Do Memes Hold The Leash On Genes?

Heather Bean

Principles of Evolution

Term Paper












            The word ³meme² was first coined by Richard Dawkins in 1978 in his book The Selfish Gene.  Dawkins described a meme as a unit of cultural transmission. Some examples of memes given by Dawkins (1978) are "tunes, ideas, catch phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.²  Others include habits, ways of doing anything, stories, inventions, languages, political systems, science and technology. These memes can be ³copied from person to person and vie for survival in the limited space of human memories and culture² (Blackmore 2000). Because some believe that memes have the potential to control our genes, this topic is highly controversial.  Even the very definition of a meme is highly debated.  Examples of definitions include

a unit of imitation; a unit of information residing in a brain; culturally transmitted instructions; any permanent pattern of matter or information produced by an act of human intentionality, roughly equivalent to ideas or representations; a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that copies of itself get created in other, actively contagious ideas; a mental representation; [and] a self-replicating element of culture passed on by imitation (Rose 1998).


This paper attempts to describe memes, examine some of the controversies and implications surrounding the concept of memes, and look at some areas of research that currently involve memes.

Overall Description

            Evolution is based on a replicator, the information that gets copied from generation to generation (Dawkins 1978).  The replicator that comes most quickly to mind is the gene.  In order to have a true replicator, it must possess the properties of replication, variation, and selection that are needed for evolutionary progression (Blackmore 2000).  Langrish (1999) adds that there must be competition between the varieties and ³a mechanism for changing the 'rules' of the competition [because] without this requirement, evolution stops when diminishing returns from further variety lead to equilibrium.²

Similarities Between Memes and Genes

Genes possess all of these properties, but in addition to them, memes do as well.  Using the idea that memes are replicators, it is reasonable to assume that they compete to get copied in order for their own survival. In this respect, memes are quite similar to genes in the need to reproduce to survive.  Genes and memes also have several other similarities, including the fact that the information recorded in genes and memes ³provides instructions for the construction and maintenance of living systems² (Lane 1996). They both also contain ³extra information that gives each gene or meme its own identity² (Lane 1996). For example, each human¹s genes contain a combination of parental genes that result in a unique individual.  Memes, such as game rules, contain essential information, but they likewise contain information that makes them different from other memes.   The additional information can arise from mutations or unique combinations of memes already in existence (Lane 1996).  It is also important to realize that ³the copying of memes from one person to another is imperfect, just as the copying of genes from parent to child is sometimes inaccurate² (Blackmore 2000).  For instance, we can add new details to a story, alter the words of a song, or use a tool for something other than it was intended for. Either these variations go on to be copied over and over, or they eventually fade away.

 In addition to these similarities, memes and genes are also alike in that that perform different functions.  All genes carry the same basic information, but genes are required to perform various differing functions depending on what aspect they are responsible for controlling.  Different sections of the common DNA molecule are switched on depending on the needs of the organism (Lane 1996).  An example of how memes can also exhibit these varying functions can be shown with the example of the Constitution of the United States.  As citizens we may know the provisions of the constitution, but we are only directed by those that apply to us (Lane 1996). 

Differences Between Memes and Genes

Although it is nice to think of the gene as an analogy for a meme, it is not necessarily realistic.  There are also several obvious differences between genes and memes.  The first deals with ³the material on which genes and memes are recorded² (Lane 1996).  DNA and similar molecules are the recorders of genetic codes.  However, the markers for memes are not as selective.  They can consist of ink, paper, photographs, energy markers such as sound, computer memory, and ³protoplasm of organic memory² (Lane 1996). The variability in markers provides for ³greater diversity among social systems than biological systems² (Lane 1996).

