I recently had a discussion with someone who is a big advocate to the theory of the meme. I have
since ordered the book [by Richard Dawkins] in which he was reading about it, but my initial reaction
is one of extreme scepticism. I feel 'meme' is merely an exercise in evaluating the cause of ones
actions through psychology etc. What are your thoughts? If this theory is true, surely we would still be
in the dark ages imitating our forefathers?
The meme theory is beautifully simple — and also deeply shocking. A meme can be any thought or
idea, or any way of doing something, in fact any recognizable patternin the things that human beings
do, or say, or produce. New memes are coming into existence all the time, sometimes as the result of
focused creative effort, at other times purely by accident. However, we needn't worry about analysing
'human creativity' because the meme theory will explain this.
Just as in biology genes brought into existence by the process of random mutation are replicated or
fail to be replicated through successive generations, so memes are replicated or fail to be replicated
between one individual who comes under the influence of an idea and another who comes in contact
with that idea. An idea may appear briefly, only to be extinguished and never seen again, or it can
gain such a hold on the human imagination that it lasts for centuries, or millennia.
In genetics, the mechanismthat determines whether a gene is replicated is its contribution to the
physical capacity of an organism which possesses it to survive and reproduce. Where sharper teeth
confer increased chances of survival, a gene for sharper teeth will be more likely to be replicated.
Even opponents of orthodox Darwinian theory accept that the influence of the environment can bring
about changes in the physical characteristics of members of a species, and that these changes have
a genetic basis: for example, the longer necks of turtles on the Galapagos Islands, a feature which so
In the case of memes, the mechanism of replication is not sexual choice and reproduction, but
imitation.Give a troupe of chimpanzees a tin lid and a few sticks to bash it with, and pretty soon
they're all beating the tin lid with a frenzy. One chimp gets the idea — creates the meme — then the
others copy it. A similar thing applies to human fashions, for example, the first person who had the
idea of wearing a baseball cap back to front.
The key point of the meme theory — and this is the part that is so shocking — is that whatever it is
about memes that gives them greater or less chance of being reproduced has nothing to do with
truth, value, utility, beauty or any of the attributes that human beings confer on them. Such
explanations are always post hoc:a lad might think wearing a baseball cap back to front is 'cool'. But
the reason it's cool is not that it iscool. Nothing, in physical reality is either 'cool' or 'uncool' except
that we make it so by our natural propensity to imitate.
Some memes can be bad for us, despite their capacity to replicate themselves. An example cited by
Dawkins is the belief that you will go to Hell if you do not indoctrinate your children in the religious
views about Hell and damnation that your parents indoctrinated you with.
I don't think, Nick, that your objection holds water, that if the meme theory was true, “we would still be
in the dark ages imitating our forefathers.” The continuous random creation of new memes sees to
that. I do think, however, that the theory is massively, grotesquely wrong.
One useful dialectical move is to see how a theory applies to itself. The famous case is that of the
theory of philosophical scepticism. You ask the sceptic if he knowsthat his theory is true, and he has
to say he doesn't. Now, the meme theory is undoubtedly widely known, as the result of the success of
Dawkins' books, a success due in large part to Dawkins' great gifts as an expositor. When Dawkins
appears on chat shows, or gives public lectures, new converts are made to the meme theory. —
According to the meme theory, 'the meme theory' is itself an idea, in competition with other ideas. The
extent to which the meme theory succeeds in making headway against the competition, therefore,
depends upon its capacity to copy itself, from one human mind to another.
On one level of generality, this must be true. But something is being missed out of this explanation —
something rather important, I would guess, for Dawkins. What Dawkins would like to say is that the
reasonwhy the meme-theory meme is so successful in copying itself is that it is the best explanation
of the phenomena. He would be shocked and perturbed if the real reason for its success was his
dashing good looks, or, worse, that his exposition was so sloppy that the theory had been completely
misunderstood with the result that the majority of the people who said they believed it, in fact believed
a quite different theory.
At the other extreme, exactly the same thing can be said about the baseball cap (another of Dawkins'
examples, incidentally). The reason youngsters think it is cool to wear baseball caps back to front is
that it iscool. It's a fact. To understand fashion you have to understand that wearing certain kinds of
garment, or wearing clothes or accessories in a certain way makes a statement.We can get things
wrong. We can end up making the wrong statement, and so making fools of ourselves. Some people
(myself included) do not worry too much about fashion. But only people who are severely mentally
disturbed do not care at allhow they look, how the way they dress is perceived by others.
I said this was at the 'extreme' because imitation does indeed play a highly significant role in fashion.
But not in the reductive, mechanical way that Dawkins understands that notion.
In between the search for scientific explanation, and following the fashions of the day lie all the
products of human culture, and the dialogueof evaluation and criticism. Just as scientists debate the
relative merits of rival theories, or fashion pundits argue over this autumn's colour, so we debate the
merits of painting, literature, architecture — or the soccer season's best goals. Dawkins is deaf to the
significance of that dialogue.