Memetics: The Nascent Science of Ideas and Their Transmission

J. Peter Vajk

An Essay Presented to the Outlook Club
Berkeley, California
January 19, 1989


In April 1917, a 47-year old lawyer-turned-journalist and a handful of companions enter Russia by train. By November, they take control of the government of Russia. Within another four years, a devastating civil war kills some 10 million Russians.

In 1924, a 34-year old handyman and would-be artist and architect is arrested for starting a brawl in a tavern in southern Germany. In jail over the next nine months, he writes a book expressing his dissatisfactions with life and the world in which he lives, and lays out a blueprint of what he plans to do to change it. Within nine years he has total and sole control of the entire national government. Over the ensuing thirteen years, his exercise of that power leads to the deaths of some thirty million people across two continents and three seas.

In the early 1970's, two young men, both of them Vietnam War veterans, go camping in the Sierra Nevada in California, about a mile from a Girl Scout campground. The second afternoon of their stay, one of the men breaks out in chills, sweats, and violent shivering, like he had experienced a few times in Vietnam. About a week later, in the San Francisco Bay area, six Girl Scouts become ill, with high fevers, severe headaches, and violent shivering.

In the mid-1970's, a charismatic minister attracts a large following among the poor and disaffected population of a Northern California urban center. After their activities draw increasing attention from the press, the minister and nearly a thousand of his adherent move en masse to an obscure village in the jungles of a small South American country. By November 1978, he and 910 others, including children, lie dead in the jungle, having drunk KoolAid which they knew was laced with cyanide.

In the late 1970's, a handsome young French Canadian steward working for Air Canada begins to make regular visits (using his free airline passes) to New York's Greenwich Village, Los Angeles' Sunset Strip, and San Francisco's Castro, Polk, and Mission Street areas. He has no trouble picking up dates with dozens of gay men over a period of two or three years. By 1980, over a hundred men from coast to coast are dead of dying from a strange form of cancer or from a rare form of pneumonia.

In the fall, of 1988, a graduate student loads a short program into a few mainframe computers. Within two days, dozens of mainframe computers all across North America and Great Britain come to a halt: each computer is repetitively doing nonsense copying of files, leaving no time at all for productive computing. It takes as much as a week to get some of the computer centers back to normal activity.

These six episodes, from the disparate fields of politics, human disease, religion, and computer technology, have a great deal in common. It is my aim tonight to explore memetics, a science in the early stages of birth. "Meme" (pronounced to rhyme with "cream") is a neologism, coined by analogy to "gene," by the writer-zoologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (New York: Oxford University Press, 1976). By the end of this essay, the deep similarities (as well as some of the vital differences) among these six episodes will, I hope, become clear. I will also engage in some speculation about the implications of this nascent science for current affairs.

The roots of the idea of memetics as a science lie in the study of biological evolution, in genetics, in modern information theory, in artificial intelligence research, in epidemiology, and in studies of patients with split brains. To set the stage for my discussion of memetics, let me briefly recapitulate the modern understanding of biological evolution and the role genes play in evolution.

We now know that life originated on Earth about four billion years ago. The earliest things we might consider to be on the threshold of living beings were in all probability complex organic molecules capable of replication, that is, able to make identical copies of themselves from less complex molecules in their environment. Complex molecules of this sort, given a few hundred million years, could arise by chance at the edges of the young oceans out of the primordial broth of substances like water, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, and hydrogen sulfide, which were all abundant in the original atmosphere of the Earth. This broth was stimulated by ultraviolet light from the Sun (more intense since the Earth had as yet no ozone layer); by lightning and tidal action (both of which were more intense because the Moon was considerably closer and the day was shorter); and volcanism (also more intense since the Earth's crust was newly formed and thinner). Such stimuli, acting for a period of just a few weeks on such a primordial broth, have been demonstrated in laboratory experiments to produce molecules of intermediate complexity such as amino acids from which all proteins are made. These amino acids, in turn, give rise in the same laboratory experiments within a few months to nucleic acids, from which the DNA in all living viruses, plants, and animals on Earth are made.

Once even one self-replicating molecule had come together, evolution toward diversity and greater complexity was inevitable. Once in a while, a copying mistake would happen; if the new copy could still make copies of itself, a new "species" would have emerged. Soon (speaking in geological time scales) there would be a number of species of self-replicating molecules competing for the shrinking supply of raw materials in the broth at the edge of the sea. The populations of these different species would depend to a large extent on three characteristics of the molecules: longevity, fecundity, and copying-fidelity.

If a particular type of molecule were only moderately stable against disruption by ultraviolet light or by the acidity of the broth, for example, it would not have much time available to make copies of itself. On the other hand, even a short-lived molecule could come to outnumber a very stable molecule if it can make new copies of itself very quickly. A molecule which is not very selective about which bits of raw materials it uses for a particular part of a copy may have numerous offspring, but they will be of different species, so that the numbers of molecules which do not have high fidelity replication will not grow; the species may, in fact, become extinct fairly rapidly.

As the numbers of self-replicating molecules increased, their food supply declined, since the food was increasingly embodied in the replicators themselves. Any molecule which accidentally had the capability of breaking other species of molecules apart would then have access to more raw materials, and predation appeared on the scene. In turn, molecules resistant to being eaten in this way (perhaps by carrying around a coat of proteins like modern viruses) would then increase in numbers relative to those which molecules which could be eaten easily. At some unknown stage in this process, the class of self-replicating molecules we know as DNA, appeared on the scene. We do not know whether or not DNA was the original replicating molecule, or whether it evolved from some earlier class of molecules. In any case, it has been highly successful, since no other class of self-replicating molecules survives on Earth today.

At some later point in time, by processes which are still unknown, simple single-celled organisms which we would clearly recognize as "living" arose. These early creatures were still dependent on physical processes (lightning, ultraviolet light, etc.) for the production of foodstuffs, on predation, or on scavenging. Finally, about two billion years ago, a new molecule was "invented" which changed the whole picture. That molecule was chlorophyll, which enabled its inventors, the blue-green algae, to make complex foodstuffs (sugars and starches) directly and rapidly from two of the simplest and most abundant molecules in the environment, namely, water and carbon dioxide, with a little help from the sunlight. This made it possible for several different types of simple primitive cells to fuse together into the more complicated modern cell in a mutually helpful, symbiotic relationship. The more complex cell could now form multi-cellular entities, and higher plants and animals appeared on the scene, creating the sort or biosphere we know today.

But underneath it all, the self-replicating DNA molecule, the gene, is the very essence of life. Trees, dogs, mosquitoes, robins, earthworms, and human beings are from a certain perspective nothing more than huge, elaborate robots whose only function is to enhance the ability of the minute genes inside to replicate themselves. In other words, a chicken is merely an egg's way of making more eggs.

While individual chickens or salmon or human beings have fairly short lifespans, a particular gene, that is, a particular pattern of amino acids in a DNA chain, may survive through many generations. Ignoring some of the finer points of the way in which chromosomes are scrambled during the formation of sperm cells and egg cells in sexual reproduction, a given gene may actually survive for millions of years, although the survival machine, the body it wears, is replaced frequently.

Any particular body reflects the particular collection of genes it carries; natural selection operates, not on species or on particular populations, but on individual genes. As environments change, the survival probabilities for a particular gene may be enhanced by tagging along with a different collection of genes. Thus it is not surprising that the gene for Rh factor in human blood is virtually identical to that in chimpanzees, and just a little bit different in rhesus monkeys in which the expression of the gene was first discovered. Each gene, like its distant ancestors, the primitive self- replicating molecules of four billion years ago, is "selfish:" the survival of that gene depends on making its survival machine (its body) act or grow in a way that increases the changes that more copies of that gene (rather than some other competing gene in the gene pool) will be made in new survival machines.

