- Why are people?
- The replicators
- Immortal coils
- The gene machine
- Aggression: stability and the selfish machine
- Family planning
- Battle of the generations
- Battle of the sexes
- You scratch my back, I'll ride on yours
- Memes: the new replicators
- Nice guys finish first
- The long reach of the gene
The replicators Chapter 2
In the beginning was simplicity. It is difficult enough explaining how even a simple universe began. I take it as agreed that it would be even harder to explain the sudden springing up, fully armed, of complex order --- life, or a being capable of creating life. Darwin's theory of evolution by natural selection is satisfying because it shows us a way in which simplicity could change into complexity, how unordered atoms could group themselves into ever more complex patterns until they ended up manufacturing people. Darwin provides a solution, the only feasible one so far suggested, to the deep problem of our existence. I will try to explain the great theory in a more general way than is customary, beginning with the time before evolution itself began.
Darwin's 'survival of the fittest' is really a special case of a more general law of survival of the stable. The universe is populated by stable things. A stable thing is a collection of atoms that is permanent enough or common enough to deserve a name. It may be a unique collection of atoms, such as the Matterhorn, that lasts long enough to be worth naming. Or it may be a class of entities, such as rain drops, that come into existence at a sufficiently high rate to deserve a collective name, even if any one of them is short-lived. The things that we see around us, and which we th ink of as needing explanation --- rocks, galaxies, ocean waves --- are all, to a greater or lesser extent, stable patterns of atoms. Soap bubbles tend to be spherical because this is a stable configuration for thin films filled with gas. In a spacecraft, water is also stable in spherical globules, but on earth, where there is gravity, the stable surface for standing water is flat and horizontal. Salt crystals tend to be cubes because this is a stable way of packing sodium and chloride ions together. In the sun the simplest atoms of all, hydrogen atoms, are fusing to form helium atoms, because in the conditions that prevail there the helium configuration is more stable. Other even more complex atoms are being formed in stars all over the universe, ever since soon after the 'big bang' which, according to the prevailing theory, initiated the universe. This is originally where the elements on our world came from.
Sometimes when atoms meet they link up together in chemical reaction to form molecules, which may be more or less stable. Such molecules can be very large. A crystal such as a diamond can be regarded as a single molecule, a proverbially stable one in this case, but also a very simple one since its internal atomic structure is endlessly repeated. In modern living organisms there are other large molecules which are highly complex, and their complexity shows itself on several levels. The haemoglobin of our blood is a typical protein molecule. It is built up from chains of smaller molecules, amino acids, each containing a few dozen atoms arranged in a precise pattern. In the haemoglobin molecule there are 574 amino acid molecules. These are arranged in four chains, which twist around each other to form a globular three-dimensional structure of bewildering complexity. A model of a haemoglobin molecule looks rather like a dense thornbush. But unlike a real thornbush it is not a haphhazard approximate pattern but a definite invariant structure, identically repeated, with not a twig nor a twist out of place, over six thousand million million million times in an average human body. The precise thornbush shape of a protein molecule such as haemoglobin is stable in the sense that two chains consisting of the same sequences of amino acids will tend, like two springs, to come to rest in exactly the same three-dimensional coiled pattern. Haemoglobin thornbushes are springing into their 'preferred' shape in your body at a rate of about four hundred million million per second, and others are being destroyed at the same rate.
Haemoglobin is a modern molecule, used to illustrate the principle that atoms tend to fall into stable patterns. The point that is relevant here is that, before the coming of life on earth, some rudimentary evolution of molecules could have occurred by ordinary processes of physics and chemistry. There is no need to think of design or purpose or directedness. If a group of atoms in the presence of energy falls into a stable pattern it will tend to stay that way. The earliest form of natural selection was simply a selection of stable forms and a rejection of unstable ones. There is no mystery about this. It had to happen by definition.
From this, of course, it does not follow that you can explain the existence of entities as complex as man by exactly the same principles on their own. It is no good taking the right number of atoms and shaking them together with some external energy till they happen to fall into the right pattern, and out drops Adam! You may make a molecule consisting of a few doZen atoms like that, but a man consists of over a thousand million million million million atoms. To try to make a man, you would have to work at your biochemical cocktail-shaker for a period so long that the entire age of the universe would seem like an eye-blink, and even then you would not succeed. This is where Darwin's theory, in its most general form, comes to the rescue. Darwin's theory takes over from where the story of the slow building up of molecules leaves off.
