Memes vs. genes

The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)

I’m disappointed it took me so long to stumble across this book. And that happened only because we ordered it for a friend who was visiting from Mexico City. She hoped to take it with her when she returned, but the book didn’t arrive until after she’d departed, so … I opened it, expecting to drown in a sea of hard science. But Dawkins wrote The Selfish Gene so anyone can understand it, and he steers clear of the underlying mathematical equations used to support much of the theory in the book.

Dawkins explains how genes are the driver of life on earth. We humans — and all other containers for genetic matter — exist to ensure those genes continue forward into the future. These genes are selfish, coding our bodies to do whatever is necessary to ensure the gene’s survival. But it’s not that simple, and this isn’t a “survival of the fittest” argument.

I found it fascinating that this is where the word “meme” was coined:

We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

Then he drops the bomb. Humans have spent millennia obsessing over lineage and inheritance, passing on our “genes” to future generations. But because of the way genes are transferred from generation to generation, there is a watering down process that essentially flushes most individual traces of us within a few generations. As Dawkins writes:

When we die there are two things we can leave behinds us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be gone in three generations. … But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool.