The Selfish Gene
The Selfish Gene is a 1976 book by Richard Dawkins about evolutionary biology. It introduces the replicator as the unit of natural selection, which has since become one of the central concepts in evolutionary theory. In Chapter 11, Memes, Dawkins introduces the concept of memes, a cultural replicator.
The book is a foundational text within memetics, one of the Major Traditions of Meme Studies.
Chapter 11. Memes
The concept of the meme is introduced as a cultural analogue of biological (and proto-biological) replicators. Dawkins suggests that, as a universal law of biology, "all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities" and that culture may also evolve through natural selection between replicators, called memes. Dawkins' argument is a form of universal Darwinism:
The argument I shall advance, surprising as it may seem coming from the author of the earlier chapters, is that, for an understanding of the evolution of modern man, we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas on evolution. I am an enthusiastic Darwinian, but I think Darwinism is too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene. The gene will enter my thesis as an analogy, nothing more.
Using this analogy, Dawkins considers whether memes are subject to the same general type of selective pressures as genes, which select for "longevity, fecundity, and copying fidelity" in genes. Prima facie, some memes have great longevity, such as in the case of literature and technology; books and gadgets can be reproduced at industrial scale. However, Dawkins points out, "at first sight it looks as if memes are not high-fidelity replicators at all [...] quite unlike the particulate, all-or-none quality of gene transmission. It looks as though meme transmission is subject to continuous mutation, and also blending." Dawkins attempts to resolve these two apparent breakdowns in his analogy by:
- Pointing out that units of genes are neither precise nor consistent, instead being "divided [...] into large and small genetic units, and units within units [...] defined, not in a rigid all-or-none way, but as a unit of convenience, a length of chromosome with just sufficient copying-fidelity to serve as a viable unit of natural selection", thereby circumventing the question of what the "single-unit meme" is;
- Supposing that two memes (in the case of idea-memes, which are defined as entities "capable of being transmitted from one brain to another") may be considered copies of one another so long as there is "some essence of [the idea-meme] which is present in the head of every individual who understands [the meme]", thereby circumventing the question of what "copying-fidelity" is.
Dawkins concludes the chapter with a call to arms for humans against "the worst excesses of the blind replicators":
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 the selfish replicators.
- ↑ Szathmáry E. (2006). The origin of replicators and reproducers. Philosophical transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological sciences, 361(1474), 1761–1776. https://doi.org/10.1098/rstb.2006.1912
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2016, p. 248.
- ↑ Dawkins, R. (1983) Universal Darwinism. In: Evolution from molecules to man, ed. D. S. Bendall. Cambridge University Press.
- ↑ Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2016, pp. 252-253.
- ↑ Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2016, p. 253.
- ↑ 6.0 6.1 Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2016, p. 254.
- ↑ 7.0 7.1 Dawkins, Richard. The Selfish Gene: 40th Anniversary Edition, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2016, p. 260.