Let us turn now to human beings. It has been observed frequently that cultural evolution has, by and large, become more important for humans than biological evolution. It is, in any case, far faster: a new cultural idea or mutation can spread through all the individuals in the same generation which invented the new idea. A genetic mutation, on the other hand, can only begin to spread when the next generation is born, and it will take many generations before the mutation has any chance of being expressed in a significant fraction of the population. It is thus of much more than passing interest to consider how ideas are transmitted; whether and how they compete; and what effects they have on the survival machines, originally built to help genes propagate, which house the minds in which ideas are born and live.

An early hint at some of these issues is in an article by neuro-physiologist Roger W. Sperry titled Mind, Brain, and Humanist Values (In John R. Platt, ed., New Views on the Nature of Man. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1965.) Sperry writes,

"Ideas cause ideas and help evolve new ideas. They interact with each other and with other mental forces in the same brain, in neighboring brains, and, thanks to global communications, in far distant, foreign brains. And they also interact with the external surroundings to produce into a burstwise advance in evolution that is far behind anything to hit the evolutionary scene yet, including the emergence of the living cell."

Molecular biologist Jacques Monod in the last chapter of Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology began to explore the evolution of ideas.

For a biologist it is tempting to draw a parallel between the evolution of ideas and that of the biosphere. For while the abstract kingdom stands at a yet greater distance above the biosphere than the latter does above the nonliving universe, ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role. I shall not hazard a theory of the selection of ideas. But one may at least try to define some of the principal factors involved in it. This selection must necessarily operate at two levels: that of the mind itself and that of performance.

The performance value of an idea depends upon the change it brings to the behavior of the person or the group that adopts it. The human group upon which a given idea confers greater cohesiveness, greater ambition, and greater self-confidence thereby receives from (the idea) an added power to expand which will insure the promotion of the idea itself. Its capacity to take, the extent to which it can be put over has little to do with the amount of objective truth the idea may contain. The important thing about the stout armature a religious ideology constitutes for a society is not what goes into its structure, but the fact that this structure is accepted, that it gains sway. So one cannot well separate such an idea's power to spread from its power to perform.

The "spreading power" - the infectivity, as it were, - of ideas is much more difficult to analyze. Let us say that it depends upon preexisting structures in the mind, among them ideas already implanted by culture, but also undoubtedly upon certain innate structure which we are hard put to identify. What is very plain, however, is that the ideas having the highest invading potential are those that explain man by assigning him his place in an immanent destiny, in whose bosom his anxiety dissolves.

Monod refers here to the pool of ideas present in human culture as "the abstract kingdom. Douglas R. Hofstadter in his book Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (New York: Basic Books, 1985; New York: Bantam Books, 1986) suggests the word "ideosphere" instead, in closer analogy to "biosphere."

In the last chapter of his book The Selfish Gene, Dawkins further develops this notion. He defines a meme as a replicating information pattern that uses minds to get itself copies into other minds; it is the basic unit of replication and selection in the ideosphere. The word meme is taken from the same Greek root as the word memory; a memory is a more-or-less organized collection of memes and other things. Memes float about in the soup of human culture where they grow, replicate, mutate, compete, or become extinct. Dawkins writes:

"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 leading from body to body via sperm 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."

Dawkins then quotes the comments of a colleague, N. K. Humphrey, on a draft by Dawkins:

"...memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind, you literally parasitize by 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 (people) the world over."

It is important to note here that, in contrast to genes, memes are not encoded in any universal code within our brains or in human culture. The meme for vanishing point perspective in two-dimensional art, for example, which first appeared in the sixteenth century, can be encoded and transmitted in German, English or Chinese; it can be described in words, or in algebraic equations, or in line drawings. Nonetheless, in any of these forms, the meme can be transmitted, resulting in a certain recognizable element of realism which appears only in art works executed by artists infected with this meme.

Jokes are an interesting group of memes. Because the recipient of a joke can collect nearly as much reward each time he passes the joke on to yet another recipient as he received when first hearing the joke, jokes are very fecund memes, and very infective as well.