 Not only is the material in which they are recorded different between genes and memes, they also vary in how they are recorded. Genes use alpha encoding, whereas memes employ beta and gamma codes. When information is alpha coded it means that the information ³is contained and expressed in the spatial and chemical properties of molecules² (Lane 1996).  Beta-coding, which is seen in musical and artistic ideas, is the process of expressing ideas ³directly in the pattern of sounds or colors² (Lane 1996). The differences in coding between genes and memes results in their varied ability to carry certain amounts of information and in different methods of reading the information.  Alpha code can carry a large amount of information by tightly compacting it.  This information than can be easily read and transmitted by genes and even viruses.  However, humans find it difficult to read and understand alpha code. Just like we cannot understand the alpha code, genes and cells cannot comprehend and therefore replicate written materials. This is due to the fact that in order to decode DNA there has to exist the ³ability to sense and respond to chemical properties², whereas such things as reading entails knowing the language it is written in (Lane 1996). Because genes utilize only one type of code, they are extremely less varied than memes.  As seen by the wide diversity in nature, genes do allow for a lot of variety, but there is a limit to the diversity. Conversely, memes, have large diversity, because they can be found in ³different forms of code, different media, different languages, and varieties of length and complexity² (Lane 1996). New memes can be established and discriminated through the subtlest changes.

            Another difference arises in the way genes and memes can be combined.  Genes are only combined under certain conditions such as when an egg is fertilized by a sperm cell. Another criterion that exists is that the genes must be compatible, from the same species. In contrast, memes can be readily combined even if they are quite varied in character. For example, ³a musical play and the company to perform it are built            out of a combination of words, music, money, and the knowledge and talents of the performers² (Lane 1996). While DNA molecules are structurally stable and generally hard to modify, except by reproduction, the markers for memes may be unstable or transitory and allow easy alteration of the meme. For instance, a tune carried by sound waves can disappear rapidly.  Although, the tune can be written on paper or recorded on a cassette or CD, it still has the ability to be erased or modified through editing.  This is evident by the differences we hear between the studio version of a song and a live performance of it. The ability of memes to change or mutate rapidly leads to the entire system being able to evolve rapidly (Lane 1996).

            In addition to the above differences between genes and memes, they also oppose each other in the fact that the number of different genes is decreasing, while the meme pool seems to be growing.  It was stated by Gould that during the Mesozoic, the number and variety of genes probably peaked and has been declining since then (Lane 1996). On the other hand, memes are defined as communicating knowledge. If one looks at the world today knowledge is expanding in many realms, including science, history, literature, business, news, music, art, the legal system, etc. Even though certain specific memes are lost, it is evident that the variety and supply of memes still continues to expand.

The final major difference between genes and memes is that although there is only one basic form of a gene, there are several types of memes. Instead of thinking about all memes being the same, John Langrish (1999) suggests that we need to realize that memes are not all the same; there are actually different types of memes.   ³Recipemes are competing ideas of how to do things² (Langrish 1999). They have a different mode of transmission than the other memes, because knowing how to do something often involves knowledge that has to be acquired through actually performing the task (Langrish 1999).  In contrast, selectemes are ideas that compete for ³betterness². They are ideas about ³outputs and their relative desirability² (Langrish 1999).  ³They provide the mental environment in which other memes compete for selection.  The transmission of selectemes is closely bound to something that might be called a society.  Many people, of course, don't accept all the selectemes that are offered them. Some have Friday night selectemes that are different from those that are present on Monday morning² (Langrish 1999). 

The final type of memes that Langrish (1999) mentions is the explanemes, which are ³competing ideas that are used in answering questions about why things work or work better.²  Whereas recipemes tell you how to do things, explanames explain why that process works. Explanemes differ from the other memes, because they are not transmitted by imitation, which is actually the only mode of transmission Blackmore suggests.  Even with this, Langrish emphasizes that explanemes are still memes and they form part of an evolutionary system (Langrish 1999). 


If memes are similar to genes in so many ways and they are responsible for our culture, why are they so controversial?  It may be because of views such as the following:

From the meme¹s-eye view, every human is a machine for making more memes‹a vehicle for propagation, an opportunity for replication and a resource to compete for. We are neither the slaves of our genes nor rational free agents creating culture, art, science and technology for our own happiness. Instead we are part of a vast evolutionary process in which memes are the evolving replicators and we are the meme machines (Blackmore 2000).


