Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene
Summary of Chapter 11, “Memes: The New Replicators”

There are some evolutionary psychologists who try to explain every aspect of human civilization through genetic evolution. However, Dawkins points out that there are aspects in culture that “evolved” and were passed on from generation to generation through non-genetic means. Not everything can be replicated through DNA. He discusses another unit similar to the gene called a meme (which is an abbreviation of mimeme). This acts as the replicator in cultural transmission. The meme can help explain why certain phenomenon occur with humans (such as the flourishing of certain religions) and with other species as well (such as the songs of saddleback birds). Dawkins stresses that evolution is not solely based on genetics; it is based on replicating units of transmission. For biological evolution, the gene acts as this unit; for cultural evolution, it is the meme. Although memes are not genetic, they do play an important role in evolution and are very much influenced by natural selection.

Dawkins explains how genes differ from memes. For one thing, genes spread in the gene pool from one body to another through sperm and egg. Memes work similarly, but they go from one brain to another through imitation. Explaining the survival of a gene and that of a meme also differs as well. Survival value of a meme is based on how much psychological appeal it has. For example, the “god meme” might have a high survival value because it provides a tentative answer to questions about one’s purpose and existence in life. Of course, some enthusiasts of evolutionary theories try to explain why a meme has psychological appeal by explaining that our brains are shaped by the natural selection of genes and that psychological appeal really is how much appeal it has to our brains. There might be a genetic advantage to having our type of brain; but as Dawkins mentioned, DNA cannot replicate everything.

Dawkins also addresses copying fidelity, a phenomenon in which something (in this case, a meme) is copied correctly and accurately. It might seem as if memes are low in copying fidelity because passing on an idea from one individual to another will eventually change the idea somewhat. (This is similar to what happens in the game of “Telephone.”) Memes are in fact passed on in altered form.

It might also seem as if memes don’t compete with each other. In sexual reproduction, it is obvious that genes compete with their own alleles. But does this apply to memes? It turns out that memes do compete with each other; certain techniques effectively increase the survival value of a meme, thus enabling it to spread within a meme pool. Perhaps a meme becomes successful because people spend a lot of time actively transmitting it to other people. This also explains why it is possible for genes and memes to butt heads. Dawkins gives the example of celibacy—a practice that is definitely not inherited genetically and does not benefit a gene. However, the idea of celibacy might stay with a group of people (like priests), especially if they are convinced that it will bring them closer to God.

Richard Dawkins The Selfish Gene
Summary of Chapter 11, “Memes: The New Replicators”

Memes: The New Replicator
A. What is most unusual and different about humans “culture’
a. Cultural transmission= genetic transmission
i. Cultural transmission can give rise to evolution just as genes do
b. Language: evolve by non-genetic means and faster than genetic evolution
c. P.F. Jenkins and the CC song
i. Song patterns were not inherited genetically
ii. Males birds adopted songs from their neighbors= (human language)
iii. New songs are invented and then transmitted to the next generation
1. Cultural mutations
d. Humans cultural transmissions go beyond language ( fashion, ceremonies, art)
B. Analogy between cultural and genetic evolution
a. Researchers and theorists have tried to look for “biological advantages” in various attributes of human civilization
b. Dawkins does not think that these ideas fully accomplish the challenge of explaining culture, cultural evolution and the differences between cultures
around the world.
C. Memes are the new kind of replicator on this planet
a. Human culture- cultural transmission- imitation- Meme (Greek root)- meme
i. Examples of memes: ideas, catch phrases, fashion
b. Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain (imitation)
i. Memes should be regarded as living structures
ii. Some memes are more successful than others at replication
iii. All-or-none quality of gene transmission
c. Examples of memes
i. God: replicated by spoken language and written word, music and art
ii. Survival value: great psychological appeal- answers deep puzzling questions
iii. Religious memes is faith: blind trust, absence of evidence
D. Memes and genes in opposition to each other
a. Celibacy: not inherited genetically (failure in the gene pool), meme for celibacy can be successful in the meme pool
E. When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes