The Psychology of Communication



We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure, disinterested altruism - something that has no place in nature, something that has never existed before in the whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of selfish replicators.

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, Page 215

12.1 From Genetics To Memetics

In the previous chapter, I described how Edward O. Wilson annoyed both biologists and sociologists, by inventing a discipline called sociobiology, using biological terms to discuss sociological phenomena [WILSON 1975]. Psychologists, who felt by-passed by a synthesis of the level below and the level above, were even more annoyed. Distinguished psychologists formed anti-Wilson organizations and even doused Wilson with water at an academic conference. However, since then, psychologists have accepted many of the principles expounded by Wilson, but have transformed sociobiology into evolutionary psychology. This discipline holds the best hope for a synthesis of psychology with the level below, biology, and the level above, sociology.

Wilson had already earned a Pulitzer Prize for his work on ants. Some of the criticism was based on the mistaken perception that he was viewing us as ants and our society as an ant hill. We are, indeed, social animals, like ants. However, our various roles are not as constrained by genetics as those of ants. Merlin Donald phrases the difference whimsically when he describes the Big Bang of the Brain as the "Great Hominid Escape from the Nervous System" [DONALD, Page 149]. Each of our nervous systems is linked to those of the other members of our social group. This super-organic system is held together by language, that tool we acquired during that Big Bang of the Brain.

Language permits us to share information so that each of us need not acquire all our information on our own. Isaac Newton said he could see so far only because he stood on the shoulders of giants. We can see even further by standing on the shoulders of Newton. A High School student can learn what Newton learned from a life-time of diligent research in a semester. We don't all have to invent the various wheels built by our creative ancestors.

Thus, cultural studies is important in the study of our species (other animals ain't got no culture). However, culture makes sense only in the context of biology. We can't assume that culture replaces biology (humans ain't got no biology). Cultural evolution piggy-backs on biological evolution. To study culture without biology is like trying to understand the pattern of flotsam and jetsam on a beach without considering the sea. The outside-in influence of culture is powerfully constrained by the inside-out unfolding of biology.

One evolutionary psychologist has destroyed the Standard Social Science Model (SSSM), based on the idea that the mind is a blank slate (tabula rasa) on which culture writes [PINKER 2002]. This "tabula" is far from "rasa" - the human mind has been built up by genes over hundreds of thousands of years of survival in a harsh arena. Another evolutionary psychologist has suggested an alternative model for the social sciences. In The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposed that cultural evolution could be considered as a sequel to biological evolution, in which genes are replaced by memes - ideas which are passed on from person to person through imitation [DAWKINS]. The evolution of body is controlled by genes; the evolution of mind is controlled by memes. Susan Blackmore developed this idea in a book which could well be called The Selfish Meme [BLACKMORE].

The science of memetics (study of memes by analogy with genetics, the study of genes) is now well-established. There has been an international conference - Cambridge Meme Conference at Cambridge University in June 1999 - out of which emerged a book - Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science [AUNGER 2000]. Robert Aunger, who convened the conference, has raised its status considerably by documenting the probable biological basis of such memes [AUNGER 2002]. There is a scholarly journal - Journal of Memetics - whose subtitle Evolutionary Theories of Information Transmission clearly places Memetics within the domain of evolutionary theory.

Scholars from other disciplines have explored Memetics from their various diverse points of view - Richard Brodie, a businessman, provides a popular introduction to memetics, entitled Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Mind [BRODIE], Douglas Hofstadter, a mathematician, offers tips on how to best pass on memes [HOFSTADTER], Douglas Rushkoff, in Media Virus, exposes how media spreads self-serving memes [RUSHKOFF], and Mihali Cziksentmihalya, a psychologist, suggests how we can escape the tyranny of genes and memes [CZIKSENTMIHALYA].1

"Meme" is hardly less vague than the almost-synonyms "idea" and "concept" (however, if it were precise, it would not accurately map on to the important but imprecise domain of cultural studies). The advantage is that it provides a rich analogy with the gene. We can plagiarize the precise language of nature to describe the vague domain of culture. We can check how gene does it and see how meme may do it. The meme-as-gene metaphor permits us to enlist the powerful theory of evolution in our difficult project of understanding social phenomena.

The analogy between the gene and the meme is based on the argument that they are both replicators - that is, they are both systems whose sole purpose is to copy themselves. According to Dawkins, good replicators have fidelity (they copy accurately), fecundity (they make many copies) and longevity (the copies last a long time). Replicators produce interactors - genes produce organisms, memes produce minds.

Previously, I presented the history of media as a sequel to the theory of evolution [GARDINER 2002]. Genes are the replicators underlying the theory of evolution. However, we need a second system of replicators, memes, to explain the sequel. The theory of evolution explains only how we acquired Memory to store information and Speech to transmit information. The history of media is the story of how we extended our nervous system by storing and transmitting information outside our bodies to deal with an increasingly complex society. Those extrasomatic tools increased the fidelity, fecundity, and longevity of memes.

Memes, like genes, may replicate themselves as they are passed from person to person. If a meme is worth sharing, it is also worth keeping. Perhaps the sharing of memes is a copy-and-paste rather than a cut-and-paste operation. Perhaps multiple copies of the meme at source may reflect the number of times the meme is passed on and thus represent the importance of the meme. Evolution explains how complexity can emerge out of simplicity. However, biological evolution can not explain the creation of the most complex system, the human brain. That requires a second system of replicators - we must go beyond genes to memes. This level of complexity requires the accumulation of "information not instructed by the genes, but selected from the environment." [AUNGER 2002, Page 187].

The gene-meme analogy, like all analogies, is useful because it enlightens us about both systems being compared. However, the analogy breaks down. The fact that it breaks down makes it more rather than less useful, since it highlights the essential differences between the two systems. One difference is that the meme depends on the gene whereas the gene does not depend on the meme. That is, meme-based cultural evolution piggy-backs on gene-based biological evolution. That is why the Standard Social Science Model was inadequate.

A second difference is that the gene operates at the biological level of analysis and the meme at the sociological level of analysis. As we move up the hierarchy of levels, new phenomena emerge. We tend to refer to them as epi-phenomena, but they are phenomena nevertheless. Thus, memes are not reducible to genes. That is why the original thesis of sociobiology was inadequate.

A third difference is that your genes come from two parents, whereas your memes may come from one to many "parents". Thus, whereas you can't "choose" between the blue eyes of your mother and the brown eyes of your father (that is pre-determined) nor can you compromise between the two colors, you can choose from among the memes passed along from their various parents, and can reach some compromise position on any issue. Whereas genetic transmission is always vertical (parent to child), memetic transmission can also be horizontal (adult to adult, child to child), and can even reverse vertical transmission (child to parent). In our modern world, with its emphasis on horizontal transmission, memes become independent of genes, and may produce inaccurate explanations, addictive habits, and malicious gossip.

Various metaphors of the relationship between the gene and the meme have been proposed - gene is to body as meme is to mind, gene is to hardware as meme is to software, gene builds the stage and meme writes the play. All of those metaphors imply that genes and memes are complementary. None capture the fact that there can be conflict between the gene and the meme. Memes underlying celibacy and homosexuality, martyrdom and suicide obviously do not contribute to the survival of a species. However memes are concerned with the survival not of our species but the survival of their species.

1   The meme meme is alive and well. When googled, "meme" got 84, 700, 000 hits as opposed to a mere 15, 200, 000 for its ancestor "gene".