30th Annual Conference


The Evolution of Meme Machines

For 30th Annual Cybernetics Conference, London, September 10th 2005

Susan Blackmore

We humans are meme machines – the evolved products of two replicators, not one. This, I suggest, explains why humans are so different from other species, and why we alone have language and elaborate cultures, and are even threatening the health of our planet. We were the first meme machines but we are not the last. Newer meme machines include printing presses and telephones, cameras and computers, web servers and the Internet – and they are still evolving. I shall outline the basic theory of memetics and discuss the implications for the future.

Memes are habits, skills, ideas, technologies and stories, that are copied from person to person, or from a person to paper or silicon and back again. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene to give an example of a replicator other than the gene. This is based on the principles of universal Darwinism: if information is copied with variation and selection then evolution must occur. As Dennett (1995) puts it you must get “design out of chaos without the aid of mind”. The information that is copied is the replicator. Memes count as replicators because they fit this rule. Think, for example, of all the stories people tell. Stories are copied from person to person and stored in human memories, books and emails, they vary widely and some variants spread more easily than others, and there is selection for them to be retold and stored. Only a very few achieve the status of urban legends (Brunvand 1999) and these few spread not because they are true but because they have whatever qualities are required to win in this competition. Other examples of memes are political systems, scientific theories, ways of building houses, works of art, plays and television programmes. In other words, all of human culture is made up of memes competing for survival.

Memes vary from the purely viral (costly to the humans who carry them and for no benefit) to the purely positive (of great value to the carriers for little cost). Viral memes are of special interest because other theories, such as evolutionary psychology or gene-culture co-evolution (e.g. Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981; Richerson & Boyd 2005), can account for the evolution of cultural traits that are adaptive for the genes, but have much more difficulty in accounting for maladaptive traits that nonetheless thrive in human culture. They are just what we should expect of a new selfish replicator.

Dawkins (1993) refers to religions as “viruses of the mind” pointing out how they use tricks to survive, including threats and promises, untestable claims, admonitions against doubt, and simple explanations to such mysteries as how we got here and how we should behave. Looking at religions as viral information that spreads because it can, and not primarily because it is true or good or useful, gives us a far better understanding of how and why people get infected with religions. This can be contrasted with gene-based theories (e.g. Boyer 2001, Pinker 1997). Selfish memes such as suicide bombing also make sense. Such memes are highly publicised and hence replicate, even though they kill their carriers. This is what it means to be a selfish replicator. The memes do not care about their effects (how could they – they are just information in human behaviours); they simply spread if they can without regard for the consequences. Memetics does not just provide a new understanding of contemporary culture, but a different theory of human evolution. About 2 million years ago our ancestors became capable of imitation. This let loose a new replicator, the memes, that then transformed the conditions under which human genes evolved. I have argued that, through a process I call memetic drive, this led to the rapid expansion of the human brain and to its redesign for language, music and art (Blackmore 1999, 2001). The result is a brain that is especially good at copying, storing, and recombining memes of the type that were successful during the long co-evolution between memes and brains.

This process can be seen as one example of the more general process by which replicators co-evolve along with their replication machinery. Good replicators (those with high fidelity, fecundity and longevity) thrive along with the machines that replicate them. The exquisitely high-fidelity biological system using DNA, RNA and all the cellular machinery of life must itself have evolved from simpler systems (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry, 1999) . Newer examples include writing which increased the longevity of speech, printing presses which increased the fecundity of written memes, radio and television which increased the fecundity still further, and digitisation which increased fidelity.

The Internet copies, stores, and distributes texts with very high fidelity. The world wide web means that texts, images and data can be recombined to make new ones, and all with very high fidelity and fecundity – we have yet to see how long-lived it will prove to be. New developments, for example in meme media (Tanaka 2003) may soon make the next step in increasing the possibilities for recombination. I suggest that we understand all these systems as the inevitable outcome of a co-evolutionary process, whose function is the replication of memes, rather than as products we humans have created for ourselves.

And what comes next? We may wonder about our own role in this process. We started it off but we may not be needed for much longer. Dennett (1995) has suggested that we can no longer live without language and culture, and in this sense the memes are symbiotic with us. Possibly in the future we might be absorbed into the vast memeplexes living in the cyber world. We might be something like the bacteria that eventually became mitochondria inside our cells – useful power sources but nothing without the whole cell. We might become completely irrelevant, in a world inhospitable to life but full of electronic memes. Whatever happens, this is an evolving system that is not under our control and we cannot make accurate predictions. Nevertheless, by understanding the processes involved we may better be able to cope with living as meme machines in a fast changing world.

Bibliography and notes

(I have given links to Amazon where there are useful synopses and reviews of the books)

Aunger, R.A. (Ed) (2000) Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, Oxford University Press (a useful collection of papers with arguments for and against memetics)

Blackmore, S.J. (1999) The Meme Machine, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Blackmore, S. (2001) Evolution and memes: The human brain as a selective imitation device. Cybernetics and Systems, 32, 225-255 (explains memetic drive in more detail than in The Meme Machine)

Boyer, P. (2001) Religion Explained, New York, Basic Books (evolutionary based explanations of the origins of religion)

Brunvand, J.H. (1999) Too Good to be True: The Colossal Book of Urban Legends, New York, Norton. (There are also many urban legends sites e.g. snopes)

Cavalli-Sforza, L.L. and Feldman, M.W. (1981) Cultural Transmission and Evolution: A quantitative approach. Princeton, NJ, Princeton University Press

Dawkins, R. (1976) The Selfish Gene Oxford, Oxford University Press (new edition with additional material, 1989)

Dawkins, R. (1993) Viruses of the mind. In B.Dahlbohm (ed) Dennett and his Critics: Demystifying Mind. Oxford, Blackwell

Dennett, D. (1995) Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, London, Penguin

Dennett, D. (1999) The evolution of culture. Charles Simonyi Lecture, Oxford, February 17

Hurley, S. and Chater, N. (Eds) (2005) Perspectives on Imitation: From Neuroscience to Social Science. 2 volumes, MIT Press (the best collection on imitation, includes several papers on memes, with commentaries including mine on definitions and misunderstandings)

Lumsden, C.J. and Wilson, E.O. (1981) Genes, Mind and Culture. Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press.

Maynard-Smith, J. and Szathmáry, E (1999) The Origins of Life: From the birth of life to the origin of language, Oxford University Press.

Pinker, S. (1997) How the Mind Works. Penguin

Richerson, P.J. and Boyd, R. (2005) Not by Genes Alone: How culture transformed human evolution, Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Tanaka, Y. (2003) Meme Media and Meme Market Architectures, New York, Wiley (see more about this research)

For more information about memes see these websites:

My memes site

Memetics papers on the web

Journal of Memetics

Richard Brodie’s site