformed 70 Scientiﬁc American October 2000 The Power of Memes Copyright 2000 Scientific American, Inc. BROCA’S MOTOR CORTEX SCANS OF BRAIN ACTIVITY could test MOTOR REGION whether the human brain has evolved to CORTEX imitate and spread memes. Here researchers mapped neural activity associated with a speciﬁc hand motion. The same areas lit up BRAIN IMAGES AND DATA FROM NOBUYUKI NISHITANI AND RIITTA HARI Helsinki University of Technology whether the subjects acted of their own vo- lition (red), merely observed someone else (blue) or imitated the other person (green). Imitation produced the strongest activity. The results suggest that Broca’s region in humans controls a “mirror neuron system” LEFT VISUAL specially evolved to imitate actions. Mon- RIGHT HEMISPHERE CORTEX keys, however, have a similar system. HEMISPHERE example of replicators (memes) evolving machinery. As with the evolution of that the Internet, copying machinery has been concurrently with their copying machin- sophisticated gene-copying apparatus, improving, spreading a growing multi- ery (brains). The appearance of memes we might expect better meme-copying tude of memes farther and faster. Today’s is not the ﬁrst time such concurrent evo- machinery to have appeared— and it information explosion is just what we lution has occurred: something similar has. Written language provided a vast should expect of memetic evolution. must have taken place in the earliest leap forward in longevity and ﬁdelity; This memetic theory depends on a stages of life on earth, when the ﬁrst the printing press enhanced fecundity. number of conjectures that can be test- replicating molecules developed in the From the telegraph to the cell phone, ed, especially the assumption that imita- primeval soup and evolved into DNA from “snail” mail to e-mail, from phono- tion requires a lot of brainpower, even and all its associated cellular replication graphs to DVDs and from computers to though it comes so easily to us. Brain- during transmission— a process quite unlike natural selection, their effect usually can be ignored when thinking about adapta- which depends on one meme spreading more quickly than com- tions. If mutations occurred more often— say, every 10 replica- peting alternatives.Transformation,on the other hand,could cause tions— they would have a signiﬁcant effect on which genes were people in one generation to acquire a different meme than the most common.We think this situation is exactly what occurs with one held by every person in the previous generation. ideas,which can transform rapidly as they spread from one person David Wilkins of the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics to the next.If we are right,cultural change will be understood only in Nijmegen in the Netherlands discovered a simple example of if the effects of transformation and natural selection are combined. A number of other nonselective processes may affect the evo- lution of ideas. For example, a person can learn an idea from Cultural evolution cannot someone else and then modify the idea in an effort to improve it. Still other nonselective processes can arise when people synthe- be explained in terms of size their own beliefs after being exposed to a number of people natural selection alone. who behave differently. We think that successful interpretations of cultural change require meticulous attention to the many processes that guide particular instances of cultural evolution. meme transformation when he found that Americans of differ- Social scientists have already made some progress on this proj- ent generations varied in their understanding of the word end- ect. William Labov of the University of Pennsylvania has described ing -gate.People over the age of 40 assumed that -gate implied a psychological and social processes that cause gradual changes government scandal in Washington, usually involving a cover- in dialect from generation to generation, for instance, and Albert up.These baby boomers experienced Richard Nixon’s presidency Bandura of Stanford University has studied how imitation shapes as adults and interpreted constructions such as Travelgate as the acquisition of ideas. scandals analogous to Watergate.Younger Americans had heard Over the past century biologists have developed many con- -gate used to refer to a variety of scandals in Washington. But cepts and mathematical tools that can help clarify what happens knowing much less about Watergate, they couldn’t detect this when a variety of processes interact to shape the evolution of common thread and instead analyzed -gate as a sufﬁx that can populations. By combining these ideas with empirical studies, be added to any word to indicate a scandal.Notice that this trans- scientists may then be able to understand how culture evolves. formation could have occurred without competition among alter- native memes. Every meme in every baby boomer brain could ROBERT BOYD and PETER J.RICHERSON have collaborated for 25 specify that -gate means a government scandal like Watergate; years in studying the evolution of human culture and how cultural nonetheless, every younger person could infer -gate to mean any and genetic evolution interact. Their work couples mathematical scandal. models with empirical work drawn from laboratory and ﬁeld re- As Blackmore