The account of the origin of life that I shall give is necessarily speculative; by definition, nobody was around to see what happened. There are a number of rival theories, but they all have certain features in common. The simplified account I shall give is probably not too far from the truth.
We do not know what chemical raw materials were abundant on earth before the coming of life, but among the plausible possibilities are water, carbon dioxide, methane, and ammonia: all simple compounds known to be present on at least some of the other planets in our solar system. Chemists have tried to imitate the chemical conditions of the young earth. They have put these simple substances in a flask and supplied a source of energy such as ultraviolet light or electric sparks --- artificial simulation of primordial lighning. After a few weeks of this, something interesting is usually found inside the flask: a weak brown soup containing a large number of molecules more complex than the ones originally put in. In particular, amino acids have been found --- the building blocks of proteins, one of the two great classes of biological molecules. Before these experiments were done, naturally-occurring amino acids would have been thought of as diagnostic of the presence of life. If they had been detected on, say, Mars, life on that planet would have seemed a near certainty. Now, however, their existence need imply only the presence of a few simple gases in the atmosphere and some volcanoes, sunlight, or thundery weather. More recently, laboratory simulations of the chemical conditions of earth before the coming of life have yielded organic substances called purines and pyrimidines. These are building blocks of the genetic molecule, DNA itself.
Processes analogous to these must have given rise to the 'primeval soup' which biologists and chemists believe constituted the seas some three to four thousand million years ago. The organic substances became locally concentrated, perhaps in drying scum round the shores, or in tiny suspended droplets. Under the further influence of energy such as ultraviolet light from the sun, they combined into larger molecules. Nowadays large organic molecules would not last long enough to be noticed: they would be quickly absorbed and broken down by bacteria or other living creatures. But bacteria and the rest of us are late-comers, and in those days large organic molecules could drift unmolested through the thickening broth.
At some point a particularly remarkable molecule was formed by accident. We will call it the Replicator. It may not necessarily have been the biggest or the most complex molecule around, but it had the extraordinary property of being able to create copies of itself. This may seem a very unlikely sort of accident to happen. So it was. It was exceedingly improbable. In the lifetime of a man, things that are that improbable can be treated for practical purposes as impossible. That is why you will never win a big prize on the football pools. But in our human estimates of what is probable and what is not, we are not used to dealing in hundreds of millions of years. If you filled in pools coupons every week for a hundred million years you would very likely win several jackpots.
Actually a molecule that makes copies of itself is not as difficult to imagine as it seems at first, and it only had to arise once. Think of the replicator as a mould or template. Imagine it as a large molecule consisting of a complex chain of various sorts of building block molecules. The small building blocks were abundantly available in the soup surrounding the replicator. Now suppose that each building block has an affinity for its own kind. Then whenever a building block from out in the soup lands up next to a part of the replicator for which it has an affinity, it will tend to stick there. The building blocks that attach themselves in this way will automatically be arranged in a sequence that mimics that of the replicator itself. It is easy then to think of them joining up to form a stable chain just as in the formation of the original replicator. This process could continue as a progressive stacking up, layer upon layer. This is how crystals are formed. On the other hand, the two chains might split apart, in which case we have two replicators, each of which can go on to make further copies.
A more complex possibility is that each building block has affinity not for its own kind, but reciprocally for one particular other kind. Then the replicator would act as a template not for an identical copy, but for a kind of 'negative', which would in its turn re-make an exact copy of the original positive. For our purposes it does not matter whether the original replication process was positive-negative or positive-positive, though it is worth remarking that the modern equivalents of the first replicator, the DNA molecules, use positive-negative replication. What does matter is that suddenly a new kind of 'stability' came into the world. Previously it is probable that no particular kind of complex molecule was very abundant in the soup, because each was dependent on building blocks happening to fall by luck into a particular stable configuration. As soon as the replicator was born it must have spread its copies rapidly throughout the seas, until the smaller building block molecules became a scarce resource, and other larger molecules were formed more and more rarely.
So we seem to arrive at a large population of identical replicas. But now we must mention an important property of any copying process: it is not perfect. Mistakes will happen. I hope there are no misprints in this book, but if you look carefully you may find one or two. They will probably not seriously distort the meaning of the sentences, because they will be 'first generation' errors. But imagine the days before printing, when books such as the Gospels were copied by hand. All scribes, however careful, are bound to make a few errors, and some are not above a little wilful 'improvement'. If they all copied from a single master original, meaning would not be greatly perverted. But let copies be made from other copies, which in their turn were made from other copies, and errors will start to become cumulative and serious. We tend to regard erratic copying as a bad thing, and in the case of human documents it is hard to think of examples where errors can be described as improvements. I suppose the scholars of the Septuagint could at least be said to have started something big when they mistranslated the Hebrew word for 'young woman' into the Greek word for 'virgin', coming up with the prophecy: 'Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son...' Anyway, as we shall see, erratic copying in biological replicators can in a real sense give rise to improvement, and it was essential for the progressive evolution of life that some errors were made. We do not know how accurately the original replicator molecules made their copies. Their modern descendants, the DNA molecules, are astonishingly faithful compared with the most high-fidelity human copying process, but even they occasionally make mistakes, and it is ultimately these mistakes that make evolution possible. Probably the original replicators were far more erratic, but in any case we may be sure that mistakes were made, and these mistakes were cumulative.
As mis-copyings were made and propagated, the primeval soup became filled with a population not of identical replicas, but of several varieties of replicating molecules, all 'descended' from the same ancestor. Would some varieties have been more numerous than others? Almost certainly yes. Some varieties would have been inherently more stable than others. Certain molecules, once formed, would be less likly than others to break up again. These types would become relatively numerous in the soup, not only as a direct logical consequence of their 'longevity', but also because they would have a long time available for making copies of themselves. Replicators of high longevity would therefore tend to become more numerous and, other things being equal, there would have been an 'evolutionary trend' towards greater longevity in the population of molecules.
But other things were probably not equal, and another property of a replicator variety that must have had even more importance in spreading it through the population was speed of replication or 'fecundity'. If replicator molecules of type A make copies of themselves on average once a week while those of type B make copies of themselves once an hour, it is not difficult to see that pretty soon type A molecules are going to be far outnumbered, even if they 'live' much longer than B molecules. There would therefore probably have been an 'evolutionary trend' towards higher 'fecundity' of molecules in the soup. A third characteristic of replicator molecules which would have been positively selected is accuracy of repetition. If molecules of type X and Y last the same length of time and replicate at the same rate, but X makes a mistake on average every tenth replication while Y makes a mistake only every hundredth replication, Y will obviously become more numerous. The X contingent in the population loses not only the errant 'children' themselves, but also all their descendants, actual or potential.
If you already know something about evolution, you may find something slightly paradoxical about the last point. Can we reconcile the idea that copying errors are an essential prerequisite for evolution to occur, with the statement that natural selection favours high copying-fidelity? The answer is that although evolution may seem, in some vague sense, a 'good thing', especially since we are the product of it, nothing actually 'wants' to evolve. Evolution is something that happens, willy-nilly, in spite of all the efforts of the replicators (and nowadays of the genes) to prevent it happening. Jacques Monod made this point very well in his Herbert Spencer lecture, after wryly remarking: 'Another curious aspect of the theory of evolution is that everybody thinks he understands it!'
To return to the primeval soup, it must have become populated by stable varieties of molecule; stable in that either the individual molecules lasted a long time, or they replicated rapidly, or they replicated accurately. Evolutionary trends toward these three kinds of stability took place in the following sense: if you had sampled the soup at two different times, the later sample would have contained a higher proportion of varieties with high longevity / fecundity / copying-fidelity. This is essentially what a biologist means by evolution when he is speaking of living creatures, and the mechanism is the same --- natural selection.
Should we then call the original replicator molecules 'living'? Who cares? I might say to you 'Darwin was the greatest man who has ever lived' and you might say 'No, Newton was', but I hope we would not prolong the argument. The point is that no conclusion of substance would be affected whichever way our argument was resolved. The facts of the lives and achievements of Newton and Darwin remain totally unchanged whether we label them 'great' or not. Similarly, the story of the replicator molecules probably happened something like the way I am telling it, regardless of whether we choose to call them 'living'. Human suffering has been caused because too many of us cannot grasp that words are only tools for our use, and that the mere presence in the dictionary of a word like 'living' does not mean it necessarily has to refer to something definite in the real world. Whether we call the early replicators living or not, they were the ancestors of life; they were our founding fathers.