Given that memes are encoded in many different ways, it is not surprising that memes also occur in species other than Homo sapiens. Some species of birds learn a neighborhood repertoire of songs, rather than inheriting them. Such birds, raised from hatchlings with other species, will sing only in the foreign throat. Humpback whales learn songs from one another, and chimpanzees pass on the art of fishing termites from their nests with long twigs or reeds from generation to generation.

Of course, not all ideas are memes. A passing thought which you never mention to anyone else, or an idea which no one else ever takes an interest in, is not self-replicating. On the other hand, I first encountered the meme about memes four or five years ago, and that meme is tonight attempting to infect each of you as well. In a science article in Analog magazine appearing in August 1987, space activist Keith Henson wrote:

"The important part of the "meme about memes" is that memes are subject to adaptive evolutionary forces very similar to hose that select for genes. That is, their variation is subject to selection in the environment provided by human minds, communications channels, and the vast collection of cooperating and competing memes that make up human culture. The analogy is remarkably close. For example, genes in cold viruses that cause sneezes by irritating noses spread themselves by this route to new hosts and become more common in the gene pool of a cold virus. Memes cause those they have successfully infected to spread the meme by both direct methods (proselytizing) and indirect methods (writing). Such memes become more common in the meme pool."

In the title of this essay, I referred to memetics as a science, albeit one in a very early and poorly developed stage. What does it take for a field of study to deserve the name "science?" Without getting too rigorous about this question, two factors are of major importance here. First, does the putative "science" explain a diversity of phenomena by a small number of underlying principles or laws or theories? In other words, a science is not merely a vast catalog of facts or case histories, although most sciences, especially the natural sciences, have gone through a stage of amassing such data before any patterns emerged with sufficient clarity to permit the formulation of theories which would account for large portions of those data. Second, are these laws or theories testable? To be testable, a theory must make predictions about phenomena which have not previously been considered in devising the theory. If observations match the predictions, then the theory stands. If the observations differ from the predictions, then the theory must be either modified until it fits both the old data and the new, or discarded.

The science of information theory, which has developed during the past half century as an outgrowth of the needs of the telecommunications industries; the cryptographic needs of military services; and the burgeoning field of artificial intelligence research, basically says that, regardless of the specific content of information a message may have, and regardless of the particular method of encoding that message, certain universal laws apply to the copying and transmission of the information. If memetics has any substance, then, we should expect that phenomena observed among genes should have analogs among memes. Let us consider briefly then a few of the things we understand in the biosphere and see if there are analogs in the ideosphere. Consider first epidemiology, the study of the transmission of pathogens, disease-causing microorganisms.

It is fairly easy to find phenomena in the propagation of memes in the ideosphere analogous to the spread of pathogens. While some pathogens can infect only by direct contact (such as most sexually transmitted diseases), others are usually transmitted by intermediaries, usually called "vectors." The Girl Scouts in my earlier example were infected with malaria transmitted by mosquitoes which had previously bitten the Vietnam veteran while he as in the throes of a malarial relapse.

Similarly, some religious memes are very difficult to transmit except by the force of personal example at close quarters. Other memes, particularly those of a commercial nature, like "Things go better with Coke," are very effectively transmitted by the vectors of modern electronic media.

Occasionally, a pathogen may be successfully suppressed in most places, but survive in a few tiny pockets or reservoirs until the large environment is once more susceptible to infection. Tuberculosis is one such disease; reservoirs of the bacillus can survive among the fringes of society or even in tiny calcified spots within a particular person, who will show no symptoms of the disease until his or her immunological resistance is weakened by malnutrition or another disease. Most of the intellectual and esthetic memes of classical Greece were "lost" for a millennium, surviving only in tiny reservoirs in the monastic communities of Ireland until the Renaissance made it possible for these memes to again infect significant numbers of people.

A correct understanding of some of the mechanisms involved can be very important to survival of human genes. Thus, for example, human cultures had little or no success in combating epidemics of the plague, smallpox, or malaria, to name a few, while the dominant meme (which survived for over five centuries in Western civilization) of the miasma theory of diseases held sway. With the advent of the germ theory (a meme which corresponds more closely to reality), quarantine measures, inoculation and immunization, and suppression of vectors (like rates, mosquitoes, or contaminated water supplies) finally enabled human genes to compete more successfully against the genes of the germs.

A major problem in the United States today is drug abuse among teenagers and young adults. The growth curves for numbers of drug abusers have the same shape as the curves for influenza epidemics or for AIDS, and efforts up to now in the war against drugs have been about as successful as were public health measures based on the miasma theory. The drug-abuse meme, since it is particularly prevalent among teenagers and young adults and since it increases mortality among these individuals, reduces the survival and reproduction of human genes. If we are to make headway in the war on drugs, we must understand the characteristics of the drug-abuse meme; clearly identify its vectors; and find ways to immunize those populations at risk of infection.

Later in this essay I will return to examining some of these epidemiological analogies, including issues of susceptibility and resistance to infection; possibilities of immunization against particularly nasty memes; and some of the strategies used by memes to increase their infectivity. Now, however, I would like to discuss the concept of competition among memes.

If memes are only ideas in our heads, and our minds can hold unbelievably large quantities of information, why would memes have to compete? Simply because the amount of time and attention a human can spend on efforts to propagate memes is limited. Most of the external channels used to spread memes are also limited resources, whether they be air time on radio or television, shelf space in a book store or library, or column inches in a magazine or newspaper. Moreover, some memes by their very nature attempt to discredit other memes; still other groups of memes are self-reinforcing. Thus we should expect that most competitive strategies used by genes in the biosphere will also be observed in use by memes as they compete in the ideosphere.

How does a new gene initially become sufficiently common, even if it is still in the minority among genes competing for a particular niche in the gene pool, to survive over many generations? If the gene is dominant over its immediate alternatives, then the traits of the survival machine which it encodes will promptly be subjected to selective pressures. If the new gene has a competitive advantage, it will likely spread steadily through its gene pool. If, on the other hand, it is a recessive gene, it can spread easily in the early stages, free of selective pressures until enough bodies carry the gene that some offspring will inherit the recessive gene from both parents, and the new genetic trait is actually expressed in the body of the offspring, becoming subject to selective pressures. If the new gene is harmful, selection will keep a ceiling on the fraction of the living population carrying that gene.

But a seriously harmful gene can become prevalent under certain specialized conditions, namely, if a small gene pool (that is, a small population of survival machines carrying a group of genes) is isolated from most of the competitive forces which would hinder that gene's propagation through the gene pool. Then in a modest number of generations the new gene could become endemic. If this population carrying the deleterious gene is now brought back into contact with the larger population from which it originally splintered, the results can be disastrous.

Such has been the case several times in recent history with some extreme religious cults. Jim Jones' People's Temple cult was such a case. A basic meme for Christianity mixed together with the meme for Marxism ricocheted around among a small group of people who deliberately isolated themselves from the general meme pool of American culture. Social and intellectual contact with the outside was discouraged; other memes were attacked and discredited by the leadership of the cult. Lacking competitive pressures from more standard religious and cultural memes, the People's Temple meme evolved into ever more bizarre forms. Fleeing to Guyana, the cult became still more ingrown and bizarre, until renewed contact from outside led to the collapse both of the meme itself and of the genes carried by 911 members of the cult and by four outsiders, including Congressman Ryan of San Francisco. The Rajneesh cult is another more recent and somewhat less extreme example of this pattern.

Lest I give you the impression that all memes are dangerous to the genetic survival of humans and other gentlebeings, let me give a few quick examples of benign and beneficial memes. Many commercial products are tangible embodiments of memes; most of these are benign, since the most virulent are quickly eliminated by regulatory agencies or civil lawsuits. Hula hoops, pet rocks, and Frisbees were memes deliberately designed by their inventors to propagate rapidly. Like many genetically engineered microbes (such as those used today to produce insulin and other pharmaceutical products), these memes are reasonably successful in a tailored environment, but do not have great longevity in the "wild." Pet rocks were highly successful as long as they were highly advertised and promoted, and as long as a large population which had not read the Owner's Instruction Manual could be found. After that, the meme lost its vigor. Other benign to slightly harmful memes include rumors about media stars, superstitions, and chain letters.

Beneficial memes include the taming of fire; the ideas of cultivating food plants and of herding animals; the notion of antisepsis in medicine and surgery; and writing and reading. One important meme in American culture (to which we shall return a little later) is the idea of tolerance. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the United States was a country of immigration. Immigrants came from every country in Europe as well as from parts of Africa, Asia, and South America, all speaking different languages; observing different customs of dress, behavior, and diet; practicing different religions; and using different styles of non-verbal communication. While conflict was at times inevitable among these groups, in a surprisingly short time, it became apparent that the notion of live and let live required less energy and effort than did the competing meme of forced conversion. Not only was this approach more beneficial in terms of personal effort, but it proved to be economically productive as well, to accept and adopt individual memes from the meme-complexes of other immigrant groups and combine them with elements of one's own ethnic meme-complex. By the end of the nineteenth century, tolerance was publicly recognized as an important civic virtue in America.

To be sure, the meme of tolerance is still in competition with the memes of racial supremacy and jingoism. But a number of memes active in the legal system strongly support the meme of tolerance and inhibit its competitors. (Note how paradoxical this is: the meme of tolerance accepts help from certain intolerant memes!)

Let me turn now to the category of memes or meme-complexes commonly known as religious beliefs or creeds. No one knows how the meme of belief in God originated; indeed, it probably arose independently many times. Why should such a meme arise and flourish in human meme pools? To answer this question by saying that God revealed Himself to us in various times and ways does not really suffice. Even a believer can see that that is circular reasoning: the only out is to recognize that a leap of faith is required to accept that God exists. That leap transcends pure reason, but it is not incompatible with reason. Just as it is possible and reasonable to accept both the meme of biological evolution and the meme of an initial act of creation by a Creator who built the laws of mathematics and physics in such a way as to make the appearance of life inevitable, so is it possible to accept the idea that human brains and minds have evolved structures or programs for belief in things unseen and unprovable.

In fact, some evidence that just such a structure exists in our brains comes from split-brain research. Michael Gazzaniga describes one such experiment in his book The Social Brain. Because part of each eyeball's visual field is connected to the brain hemisphere on the same side as the eyeball, and part is connected to the opposite hemisphere, it is possible to direct visual images exclusively to one or the other hemisphere of the brain. Some brain lesions destroy the neurological connections between the two hemispheres, so the two halves of the brain act essentially independently. Since the speech center is located almost exclusively in the left hemisphere, such a patient can report verbally on activities in the left hemisphere, but not in the right side. Gazzaniga presented each side of the brain in some of his patients with a simple conceptual problem. Special viewing equipment projected a picture of a claw to the left side and a snow scene to the right side. A variety of cards were then placed in front of the subject who was asked verbally (via the ears, which feed each hemisphere directly) to point with each hand at a card matching what he had seen. The correct response for the claw was a picture of a chicken; for the snow scene, a shovel. Gazzaniga writes:

"After the two pictures are flashed to each half-brain, the subjects are required to point to the answers. A typical response is that of P.S., who pointed to the chicken with his right hand and the shovel with his left. After his response, I asked him, 'Paul, why did you do that?' Paul looked up and without a moment's hesitation said from his left hemisphere, 'Oh, that's easy. The chicken claw goes with the chicken and you need a shovel to clean out the chicken shed.'"

Here was the left half-brain having to explain why the left hand was pointing to the shovel when the only picture (the left half-brain) saw was a claw. The left half-brain is not privy to what the right half-brain saw because of the brain's disconnection. Yet the patient's body was doing something. Why was the left hand pointing to the shovel? The left-brain's cognitive system needed a theory and instantly supplied one that made sense given the information it had on this particular task...

Continue on to part 2


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