Dawkins hasn’t talked much about humans yet. One of the reasons he uses “survival machine” instead of “animal” is because it includes plants and humans, so he thinks everything he’s said so far applies to humans. Still, he wonders if there’s something going on with humans that makes us different from other beings on earth. Dawkins thinks there is. “Culture” makes humans different, because “cultural transmission” gives rise to evolution, as well. If Geoffrey Chaucer tried to have a conversation with an English-speaking person today, Chaucer wouldn’t make any sense. This means that language evolves by “non genetic” means. Dawkins thinks language evolves much faster than genes do.
Dawkins thinks that human behavior doesn’t always line up with other species because there are two forms of altruism going on in humans: the biological evolution of our genes, and the cultural evolution of our ideas. Cultural evolution might have an even stronger effect on our behavior, because it happens at a much faster rate than biological evolution. Dawkins expands his view here to show that altruism might come from cultural evolution, and that evolution doesn’t only happen among genes.
Cultural transmission happens in other species too. P. F. Jenkins studied saddleback bird songs in New Zealand, and discovered that their songs aren’t inherited, but learned, and slightly modified (sometimes by accident) by each generation. He called this a form of “cultural mutation.” Dawkins believes that, of all the species in the world, humans really show what cultural evolution can do.
Dawkins discusses Jenkins to show that cultural evolution is a plausible theory because there’s also evidence of it in other species. Nonetheless, he still thinks humans are the best example to address, because there are many more cases to draw on from the human context.
Language, fashion, food, customs, art, architecture, engineering, and technology are all examples of cultural evolution. They function like really sped-up versions of genetic evolution. Other theorists have noticed this too, including philosopher Sir Karl Popper, geneticist L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, anthropologist T. F. Cloak, and ethologist J. M. Cullen. They argue that cultural practices have “biological advantages.” For example, tribal religion is thought to improve unity in a group, which is important for pack hunters. Dawkins, however, believes that for the case of culture, it’s necessary to throw out the “gene” as the basis of evolution. He thinks this is more Darwinian than the other explanations, because evolution is so pervasive that there’s no need for it to be restricted to genes.
In order to show that cultural evolution is a second kind of evolution, Dawkins needs to show that it doesn’t just collapse into a form of biological evolution (as many theorists in different fields suggest). Dawkins wants to convince the reader that departing from the biological view of evolution is a good strategy, so he implies that Darwin would be on his side if he were alive. Dawkins believes evolution is such a good theory that it explains what goes in many contexts, whether or not genes are involved.
Dawkins recalls that what makes genes special is that they are replicators. It might well be that on other planets based on silicone instead of carbon, or ammonia instead of water, or electronic circuits instead of organic compounds, replicators wouldn’t be DNA, but something else. If there’s any consistent law about life in the universe, it’s 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.”
Dawkins reminds the reader that he chose genes as the basis of evolution in nature because genes can replicate (copy) themselves, while species can’t. It’s the act of replicating that’s actually important, and genes only matter because they happen to be replicators in nature. In fact, Dawkins thinks anything that’s capable of replicating can evolve, whether the “thing” is an idea, a gene, or some alien substance.
One need not look at alien planets to figure this out, because “a new kind of replicator has emerged on earth.” It’s still in “infancy,” floating around in primeval soup, but it’s happening at an astonishingly faster pace than genetic evolution. The new soup is “the soup of human culture.”
Dawkins reframes cultural practices in evolutionary terms—as replicators competing for resources in primeval soup—to emphasize that the processes by which ideas develop in a culture match those that genes go through when evolving in nature. The similarity implies that evolution is happening in both cases.
The replicator in the soup of human culture is something that can rapidly imitate itself. Dawkins decides to call this “unit of imitation” a meme (adapted from the Greek mimeme Examples of memes include catchy tunes, phrases, images, fashions, and ideas.
Dawkins uses the term “meme” to capture a unit of cultural evolution. He creates this word from the Greek word mimeme (which means “imitation,” and thus captures the function of copying or imitating). Dawkins also thinks “meme” sounds a bit like “gene,” and he wants to emphasize the similarity between these two entities as replicators.
Genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by hopping from body to body via eggs and sperm. Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by hopping from brain to brain, by a process of imitation.For example, if a scientist reads about a good idea, he’ll discuss it with colleagues and students, maybe write about it in his research articles, and mention it in his lectures. If the idea catches on, it’s “propagating itself, spreading from brain to brain.”