The next important link in the argument, one that Darwin himself laid stress on (although he was talking about animals and plants, not molecules) is competition. The primeval soup was not capable of supporting an infinite number of replicator molecules. For one thing, the earth's size is finite, but other limiting factors must also have been important. In our picture of the replicator acting as a template or mould, we supposed it to be bathed in a soup rich in the small building block molecules necessary to make copies. But when the replicators became numerous, building blocks must have been used up at such a rate that they becmae a scarce resource. Different varieties or strains of replicator must have competed for them. We have considered the factors that would have increased the numbers of favoured kinds of replicator. We can now see that less-favoured varieties must actually have become less numerous because of competition, and ultimately many of their lines must have gone extinct. There was a struggle for existence among replicator varieties. They did not know they were struggling, or worry about it; the struggle was conducted without any hard feelings, indeed without feelings of any kind. But they were struggling, in the sense that any mis-copying that resulted in a new higher level of stability, or a new way of reducing the stability of rivals, was automatically preserved and multiplied. The process of improvement was cumulative. Ways of increasing stability and of decreasing rivals' stability became more elaborate and more efficient. Some of them may even have 'discovered' how to break up molecules of rival varieties chemically, and to use the building blocks so released for making their own copies. These proto-carnivores simultaneously obtained food and removed competing rivals. Other replicators perhaps discovered how to protect themselves, either chemically, or by building a physical wall of protein around themselves. This may have been how the first living cells appeared. Replicators began not merely to exist, but to construct for themselves containers, vehicles for their continued existence. The replicators that survived were the ones that built survival machines for themselves to live in. The first survival machines probably consisted of nothing more than a protective coat. But making a living got steadily harder as new rivals arose with better and more effective survival machines. Survival machines got bigger and more elaborate, and the process was cumulative and progressive.
Was there to be any end to the gradual improvement in the techniques and artifices used by the replicators to ensure their own continuation in the world? There would be plenty of time for improvement. What weird engines of self-preservation would the millenia bring forth? Four thousand million years on, what was to be the fate of the ancient replicators? They did not die out, for they are past masters of the survival arts. But do not look for them floating loose in the sea; they gave up that cavalier freedom long ago. Now they swarm in huge colonies, safe inside gigantic lumbering robots, sealed off from the outside world, communicating with it by torturous indirect routes, manipulating it by remote control. They are in you and in me; they created us, body and mind; and their preservation is the ultimate rationale for our existence. They have come a long way, those replicators. Now they go by the name of genes, and we are their survival machines.
Memes: the new replicators Chapter 11
So far, I have not talked much about man in particular, though I have not deliberately excluded him either. Part of the reason I have used the term 'survival machine' is that 'animal' would have left out plants and, in some people's minds, humans. The arguments I have put forward should, prima facie, apply to any evolved being. If a species is to be excepted, it must be for good particular reasons. Are there any good reasons for supposing our own species to be unique? I believe the answer is yes.
Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one word: 'culture'. I use the word not in its snobbish sense, but as a scientist uses it. Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic transmission in that, although basically conservative, it can give rise to a form of evolution. Geoffrey Chaucer could not hold a conversation with a modern Englishman, even though they are linked to each other by an unbroken chain of some twenty generations of Englishmen, each of whom could speak to his immediate neighbours in the chain as a son speaks to his father. Language seems to 'evolve' by non-genetic means, and at a rate which is orders of magnitude faster than genetic evolution.
Cultural transmission is not unique to man. The best non-human example that I know has recently been described by P.F.Jenkins in the song of a bird called the saddleback which lives on islands off New Zealand. On the island where he worked there was a total repertoire of about nine distinct songs. Any given male sang only one or a few of these songs. The males could be classified into dialect groups. For example, one group of eight males with neighbouring territories sang a particular song called the CC song. Other dialect groups sang different songs. Sometimes the members of a dialect group shared more than one distinct song. By comparing the songs of fathers and sons, Jenkins showed that song patterns were not inherited genetically. Each young male was likely to adopt songs from his territorial neighbours by imitation, in an analogous way to human language. During most of the time Jenkins was there, there was a fixed number of songs on the island, a kind of 'song pool' from which each young male drew his own small repertoire. But occasionally Jenkins was privileged to witness the 'invention' of a new song, which occurred by a mistake in the imitation of an old one. He writes: 'New song forms have been shown to arise variously by change of pitch of a note, repetition of a note, the elision of notes and the combination of parts of other existing songs . . . The appearance of the new form was an abrupt event and the product was quite stable over a period of years. Further, in a number of cases the variant was transmitted accurately in its new form to younger recruits so that a recognizably coherent group of like singers developed'. Jenkins refers to the origins of new songs as 'cultural mutations'.
Song in the saddleback truly evolves by non-genetic means. There are other examples of cultural evolution in birds and monkeys, but these are just interesting oddities. It is in our own species that really shows what cultural evolution can do. Language is only one example out of many. Fashions in dress and diet, ceremonies and customs, art and architecture, engineering and technology, all evolve in historical time in a way that looks like highly speeded up genetic evolution, but has really nothing to do with genetic evolution. As in genetic evolution though, the change may be progressive. There is a sense in which modern science is actually better than ancient science. Not only does our understanding of the universe change as the centuries go by: it improves. Admittedly the current burst of improvement dates back only to the Renaissance, which was preceded by a dismal period of stagnation, in which European scientific culture was frozen at the level achieved by the Greeks. But, as we saw in Chapter 5, genetic evolution too may proceed as a series of brief spurts between stable plateaux.
The analogy between cultural and genetic evolution has frequently been pointed out, sometimes in the context of quite unnecessary mystical overtones. The analogy between scientific progress and genetic evolution by natural selection has been illuminated especially by Karl Popper. I want to go even further into directions which are also being explored by, for example, the geneticist L.L.Cavalli-Sforza, the anthropologist F.T.Cloak, and the ethologist J.M.Cullen.
As an enthusiastic Darwinian, I have been dissatisfied with explanations that my fellow-enthusiasts have offered for human behaviour. They have tried to look for 'biological advantages' in various attributes of human civilisation. For instance, tribal religion has been seen as a mechanism for solidifying group identity, valuable for a pack-hunting species whose individuals rely on cooperation to catch large and fast prey. Frequently the evolutionary preconception in terms of which such theories are framed is implicitly group-selectionist, but it is possible to rephrase the theories in terms of orthodox gene selection. Man may well have spent large portions of the last several million years living in small kin groups. Kin selection and selection in favour of reciprocal altruism may have acted on human genes to produce many of our basic psychological attributes and tendencies. These ideas are plausible as far as they go, but I find that they do not begin to square up to the formidable challenge of explaining culture, cultural evolution, and the immense differences between human cultures around the world, from the utter selfishness of the Ik of Uganda, as described by Colin Turnbull, to the gentle altruism of Margaret Mead's Arapesh. I think we have got to start again and go right back to first principles. The argument I shall advance, surprising as it may seem coming from the author of the earlier chapters, is that, for an understanding of the evolution of modern man, we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas on evolution. I am an enthusiastic Darwinian, but I think Darwinism is too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene. The gene will enter my thesis as an analogy, nothing more.
What, after all, is so special about genes? The answer is that they are replicators. The laws of physics are supposed to be true all over the accessible universe. Are there any principles of biology that are likely to have similar universal validity? When astronauts voyage to distant planets and look for life, they can expect to find creatures too strange and unearthly for us to imagine. But is there anything that must be true of all life, wherever it is found, and whatever the basis of its chemistry? If forms of life exist whose chemistry is based on silicon rather than carbon, or ammonia rather than water, if creatures are discovered that boil to death at -100 degrees centigrade, if a form of life is found that is not based on chemistry at all but on electronic reverberating circuits, will there still be any general principle that is true of all life? Obviously I do not know but, if I had to bet, I would put my money on one fundamental principle. This is the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. There may be others. If there are, provided certain other conditions are met, they will almost inevitably tend to become the basis for an evolutionary process.
But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution? I think that a new kind of replicator has emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionaary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.
The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory', or to the French word meme. It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'.
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K.Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this 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 meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And 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.'
Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent 'mutation'. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that 'survival value' here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The 'everlasting arms' hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies, which, like a doctor's placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.
Some of my colleagues have suggested to me that this account of the survival value of the god meme begs the question. In the last analysis, they wish always to go back to 'biological advantage'.1925pm. I'm feeling much better after realising how important misogyny is, and what it means spiritually. It's like a huge load dropping from my shoulders. All my suffering, self-doubt, recriminations --- all of it is because of this attachment to a cunning, half-invisible meme --- or a collection of memes --- the bundled idea of Woman being all kinds of devious traps, to get me to believe in things, and to hold onto them as if to a life-saving rope. To them it is not good enough to say that the idea of a god has 'great psychological appeal'. They want to know why it has great psychological appeal. Psychological appeal means appeal to brains, and brains are shaped by natural selection of genes in gene-pools. They want to find some way in which having a brain like that improves gene survival.
