Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think : Reflections by Scientists, Writers, and Philosophers

By Alan Grafen; Mark Ridley | Go to book overview

WHAT's THE MATTER
WITH MEMES?

Robert Aunger

I'M old enough to be one of the first generation of people brought to the 'gene's-eye-view' of biology by reading The Selfish Gene. It changed my outlook on life and has had a profound influence on my subsequent thinking. This transformative experience has been reproduced in many thousands of readers over the past thirty years. Oddly enough, for someone who has studied memes, I don't remember being particularly taken with the final chapter, 'The Long Reach of the Gene', at the time. What transported me then was the profound general outlook the book provided on why social interactions work the way they do. My professional concerns with the meme concept, introduced by Dawkins in that last chapter, came later, when I became interested in understanding cultural change.

A meme, of course, is defined as the fundamental unit of cultural transmission. From an evolutionary perspective, it plays the role in cultural change equivalent to that of the gene in biological change: as the basic unit of inheritance allowing the accumulation of adaptations. The idea is that, like a gene, a meme is a replicator (a concept also first defined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene). Genes replicate through the duplication of DNA strands; cultural replication, or the duplication of memes, takes place through the social transmission of information.

Dawkins was not the first scholar to broach the idea that culture might be underpinned by the replication of bits of information. The idea had been in the air for some time, with a variety of linguistic novelties being coined to describe a cultural replicator over the years: 'culturgen', 'mnemotype', 'culturetype', and

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