It is difficult for people to think that we are not in control of our culture. Blackmore (2000) believes that humans are different from all the other species because only humans ³became capable of widespread generalized imitation.²  She believes that imitation led to the development of memes as new replicators, which used humans to copy themselves. Because humans use both genes and memes, we are different than other species.  She believes the interaction between memes and genes led to our large brains, language, and other ³advanced² abilities. 

Blackmore (2000) believes that imitation is the only mode of transmission for memes.  In this respect, the beginning of imitation in early hominids around two and a half million years ago is a critical point for the development of memes.  ³True imitation means copying a novel behavior or skill from another animal. It is difficult to do, requires a lot of brainpower and is correspondingly rare in the animal kingdom² (Blackmore 2000). Blackmore (2000) asserts that the genes of the early hominids would react with improvements in inborn preferences about what to imitate, but the genes¹ response would always fall far behind the developments in the memes, because genes require generations to adapt. She termed ³the process by which memes control gene selection Œmemetic drive¹² (Blackmore 2000). The process of memetic drive involves memes competing among themselves and evolving rapidly in some direction.  This, in turn, leads the genes to respond by enhancing selective imitation, which enlarged brain size. Therefore, the memes that are successful can determine which genes will be most successful.  Using this assumption, Blackmore (2000) believes that memes ³hold the leash² of the genes.

As mentioned above, Blackmore (2000) feels that only humans are capable of true imitation.  However, some species such as birds, whales, and dolphins can imitate sounds.  She forms the distinction between these animal behaviors and human behavior by stating ³In contrast, generalized imitation of almost any activity seen‹as seems to come naturally to humans‹is a much more difficult and correspondingly more valuable trick, letting the imitator reap the benefits of someone else¹s learning or ingenuity as often as possible² (Blackmore 2000). 

Can Animals Imitate?

Some people disagree with Blackmore¹s belief that animals cannot imitate.  For instance, Dugatkin (2000) argues that memes can influence the behaviors of many animals in the same manner as they direct human behavior. He described an experiment that involved blackbirds that occurred in 1978, and was performed by Eberhard Curio of Ruhr University of Bochum in Germany.  Curio created a small theater in which one blackbird could view a second one squawking and flicking its tail in response to a nearby predator. The second bird was responding to a true predator, an owl, but the first bird could not see the owl.  Instead, it viewed a friarbird, which is not a threat. When the blackbird that had observed the friarbird as a threat was put next to a friarbird, it reacted in the same way, squaking and flicking its tail.  The message that friarbirds are enemies could be transmitted down a chain of six blackbirds. 

 However, just because something is copied does not mean that it is a meme.  Dugatikin (2000) using Blackmore¹s own criteria for identifying a meme asserts that the above example demonstrates that animals also use memes.  The criteria are that the message ³must be copied accurately, many copies must be made, and the copies must last a long time² (Dugatkin 2000).  Dugatikin states ³if memes do not separate us from animals, as Blackmore suggests, then they alone cannot explain why human culture is uniquely advanced²(Dugatkin 2000).  



Are Memes Only Spread Through Imitation?

In addition to the faults Dugatikin finds with Blackmore¹s work, Plotkin (2000) disagrees with another aspect of her theory.  He has a problem with her defining culture as a collection of memes, but more importantly that all aspects of culture are spread by imitation (Plotkin 2000).  He claims that even with the broad definition of imitation that Blackmore uses, imitation cannot account for the survival and advancement of culture, ³which is much more than the rote repetition of physical actions.  Human culture is about the sharing of knowledge, beliefs and values² (Plotkin 2000). He disagrees that culture arises from the simple, slow accumulation of understanding dependent upon imitation. He supports this statement by mentioning, ³recent neurobiological studies indicate that imitation requires specific messages to be computed in specialized areas of the brain² (Plotkin 2000).  