I have a lot of sympathy with this attitude, and I do not doubt that there are genetic advantages in our having brains of the kind that we have. But nevertheless I think that these colleagues, if they look carefully at the fundamentals of their own assumptions, will find that they are beggin just as many questions as I am. Fundamentally, the reason why it is good policy for us to try to explain biological phenomena in terms of gene advantage is that genes are replicators. As soon as the primeval soup provided conditions in which molecules could make copies of themselves, the replicators themselves took over. For more than three thousand million years, DNA has been the only replicator worth talking about in the world. But it does not necessarily hold these monopoly rights for all time. Whenever conditions arise in which a new kind of replicator can make copies of itself, the new replicators will tend to take over, and start a new kind of evolution of their own. Once this new evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subservient to the old. The old gene-selected evolution, by making brains, provided the soup in which the first memes arose. Once self-copying memes had arisen, their own, much faster, kind of evolution took off. We biologists have assimilated the idea of genetic evolution so deeply that we tend to forget that it is only one of many possible kinds of evolution.
Imitation, in the broad sense, is how memes can replicate. But just as not all genes that can replicate do so successfully, so some memes are more successful in the meme-pool than others. This is the analogue of natural selection. I have mentioned particular examples of qualities that make for high survival value among memes. But in general they must be the same as those discussed for the replicators of Chapter 2: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity. The longevity of any one copy of a meme is probably relatively unimportant, as it is for any one copy of a gene. The copy of the tune 'Auld Lang Syne' that exists in my brain will last only for the rest of my life. The copy of the same tune that is printed in my volume of The Scottish Student's Song Book is unlikely to last much longer. But I expect there will be copies of the same tune on paper and in people's brains for centuries to come. As in the case of genes, fecundity is much more important than longevity of particular copies. If the meme is a scientific idea, its spread will depend on how acceptable it is to the population of individual scientists; a rough measure of its survival value could be obtained by counting the number of times it is referred to in successive years in scientific journals. If it is a popular tune, its spread through the meme pool may be gauged by the number of people heard whistling it in the streets. If it is a style of women's shoe, the population memeticist may use sales statistics from shoe shops. Some memes, like some genes, achieve brilliant short-term success in spreading rapidly, but do not last long in the meme pool. Popular songs and stiletto heels are examples. Others, such as the Jewish religious laws, may continue to propagate themselves for thousands of years, usually because of the great potential permanence of written records.
This brings me to the third general quality of successful replicators: copying-fidelity. Here I must admit that I am on shaky ground. At first sight it looks as if memes are not high-fidelity replicators at all. Every time a scientist hears an idea and passes it on to somebody else, he is likely to change it somewhat. I have made no secret of my debt in this book to the ideas of R.L.Trivers. Yet I have not repeated them in his own words. I have twisted them round for my own purposes, changing the emphasis, blending them with ideas of my own and of other people. The memes are being passed on to you in altered form. This looks quite unlike the particulate, all-or-none quality of gene transmission. It looks as though meme transmission is subject to continuous mutation, and also to blending.
It is possible that this appearance of non-particulateness is illusory, and that the analogy with genes does not break down. After all, if we look at the inheritance of many genetic characters such as human height or skin-colouring, it does not look like the work of indivisible and unblendable genes. If a black and a white person mate, their children do not come out either black or white: they are intermediate. This does not mean the genes concerned are not particulate. It is just that there are so many of them concerned with skin colour, each one having such a small effect, that they seem to blend. So far I have talked of memes as though it was obvious what a single unit-meme consisted of. But of course it is far from obvious. I have said that a tune is one meme, but what about a symphony: how many memes is that? Is each movement one meme, each recognisable phrase of melody, each bar, each chord, or what?
I appeal to the same verbal trick as I used in Chapter 3. There I divided the 'gene complex' into large and small genetic units, and units within units. The 'gene' was defined, not in a rigid all-or-none way, but as a unit of convenience, a length of chromosome with just sufficient copying-fidelity to serve as a viable unit of natural selection. If a single phrase of Beethoven's ninth symphony is sufficiently distinctive and memorable to be abstracted from the context of the whole symphony, and used as the call-sign of a maddeningly intrusive European broadcasting station, then to that extent it deserves to be called one meme. It has, incidentally, materially diminished my capacity to enjoy the original symphony.
