Richard Dawkins and Memes – Can the Man Be Serious or Is He Pulling Our Leg?


Tread Softly because you Tread on my Memes

Dawkins in his seminal work The God Delusion prepares us for an introduction to his meme theory with the repetition of an earlier observation:

“Because Darwinian natural selection abhors waste, any ubiquitous feature of a species – such as religion – must have conferred some advantage or it wouldn’t have survived.”

The reason I say prepares us is because Dawkins is about to launch us on a voyage of completely unsubstantiated pie in the sky. It is important, therefore, that we are prepared to believe something on a basis of trust alone – that is, that the reasons for the survival of religion can only be found within the confines of natural selection. We are reminded that the advantage doesn’t have to relate to the survival of the individual. For example, Dawkins points out the genetic advantages of the cold virus, thus explaining its ubiquity amongst our species and introduces us to the idea of replicators other than genes, most specifically the idea of memes, which we might describe as units of cultural inheritance.

To understand the nature of memes, Dawkins argues that we need to look in more detail at how natural selection works. In general terms, natural selection MemeScout

 must choose between alternative replicators (described as ‘pieces of coded information that make exact copies of themselves’). If a replicator is ‘good’ at getting copied, it gets copied at the expense of those that are not so good at getting copied. The archetypal replicator is a gene – a stretch of DNA that is duplicated. Dawkins applies this to memes and says:

“The central question for meme theory is whether there are units of cultural imitation which behave as true replicators.”

Genes survive by virtue of their usefulness to the body in which they sit. Might not the same be true of memes?

But memes have no physical nature. This causes disagreement as to what constitutes a meme, where they exist and how efficiently they replicate. Dawkins describes these problems as exaggerated. He draws an analogy between meme replication and an origami procedure for making a Chinese junk. In essence, he says that any procedure that can be broken down into discrete elements can be replicated accurately by word of mouth; in this way, they are self-normalising. In this way, he argues, memes that are self-normalising and can replicate with hi-fidelity.

Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine advocates that we should picture memes jostling for position in a world full of brains. The ones that replicate best are those that are good at getting themselves copied, ie those that have direct appeal, such as the immortality meme. Other memes will replicate more successfully in the presence of other memes (this is true also of genes).

Applying this to religion, some ideas will replicate in their own right, others need to be mixed with particular others. This accounts for the different nature of different religions. Dawkins says:

“In this model, Roman Catholicism and Islam, say, were not necessarily designed by individual people, but evolved separately as alternative collections of memes that flourish in the presence of other members of the same memeplex*.” *(Memeplex meaning combination’s of memes within the same meme pool).

In this way, religions can be seen as the product of unconscious evolution rather than by the deliberate design of individuals. Not by genetic natural selection – this only provides the hardware for predilections and biases – but by memetic selection.

You may well know, and even if you don’t, I suspect that you will not be surprised to hear, that Dawkins’ meme theory is widely considered to be his Achilles heel. Before we explore the grounds upon which many reject the idea of the meme, let us put it in the context envisaged by Dawkins. In The Selfish Gene, he says:

“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 on our own planet. There may be others. If there are, provided 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 replicators and consequent, kinds of evolution? I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup (the soup of human culture), but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting behind.”

Examples of such memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots, religion etc. The first thing we notice here is that the analogy between gene and meme is flawed. The gene is the instruction (not the instructed), which results in the phenotype (the behaviour we observe). The meme, meanwhile, according to Dawkins, appears to be the phenotype. In the words of Alistair McGrath in Dawkins’ God; Genes, Memes and the Meaning of Life:

“On any standard neo-Darwinian account, genes give rise to phenotypes. There is no question of phenotypical causation of genetic traits. To put it in a nutshell; genes are selected not instructed.”

Dawkins obviously picked up on flaw and when he wrote The Extended Phenotype he attempted to clarify his meaning:

“I was insufficiently clear about the distinction between the meme, itself, as replicator, and its ‘phenotypic effects’ or ‘meme products’ on the other. A meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a brain. It has a definite structure, realized in whatever medium the brain uses for storing information….. This is to distinguish it from phenotypic effects, which are its consequences in the outside world.”

Unfortunately, this clarification solves one difficulty, only to immediately present another. What is this definite structure that the meme possesses? And what does Dawkins mean by whatever medium the brain uses for storing information? He himself seems to recognise the weaknesses in his position without assimilating the full implications of these weaknesses. In his preface to Susan Blackmore’s Meme Machine, he says:

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *