Memes and genes

The idea of a meme was first put forward by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, ‘The Selfish Gene’. He explained later how it had come about. The entire book had of course been about the genetic code and how natural selection selects for the most adapted version in the circumstances at that time. Of course, nature doesn’t have any purpose in this. It’s just that the organisms endowed with genes more adapted to their circumstances tend to survive and pass their genes on to the next generation. But he tells us that he wanted to explain that the particular chemical composition of our genes was not the only possibility in our vast universe.  Who knows what may work in other circumstances – perhaps something based on silicon, for instance.

The essence of genetics for him, though, was not the chemicals involved, but that there was something which coded for a particular structure or outcome. Any way that this could be achieved would be the equivalent of our genes. To illustrate it, however, he introduced an abstract example - the idea of the meme. This is the concept that an idea once communicated ceases to be yours alone and can spread like a virus amongst the people you know and the people whom they know and so on.

There is though some confusion in this explanation. For Professor Dawkins, the fact that there is an extremely low rate of change in the genes as they are passed on is essential to the proper functioning of the system. If not, then succeeding generations might, for instance, regularly lose or gain limbs or find their noses on the backs of our heads. Stability is vital, with mutations happening at an exceedingly low level, producing exceedingly minor variations so that they will not completely mess up the working of the organism. A major change in how the organism works would probably result in a very premature death. If instead it marginally improved the functioning of the organism, then the mutation would probably make it in the long term but, if the change made it only marginally worse, then that line would tend simply to die out over time. 

Of course, relatively fast change can occur in the biosphere. The punctuated equilibrium theory of evolution takes this into account. It says that things tend to go on in much the same way for aeons and then suddenly change, well ‘suddenly’ in a relative sense. It is a good description of what happened when existing circumstances favouring the dominance of, for example, the dinosaurs was upset by, apparently, an asteroid landing. It created totally different atmospheric conditions, conditions which happened to favour the emergence of our ancestors, the early mammals. But that’s not a rapid change of genetic code, it’s a rapid change of environment, making what had been a good fit, now a major liability.

I was drawn to the question of memes again by a friend who, last week, queried what the concept really amounted to. Now, at one level it’s quite simple - ideas, beliefs, ways of doing things being copied by others and so passed on. We hear a tune in an advert and we all pick up on it. Someone decides that, not only can you store food in an amphora, but that the vase, its modern day equivalent, can be used to display flowers in your house. Nice. Unthreatening. And so these things happen, are copied and persist for, well, for as long as they persist. They may persist with variations, but for how long we cannot know.

So does this really have any relationship to the idea of a stable genetic code? Well, not very much, because we all know that ideas and ways of doing things, whilst they can persist for generations, can also change very rapidly. They can easily become the equivalent of a nose growing in the wrong place. Which means that Professor Dawkins’ original use of the word meme was probably not very useful in illustrating an alternative version of a stable genetic system; it did though, unintentionally, happen to provide us with a word for what we have always known to be the case - that ideas spread, and that they spread whether they’re good or bad.

Now, as far as an individual species is concerned, non-adaptive genetic changes will tend to make the carriers of those genes less likely to reproduce. Largely, however, mainstream versions of the organism will not be affected. They will carry on regardless. Only the mutant strain will disappear. The difference with our memes is that it is not just the people adopting misleading ideas that do not survive. Those people can take us all down with them because of their effect on society as a whole. A contemporary illustration is that of the anti-vaxxers who refuse for spurious reasons to have a vaccine. Not only do they try to persuade others of their nonsense, but they also put at greater risk of infection those with a compromised immune system that prevents them from having the vaccine.

In fact, the ones pushing misleading ideas can be beneficiaries of their own irrationally - or indeed their willingness to deceive. Religions over the millennia havve been particularly good at this. The need to propitiate their particular god (i.e. meme) generally meant a net inflow of funds to the Religious hierarchies. They have indeed shown themselves to be major proponents of the art, gathering money and property from the rich - those wanting to buy a place in the afterlife after an earthly life of often very conspicuous sin. Would though that it were that relatively innocuous. Because they need to sit at the feet of the real masters of the misuse of memes, the politicians.

A large part of the population has accepted the meme created by Boris and his acolytes that absolute British sovereignty is vital for our future as a trading nation, when it’s completely absurd to imagine that such a thing even exists. There are always other powers around with whom you have to do deals. And all treaties have dispute settling procedures and so, necessarily, a loss of sovereignty - always assuming that we are willing to observe our treaty obligations! And, of course, the Donald has made an art-form out of the conspiracy theory meme.

With access to so many sources of information, it is very disappointing that we still, voluntarily, cling to our tribes and fail to engage in critical thinking. Instead, because we want to hear a particular message – a political meme - which accords with our prejudices, we will support people who vary from being incompetent to downright evil, without apparently being aware that we are their marks in a supreme confidence trick designed by the purveyors to give them power over us.

But natural selection does eventually catch up even with the memes and so with the individuals and groups attached to them. The reckoning cannot be put off for ever. Conduct which produces bad economic outcomes or major civil disturbance will in due time have its natural results. There may also be an innate counter-weight to the persistence of traditional patterns of thought. The next generation has always had an inbuilt scepticism about any views held by their forebears. Maybe, in itself, this is a genetic adaptation to enable us, as a population, to break away from our memes from time to time. To renew our thinking.

We can also see that the old cultural reference points get lost in the mists of time. How many now can identify the stars of the old slapstick films? And in the same way, the reasons for the strongly held views of previous generations as to how the country should be run fail to carry weight with those who don’t share that past experience. We see this with the support for Brexit amongst older age groups and opposition to it amongst the younger demographic. I was very interested to hear that Barack Obama considers that not only his children, but also their friends, cannot conceive of treating people differently because of their colour or sexual orientation. I suspect that may not be applicable nationwide, but I do think that there is truth in his assessment of the change that there is in how we, or at least, they, treat others.

This will not though stop succeeding generations having their divisions in other ways. They have always existed and I suspect always will. Let’s hope though that they can learn from our experience to manage them better.

Is there a meme for being sensible?

22 November 2020

Paul Buckingham

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