Similarly, when we say that all biologists nowadays believe in Darwin's theory, we do not mean that every biologist has, graven in his brain, an identical copy of the exact words of Charles Darwin himself. Each individual has his own way of interpreting Darwin's ideas. He probably learned them not from Darwin's own writings, but from more recent authors. Much of what Darwin said is, in detail, wrong. Darwin if he read this book would scarcely recognise his own original theory in it, though I hope he would like the way I put it. Yet, in spite of all this, there is something, some essence of Darwinism, which is present in the head of every individual who understands the theory. If this were not so, then almost any statement about two people agreeing with each other would be meaningless. An 'idea-meme' might be defined as an entity that is capable of being transmitted from one brain to another. The meme of Darwin's theory is therefore that essential basis of the idea which is held in common by all brains that understand the theory. The differences in the ways that people represent the theory are then, by definition, not part of the meme. If Darwin's theory can be subdivided into components, such that some people believe component A but not component B, while others believe B but not A, then A and B should be regarded as separate memes. If almost everybody who believes in A also believes in B --- if the memes are closely 'linked' to use the genetic term --- then it is convenient to lump them together as one meme.
Let us pursue the analogy between memes and genes further. Throughout this book, I have emphasized that we must not think of genes as conscious, purposeful agents. Blind natural selection, however, makes them behave rather as if they were purposeful, and it has been convenient, as a shorthand, to refer to genes in the language of purpose. For example, when we say 'genes are trying to increase their numbers in future gene pool', what we really mean is 'those genes that behave in such a way as to increase their numbers in future gene pools tend to be the genes whose effects we see in the world'. Just as we have found it convenient to think of genes as active agents, working purposefully for their own survival, perhaps it might be convenient to think of memes in the same way. In neither case must we get mystical about it. In both cases the idea of purpose is only a metaphor, but we have already seen what a fruitful metaphor it is in the case of genes. We have even used words like 'selfish' and 'ruthless' of genes, knowing full well it is only a figure of speech. Can we, in exactly the same spirit, look for selfish or ruthless memes?
There is a problem here concerning the nature of competition. Where there is sexual reproduction, each gene is competing particularly with its own alleles --- rivals for the same chromosomal slot. Memes seem to have nothing equivalent to chromosomes, and nothing equivalent to alleles. I suppose there is a trivial sense in which many ideas can be said to have 'opposites'. But in general memes resemble the early replicating molecules, floating chaotically free in the primeval soup, rather than modern genes in their neatly paired, chromosomal regiments. In what sense then are memes competing with each other? Should we expect them to be 'selfish' or 'ruthless', if they have no alleles? The answer is that we might, because there is a sense in which they must indulge in a kind of competition with each other.
Any user of a digital computer knows how precious computer time and memory storage space are. At many large computer centres they are literally costed in money; or each user may be allotted a ration of time, measured in seconds, and a ration of space, measured in 'words'. The computers in which memes live are human brains. Time is possibly a more important limiting factor than storage space, and it is the subject of heavy competition. The human brain, and the body that it controls, cannot do more than one or a few things at once. If a meme is to dominate the attention of a human brain, it must do so at the expense of 'rival' memes. Other commodities for which memes compete are radio and television time, billboard space, newspaper column-inches, and library shelf-space.
In the case of genes, we saw in Chapter 3 that co-adapted gene complexes may arise in the gene pool. A large set of genes concerned with mimicry in butterflies became tightly linked together on the same chromosome, so tightly that they can be treated as one gene. In Chapter 5 we met the more sophisticated idea of the evolutionarily stable set of genes. Mutually suitable teeth, claws, guts, and sense organs evolved in carnivore gene pools, while a different stable set of characteristics emerged from herbivore gene pools. Does anything analogous occur in meme pools? Has the god meme, say, become associated with any other particular memes, and does this association assist the survival of each of the participating memes? Perhaps we could regard an organised church, with its architecture, rituals, laws, music, art, and written tradition, as a co-adapted stable set of mutually-assisting memes.
To take a particular example, an aspect of doctrine that has been very effective in enforcing religious observance is the threat of hell fire. Many children and even some adults believe that they will suffer ghastly torments after death if they do not obey the priestly rules. This is a peculiarly nasty technique of persuasion, causing great psychological anguish throughout the middle ages and even today. But it is highly effective. It might almost have been planned deliberately by a machiavellian priesthood trained in deep psychological indoctrination techniques. However, I doubt if the priests were that clever. Much more probably, unconscious memes have ensured their own survival by virtue of those same qualities of pseudo-ruthlessness that successful genes display. The idea of hell fire is, quite simply, self perpetuating, because of its own deep psychological impact. It has become linked with the god meme because the two reinforce each other, and assist each other's survival in the gene pool.
Another member of the religious meme complex is called faith. It means blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence. The story of Doubting Thomas is told, not so that we shall admire Thomas, but so that we can admire the other apostles in comparison. Thomas demanded evidence. Nothing is more lethal for certain kinds of meme than a tendency to look for evidence. The other apostles, whose faith was so strong that they did not need evidence, are held up to us as worthy of imitation. The meme for blind faith secures its own perpetuation by the simple unconscious expedient of discouraging rational inquiry.
Blind faith can justify anything. If a man believes in a different god, or even if he uses a different ritual for worshipping the same god, blind faith can decree that he should die --- on the cross, at the stake, skewered on a Crusader's sword, shot in a Beirut street, or blown up in a bar in Belfast. Memes for blind faith have their own ruthless ways of propagating themselves. This is true of patriotic and political as well as religious blind faith.
Memes and genes may often reinforce each other, but they sometimes come into opposition. For example, the habit of celibacy is presumably not inherited genetically. A gene for celibacy is doomed to failure in the gene pool, except under very special circumstances such as we find in the social insects. But still, a meme for celibacy can be successful in the meme pool. For example, suppose the success of a meme depends critically on how much time people spend in actively transmitting it to other people. Any time spent in doing other things than attempting to transmit the meme may be regarded as time wasted from the meme's point of view. The meme for celibacy is transmitted by priests to young boys who have not yet decided what they want to do with their lives. The medium of transmission is human influence of various kinds, the spoken and written word, personal example and so on. Suppose, for the sake of argument, it happened to be the case that marriage weakened the power of a priest to influence his flock, say because it occupied a large proportion of his time and attention. This has, indeed, been advanced as an official reason for the enforcement of celibacy among priests. If this were the case, it would follow that the meme for celibacy could have greater survival value than the meme for marriage. Of course, exactly the opposite would be true for a gene for celibacy. If a priest is a survival machine for memes, celibacy is a useful attribute to build into him. Celibacy is just a minor partner in a large complex of mutually-assisting religious memes.
I conjecture that co-adapted meme-complexes evolve in the same kind of way as co-adapted gene-complexes. Selection favours memes that exploit their cultural environment to their own advantage. This cultural environment consists of other memes which are also being selected. The meme pool therefore comes to have the attributes of an evolutionarily stable set, which new memes find it hard to invade. I have been a bit negative about memes, but they have their cheerful side as well. When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the colour of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king's genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction.
But if you contribute to the world's culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G.C.Williams remarked, but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus, and Marconi are still going strong.
However speculative my development of the theory of memes may be, there is one serious point which I would like to emphasize once again. This is that when we look at the evolution of cultural traits and at their survival value, we must be clear whose survival we are talking about. Biologists, as we have seen, are accustomed to looking for advantages at the gene level (or the individual, the group, or the species level according to taste). What we have not previously considered is that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.
We do not have to look for conventional biological survival values of traits like religion, music, and ritual dancing, though these may also be present. Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over. We do not even have to posit a generic advantage in imitation, though that would certainly help. All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes will then evolve that exploit the capability to the full.
I now close the topic of the new replicators, and end the chapter on a note of qualified hope. One unique feature of man, which may or may not have evolved memically, is his capacity for conscious foresight. Selfish genes (and, if you allow the speculation of this chapter, memes too) have no foresight. They are unconscious, blind, replicators. The fact that they replicate, together with certain further conditions means, willy nilly, that they will tend towards the evolution of qualities which, in the special sense of this book, can be called selfish. A simple replicator, whether gene or meme, cannot be expected to forgo short-term selfish advantage even if it would really pay it, in the long term, to do so. We saw this in the chapter on aggression. Even though a 'conspiracy of doves' would be better for every single individual than the evolutionarily stable strategy, natural selection is bound to favour the ESS.
It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so, but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other, nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution. The point I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our conscious foresight --- our capacity to simulate the future in imagination --- could save us from the worst selfish excesses of the blind replicators. We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating in a 'conspiracy of doves', and we can sit down together to discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested 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 earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.
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