Is a Meme a Unit?

  In addition to arguments against some of Blackmore¹s views, there are other problems with the concept of memes.  For instance, Langrish (1999) disagrees with the definition of memes that includes the word unit.  He believes that memes are patterns, not units.  For an example, he uses the idea of a railway.  Commuters see it as a form of transportation, while railway builders think of the enormous amount of information needed to build a railway, including track maintenance, finances, and safety.  People who observe the railway may think of the sounds and sights associated with it.  He claims that no matter what is meant by the idea of a railway, it is for everyone and it is not a unit (Langrish 1999).


Four More Problems with Meme Theory

Rose (1998) lists four problems with meme theory, including the definition of a meme that Langrish disagrees with.  The four areas he lists are the ³ambiguity in the definition of a meme and confusion regarding the distinction between replicator and phenotype, the problem of inheritance of acquired characteristics, the relationship between memetics and sociobiology, and the selection or mutation of memes being carried out by conscious foresight² (Rose 1998). 

Conclusion and Possible Implications

It is apparent that there are many controversial and debated issues surrounding the theory of memes.  However, we cannot simply forget the topic because there are some doubts about certain aspects pertaining to it.  The implications of the meme theory are simply too great to ignore.  For example, Blackmore believes ³the idea of the meme as replicator is what has been missing from our theories of human evolution and that memetics will prove immensely useful for explaining our unique attributes and the rise of our elaborate cultures and societies² (Blackmore 2000).  She suggests ³if language developed in humans as a result of meme-gene coevolution, linguists should find signs that grammar is optimized for transmitting memes with high fecundity, fidelity and longevity, rather than for conveying information on specific topics such as hunting or for forming social contracts² (Blackmore 2000). Also, experimentation should find that humans copy articulate people more.  Mathematical modeling and computer simulations could also be used to examine in fuller detail the meme-gene coevolution (Blackmore 2000).  In addition to studying only memes associated with humans, several studies have and are being conducted with animals, especially in regard to bird songs.  For example Lynch and Baker (1993) used a memetic approach to study cultural evolution in Chaffinch songs.  They used the concept of a song meme, ³defined as a syllable or a series of linked syllables capable of being transmitted² (Lynch and Baker 1994).  They found that in the population from the Canaries, the levels of cultural differentiation were higher than the other populations.   This was probably caused by reduced levels of migration, smaller population size, and bottlenecks (Lynch and Baker 1994).  This, in turn, led to a smaller effective population size, which accentuated the effect of differentiation by random drift (Lynch and Baker 1994).  Their study also supported the relatively high rates of mutation that are observed in memes (Lynch and Baker 1994). 

There is still so much to explore about memes both in humans and animals; we haven¹t even entirely figured out genes yet.  More research definitely needs to be done in order to clear up controversies and merely expound on the implications memes have. 

Although this paper by no means examined all of the information available about memes, it does give a general idea of what the meme theory is all about, some controversies associated with it, and some very important implications and research pertaining to the theory.  Now it is up to us to do further research and decide if memes do really hold the leash on genes.







Works Cited

Blackmore, S.  2000.  The Power of Memes.  Scientific American 283: 52-61.

Dawkins, R.  1976.  The Selfish Gene.  Oxford University Press, New York. 


Dugatkin, L.A.  2000.  Animals Imitate, Too.  Scientific American 283:  67.


Lane, T.  1996.  Genes, memes, templates, and replicators.  Behavioral Science 41:  205-215.


Langrish, J.Z.  1999.  Different types of memes: recipemes, selectemes and explanemes.  Journal of Memetics-Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission 3:  24-39.


Lynch, A. and Baker, A. J.  1994.  A population memetics approach to cultural evolution in Chaffinch song:  differentiation among populations.  Evolution 48:  351-359.


Plotkin, H.  2000.  People Do More Than Imitate.  Scientific American 283:  72.


Rose, N.  1998.  Controversies in meme theory.  Journal of Memetics-Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission 2:  43-57.