Memes are replicators because it’s possible for copies of ideas to exist in multiple people’s brains. When an idea—such as a scientific theory, a trendy hairstyle, or a new slang word—spreads, more and more people talk about it, and thus more copies of that idea are stored in more people’s minds.
Another meme that’s very successful is the “God” meme. It’s a very old idea that has stayed in the cultural meme pool for a long time. Dawkins thinks memes that survive over the course of cultural evolution have strong psychological appeal. They satisfy deep questions in our minds, in some way.
Dawkins thinks the idea of God is a meme that has fared well in the cultural gene pool. He implies that successful memes are able to stay in the cultural meme pool for a long time (like genes that keep existing over generations of evolution).
Some theorists want to know why the “God” meme has psychological appeal, and whether there’s a genetic reason underlying it, but Dawkins thinks that’s a bit of a stretch. He thinks that for thousands of millions of years, the only replicator on Earth was DNA, but when the conditions arose for a new replicator, there’s no reason it has to depend upon the old one. He says that “biologists have assimilated the idea of genetic evolution so deeply that we tend to forget that it’s only one of many possible kinds of evolution.”
Dawkins thinks it’s not necessary to seek biological or genetic reasons for certain memes. He’s reminding the reader that cultural evolution is a distinct form of evolution that doesn’t collapse into genetic evolution. Genes aren’t part of the picture in cultural evolution, because they compete with other genes in the domain of nature. Memes only compete with each other, in the domain of culture, and other replicators will compete in their own specific contexts.
Memes, like genes, have varying success in the overall pool. Some memes have “brilliant” short-term success, but then fade away or die out (say, popular songs). Other memes survive a lot longer (say, Jewish laws). Memes also “mutate” in a sense: every time someone retells an idea, they tell their own version of it. In fact, mutation seems continuous with memes, whereas gene mutation is not always continuous across generations. Memes can be long or short, just like genes—they could be a whole song, or just the catchiest part of it. These become slightly different replicators (just like genes).
Dawkins emphasizes parallels between the way memes spread and the way genes spread, to stress that both can be described in exactly the same way. Some memes do well in the short term, but don’t persist (aren’t stable) in the long term. More successful memes survive over generations. An idea “mutates” when it’s remembered slightly differently, or just remembered in part, which creates a slightly different replicator.
Dawkins wonders if memes compete for survival in the way that genes do—he thinks they do. He asks the reader to imagine the human brain is a computer. A computer has a fixed amount of memory, meaning some things have to be deleted to make room for other things. Memes are competing for “memory” or “attention” in the human brain. They also compete for television airtime, billboard space, and library shelf space.
Dawkins has shown that differential entities exist. (replicating ideas that can be remembered slightly differently by different people). He now argues that finite resources exist. Humans can’t remember everything, and don’t believe conflicting ideas, so we have a finite amount of brain space that ideas compete for. This description shows that the conditions are ripe for natural selection to take place.
Memes survive for various reasons. Fear makes ideas stick, for example, which is why religion has had such longevity as a meme. Dawkins also thinks that “[cultural] selection favors memes that exploit their cultural environment to their own advantage.” Dawkins suggests that married priests have less time for preaching, which may be why celibacy is an effective meme in the Catholic religion. Memes can live on intact in ways that genes don’t. Genes tend to separate into different survival machines, meaning their colonies don’t stay intact. But memes can live on intact for much longer. Dawkins thinks, for example, about memes that Socrates wrote, or Leonardo da Vinci painted, or Copernicus said.
Just as genes that perform well in the gene pool when their survival machines function best in the natural environment, memes are successful if they perform well in their cultural environment. Although genes shuffle in and out of different combinations in their survival machines, ideas don’t need to do this. In both cases, however, long-lasting replicators (whether they be genes or memes) perform well because they survive in the long-term picture. Both cases exemplify Darwin’s principle of “survival of the fittest.”
Another thing that makes memes different from genes is that human brains have the capacity for conscious foresight. Genes don’t—they are “unconscious, blind replicators.” Even though humanity’s genes (and memes) are “selfish,” we have “the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth, and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination.” In other words, we have the capacity to cultivate altruism, through memes. Humans are unique on Earth because “we have the power to turn against our creators. We alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators.”
A crucial difference between genes and memes, however, is that genes aren’t conscious— they are only successful in the gene pool if they happen to program their survival machines to perform well in their environments. Dawkins emphasizes this point to show that humans have more power in the case of memes. Altruism is a meme that we can perpetuate by choice, and if we’re altruistic, or want to be more altruistic, it’s the culture that can make this happen, not genes.