notes,genes can also be transformed by sponta- search. Boyd is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of neous changes called mutations. But genetic mutations are rare, California, Los Angeles; Richerson is a population biologist at the occurring about once every million replications, and as a result University of California,Davis. www.sciam.com Scientiﬁc American October 2000 71 Copyright 2000 Scientific American, Inc. COUNTERPOINT People Do More Than Imitate by Henry Plotkin I see two main problems with memetics of the Susan Black- more variety. First is her suggestion that culture is nothing but a collection of memes.She includes everything from a simple ac- tion such as using a stone tool to complex institutions such as banks.The second problem is her idea that all memes, and thus all aspects of culture, are spread by imitation. From my perspec- tive as a psychologist, neither assertion is correct. Early in the 20th century American psychologist Edward Thorn- dike deﬁned imitation as learning to do an act from seeing it done; this meaning prevails in psychological research today. If the word imitation is used in this way, then Blackmore’s asser- tions are trivial, because imitating actions transmits almost noth- ing of cultural importance. Tying shoelaces and throwing a ball are not in themselves signiﬁcant in human affairs. If the word imitation is used instead as Blackmore prefers— to mean any and every manner of communication between peo- ple, from passing on the gist of a story to remembering the in- SHARED KNOWLEDGE, such as the rules that operate in structions read in a manual a week ago— then the term becomes restaurants, cannot be imitated. so vague as to be meaningless.And even this broad deﬁnition of imitation cannot account for the existence and evolution of cul- service or revenge. In all cases, justice goes beyond courts of law, ture, which is much more than the rote repetition of physical ac- judges or prisons. tions. Human culture is about the sharing of knowledge, beliefs Scientists have remarkably few detailed studies of how chil- and values. dren come to understand and uphold such complex abstrac- At the core of any culture are shared understandings about tions. Language is obviously involved. Also signiﬁcant is our abil- how the world works, sometimes referred to as schemas. The ity to realize that other people have intentions and desires, a rules that operate in restaurants form a classic schema: in such capacity that psychologists call “theory of the mind.” Respon- places someone prepares your food, brings it to your table and siveness to social force— another psychological trait unique to our species— is an additional potent motive for adhering to shared beliefs and values. Again, imitation does not come into it. Human culture is about the sharing We do not and cannot imitate justice. Rather we come to under- stand it slowly through conversations, formal teaching, reading of knowledge, beliefs and ideas. books, watching ﬁlms, and the like. Blackmore argues that this slow accumulation of understand- Imitation, properly deﬁned, ing depends on imitation,but it isn’t that simple. Recent neurobi- does not come into it. ological studies indicate that imitation requires speciﬁc mes- sages to be computed in specialized areas of the brain. That means that when as a child I came to understand what a restau- cleans up after you in exchange for money. Children acquire the rant is, or what justice is, I did so by following a sequence of psy- many schemas that characterize their own culture through a mix chological steps entirely different from those by which I learned of informal guidance from adults and peers and by the complex to tie my shoelaces. psychological mechanisms that enable a person to make sense of Schemas and social constructions arise out of the operation of abstract ideas. Imitation,properly deﬁned,does not come into it. memory and abstraction. They have nothing to do with “learning Shared beliefs and values, also called social constructions, to do an act from seeing it done.” The acceptance and spread of come to us in a similarly complex and ill-understood fashion. In ideas through society— especially an ideology such as justice— contrast to schemas, which describe tangible entities such as are slow, unpredictable and difﬁcult to measure,and certainly do restaurants,social constructions exist only because people agree not ﬁt within the restrictive theory of memes. Culture, as a collec- that they do. Money is a social construction. So, too, is justice. tive of human brains and minds, is the most complex phenome- Some of them have physical embodiments, such as paper or non on earth. We will never understand it if we approach it in a coins,but they all go beyond the physical and into mental agree- simpleminded way. ments about what things mean. Without consensus that bills and coins have speciﬁc values, money is worthless. Many beliefs HENRY PLOTKIN is a psychobiologist at University College Lon- DUSAN PETRICIC and values also regulate social interactions. In much of Western don, where he has worked since 1972.The author of two books on culture, for instance, justice is based on concepts of fairness and evolution and cognition,he is currently writing a third,on the evolu- ownership. Other cultures deﬁne justice through such ideas as tion of culture. 72 Scientiﬁc American October 2000 The Power of Memes Copyright 2000 Scientific American, Inc. scan studies might compare people car- rying out actions with others copying them. Contrary to common sense, this theory postulates that imitation is the harder part— and also that the evolu- tionarily newer parts of the brain should be especially implicated in carry- ing it out. In addition, within any group of related animal species, those with the most ability at imitation should have the largest brains. The scarcity of imita- tion in animals limits the amount of data available, but species of birds, whales and dolphins could be analyzed and compared with this prediction. Experimental Tests I f language developed in humans as a result of meme-gene coevolution, lin- guists should ﬁnd signs that grammar is optimized for transmitting memes with EMOTIONS ROUSED BY IDEOLOGICAL SYMBOLS suggest the importance that high fecundity, ﬁdelity and longevity, memes hold for us and the power they have over our behavior. rather than for conveying information on speciﬁc topics such as hunting or for simulations of noisy imitating robots. are very different from genes. And so forming social contracts. Social psychol- Memetics is a new science, struggling they are. They suffer (or beneﬁt) from ogy experiments should show that peo- to ﬁnd its place and with many critics. much greater mutation rates, and they ple preferentially copy more articulate Some of these critics have simply failed are not locked into a system as rigidly people and ﬁnd them more sexually at- to grasp the idea of a replicator. We need prescribed as DNA replication and pro- tractive than less eloquent people. to remember that memes, like genes, are tein synthesis. Memes are best thought Other predictions can be tested by merely bits of information that either about not by analogy with genes but as mathematical modeling and computer succeed in getting copied or do not. In new replicators, with their own ways of simulations, which many researchers this sense, but no other, memes can be surviving and getting copied. Memes have used to model evolutionary proc- said to be “selﬁsh” and to have replica- can be copied all over the place, from esses. The addition of a second, faster tor power. Memes are not magical enti- speech to paper to book to computer, replicator to a system should introduce ties or free-ﬂoating Platonic ideals but and to another person. a dramatic change, analogous to the information lodged in speciﬁc human Yet many more potential criticisms re- appearance of memes and the human memories, actions and artifacts. Nor are main, and much work is still to be done. brain’s expansion. The second replica- all mental contents memes, because not In the end, memetics deserves to succeed tor should also be able to control, and all of them were copied from someone only if it provides better explanations even stop, the evolution of the ﬁrst. else. If all your memes were removed, than rival theories and offers valid and Such models might then be used to un- you would still have many perceptions, testable predictions. Unlike religions, the derstand in greater detail the coevolu- emotions, imaginings and learned skills great meme-complex of science includes tion of memes and genes. In addition, that are yours alone, that you did not methods for throwing out ideas that are the idea that language could sponta- acquire from anyone else and that you vacuous, nonsensical or plain wrong. It neously emerge in a population of imi- can never share with another. is against these criteria that memetics, tating creatures could be tested with A common objection is that memes quite rightly, will be judged. SA The Author Further Information SUSAN BLACKMORE was infected by the meme meme in 1995 by The Selﬁsh Gene. Richard Dawkins. Oxford University Daniel Dennett’s book Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and by an essay on memes Press, 1976. (Revised edition with additional material, 1989.) and consciousness by one of her Ph.D. students. The concept took root: by Culture and the Evolutionary Process. Robert Boyd promising to transform the understanding of the human mind, it caused and Peter J. Richerson. University of Chicago Press, 1985. Blackmore to devote many of her meme-generating resources to further Darwin Machines and the Nature of Knowledge. study and propagation of the idea. Her status as a source of scientiﬁc memes Henry C. Plotkin. Penguin, 1993. is embodied in her position as reader in psychology at the University of the Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. Daniel Dennett. Penguin, 1995. MARY ANN CHASTAIN AP Photo West of England, Bristol. The Committee for the Scientiﬁc Investigation of The Meme Machine. Susan Blackmore. Oxford University Claims of the Paranormal (CSICOP) has awarded her the Distinguished Press, 1999. Skeptic Award for her studies of near-death experiences and her suggestion Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a that tales of alien abduction are generated by people trying (with the wrong Science. Edited by Robert Aunger. Oxford University Press set of memes) to make sense of a form of sleep paralysis. (in press). www.sciam.com Scientiﬁc American October 2000 73 Copyright 2000 Scientific American, Inc.