'We are different from all other animals because we alone, at some time in our far past, became capable of widespread generalized imitation. This let loose new replicators - memes - which then began to propagate, using us as their copying machinery much as genes use the copying machinery inside cells. From then on, this one species has been designed by two replicators, not one. This is why we are different from the millions of other species on the planet. This is how we got our big brains, our language and all our other peculiar ‘surplus’ abilities (Susan Blackmore 2000).
'Internet memes' is a familiar term these days. An Internet meme is an idea, style or action which spreads from person to person via the Internet. The good ones get viral, and ordinary or bad ones do not propagate because they are ignored by the netizens. Here are some examples of Internet memes:
It is information content that evolves in any type of evolution. The most basic aspects of evolution are replication of information (which also involves preservation of the replicated information), and the mode of transmittal of information. Genes preserve biological information, and they use DNA for this. What about culture?
Similar to the gene, which is the unit of biological inheritance, Richard Dawkins (1976) introduced the notion of the meme, which is the unit of cultural inheritance. A meme may be some good idea, a witty saying, a soul-stirring tune, a logical piece of reasoning, or a great philosophical concept. Dawkins visualized that two different evolutionary processes must have operated in tandem: the classical Darwinian evolution, and another one centred around intelligence, language, and culture. Memes are, roughly speaking, the cultural analogues of genes.
The genes that exist in many copies in a population are those that are good at surviving and replicating. Through a reinforcement effect, genes whose carriers in a population are good at cooperating with one another stand a better chance of surviving. Similarly, the fittest set of cooperating memes has a better chance of surviving to form the meme pool of the population. They replicate themselves by imitation or copying (Blackmore 1999), and also by a variety of other mechanisms (Distin 2005). Cultural evolution and progress occurs through a selective propagation of the fittest set of cooperating memes.
Memes evolve, just as genes evolve. In fact, any entities that can replicate, and that have a variation both in their specific features and in their reproductive success, are candidates for Darwinian selection. The coevolution of gene pools and meme pools (through language etc.) resulted in a rapid enlargement of the brain size of Homo sapiens. A large brain size, once attained, resulted in several other capabilities as well.
An important difference between memes and genes is that the speed of cultural evolution (development of ideas, customs, etc.) is far higher than the speed of genetic evolution. Nevertheless, there are several proposed analogies between the two. How far can we carry the gene analogy for understanding the nature of memes? This continues to be a subject of debate.
Distin (2005) has listed several characteristics of memes. One of them is the essential particulate nature of memes. The most efficient methods of replicating complexity are hierarchical (or modular or particulate). If variation were to be permitted in every element of a complex structure, then copying processes would lose much of their stability. In genetics, Mendel’s work established the particulateness of genes, namely the clear presence or absence of the effects of these replicators on the world. Something similar is necessary for memes in their role in the cultural evolution of complexity. This means that memes must be able to fit into established cultural assemblies without their own informational content being lost or blended in the process. That is, memes must have a certain degree of particulateness, so that the results that they produce are generally of a fixed nature. Their identity should be such that they are discernible packets of information (like the genotype). But, whereas the genotype is distinct and clearly definable, the phenotype (which is a manifestation of the genotype) in biological systems possesses a certain degree of flexibility and variability. Likewise, the manifestations of memes have a certain degree of flexibility that enables their effects to be produced in a variety of cultural contexts. Copied in these ways, information is given the stability to grow and develop in complexity. The breadth and depth of human culture is thus explained by the cumulative replication of particulate information.
In both genetics and memetics, the replicators carry information about the effects that they control. In the case of genes, their independence is maintained via the medium of DNA, which preserves biological information in a form that is replicable and can produce its effects in a variety of contexts. In the case of memes, this role is performed by ‘representational content,’ which is thus the memetic or cultural equivalent of DNA. More on this next time.
Till then, here is an interesting aside. The idea of free will has generated a lot of debate. I argued in Part 28 that free will is only an illusion. In a recent book Kurzweil (2012) makes an interesting point. He takes the view that the free-will idea is a useful meme (irrespective of whether it has a rational basis or not). For example, it enables us to fix responsibility for an act of crime.