Friday, November 29, 2013

Memes, Tradition, and Building a Culture According to Richard Dawkins

These days, the internet is filled with memes. Everywhere we look online, we find some sort of viral picture of an ugly cat or a celebrity’s face that someone has written a new caption for or put their own spin on. Memes are everywhere in our online experience, and to be honest, they can be hilarious. However lighthearted it may be, this internet phenomenon illustrates a deeper dynamic that is always at play between an individual and culture. Though most of the time it is implicit and goes unnoticed, our individual creativity (or our ability to put a new spin on an internet meme) depends on our imitation of the culture we are already immersed in—without the “memes” that are embedded deep within our culture and language, we would not have any materials with which to create new ideas. Every innovation puts a new spin on an old meme.

In broad strokes, a meme is a self-replicating idea that propagates itself by means of individuals who take it up through imitation and transmit it to others who do the same. The term “meme” comes from the evolutionary biology of Richard Dawkins’ early work The Selfish Gene, in which he derives the term from the Greek root denoting imitation and uses it to describe a non-biological mode of evolution. In doing so, Dawkins shows a surprising resistance to thinking of human behaviour as simply the flow of genes and biological drives. He claims that though genes are an excellent example of self-replicating units (replicators), and much of human and animal behaviour can be described in terms of how genes compete for survival, there is no reason to think that genes as such have a monopoly on replicator status. “I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet,” Dawkins suggests. “It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind. The new soup is the soup of human culture” (192).

Significantly, Dawkins makes the strong (but, as he notes, speculative) claim that once memes enter into an evolutionary process through human culture, human behaviour no longer answers directly to biological evolution. In fact, the flow of memes in culture may have a noticeable effect on the flow of genes in a population. To illustrate this, Dawkins describes religious celibacy as a meme that affects what genes enter into the gene pool. In this case, the meme, not the gene, is the primary determiner of natural selection.

With an evolutionary theory of memes, Dawkins puts forward a hypothesis describing culture formation, in which a wide variety of ideas (memes) compete for the attention of the individuals who propagate them. This explains how traditions, culture, and perhaps even language come about. For Dawkins, a persistent institution or tradition such as a church consists of a nexus of memes that reinforce one another: “Perhaps we could regard an organized church, with its architecture, rituals, laws, music, art, and written tradition, as a co-adapted stable set of mutually-assisting memes” (197). So a cultural institution, a way of life, or a set of practices gets set up, in this account, as a self-reinforcing meme-complex. In this way, such a position makes it easy to tell a story of how culture came to be the way it is, without reducing it to competition between genes.

Despite Dawkins’ latent hostility toward religious institutions (evident in the fact that almost all of his examples of memes border on a critique of the legitimacy of truth claims of religious people), his speculative theory of memes represents an important insight that is (surprisingly) resonant with aspects of the work of Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt, and is important for thinking about ethical responsibility and culture.

In a somewhat militant and over-zealous tone, Dawkins ends his discussion of memes with what I find to be a key insight that deserves unpacking (and maybe a bit of rhetorical defusing):
“We have the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination…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” (The Selfish Gene, 201).
What Dawkins is getting at here is not all that different from Heidegger’s discussion of our thrownness into being with others and our inescapable cultural heritage. In an odd way, Heidegger makes precisely the same case in Being and Time as Dawkins does in the quote above. Heidegger explains,
“The resoluteness in which Dasein comes back to itself discloses the actual factical possibilities of authentic existing in terms of the heritage which that resoluteness takes over as thrown. Resolute coming back to thrownness involves handing oneself over to traditional possibilities, although not necessarily as traditional ones” (Being and Time, 365).
For Heidegger, “thrownness” means that we (Dasein) are already placed in a world even before we stop to think about the fact that we are a self at all. We’re fundamentally constituted by the world and by the rhythms of regular life that we see around us every day (which Heidegger calls “the they”). So in the spirit of Heidegger and in terms of Dawkins’ memes, we might say that our social lives are built out of the meme pool of our culture. Our individuality and self-expression is only possible by means of the meme materials available through everyday life in our culture.

One of Heidegger’s main concerns in Being and Time is that, though we are thoroughly constituted by our cultural heritage to the extent that we can only understand ourselves in its terms, we are not fully determined by it. When we revisit our thrownness into our culture and tradition in a “resolute” way, we hold ourselves distinct from it while being dependent on it for being an individual in the first place. In this way, we are able to hold ourselves at a critical distance from it, which gives us the ability to approach it with creativity rather than simply continuing on in its predetermined trajectory. When a person comes to grasp his or her individuality and takes responsibility for it apart from the pressures of “the they,” Heidegger says that this person has entered into authenticity.

To unpack the ethical implications of authenticity, Hannah Arendt, a philosopher, social critic, and contemporary of Heidegger, offers a perspective that allows us to consider the relevance of both Heidegger’s and Dawkins’ sense that we are not slaves to genes and memes. Arendt considers it imperative that, after the devastation of World War II, we come to grips with the fact that we are not fully determined by our culture, that we are paving our own path rather than one set out for us from which we cannot deviate. “[E]ach new generation,” says Arendt, “indeed every human being as he inserts himself between infinite past and an infinite future, must discover and ploddingly pave it anew.” (Between Past and Future, 13).

It seems to me that Arendt would echo Richard Dawkins idea, and perhaps even his passion, that we not consider ourselves dominated by the genes and the memes that constitute us. We have the freedom and the responsibility to build our own future because we are not predetermined by the workings of our bodies or our society. Though we owe our existence to genes and memes, the fact that we are not slaves to either of them means that we share in an ethical responsibility for shaping the future together.

Matthew E. Johnson is a junior member at the Institute for Christian Studies, focusing his philosophical studies on hermeneutics, aesthetics, and discourse.


  1. Dawkin's meme theory is a cute way to think about cultural reproduction and socialization, but it doesn't have much to offer beyond cuteness. I propose that henceforth the word only be used for internet content that is widely shared, shaped and discarded within a month. Here's a nice little read on memes in this sense:

  2. I share RB's sense. How exhausting to propose side-by-siding biology and human culture! How unfortunate that Dawkins fell there, and what he continued. Human culture is certainly a something, but its paths bewilder the earnest scientist, and leads that individual to strange places.

  3. Hi RB and jonathan. Thanks for the comments!

    RB: I’m not sure I understand your concern here. It seems to me that Dawkins’ meme theory actually gets at a dynamic that is always at play in culture generally and that includes and is made explicit in internet memes. I think we might lose something important if we say that the internet meme is an isolated phenomenon that has no correlate in culture away from the keyboard. I’d be interested to hear more about why you think we should only use the word for internet memes. I’m not sure “cuteness” is a meaningful criterion for deciding which words are not helpful to use. Can you expand on this?

    Jonathan: I agree with you that we shouldn’t attempt to reduce culture to only gene flow and meme flow. Culture is much more unpredictable and complex than that. However, let me reiterate the reason for connecting Dawkins to Heidegger and Arendt in the article. Dawkins, at least in The Selfish Gene, puts forward his meme theory as a way to describe how ideas can be self-replicating, but, surprisingly, he ends up arguing for an antireductionistic picture of culture and individuality. He concludes the chapter on memes with the emphatic claim that we are not slaves to memes or genes—we have power over them. So for Dawkins (at least in The Selfish Gene), it seems that, while memes are a helpful way to talk about culture, they were never meant to be a definitive formula for scientifically nailing down exactly how culture works.

    In general, I think it might be helpful to note that I am drawn to meme theory because of the way it allows us to talk about the fact that we do not create ourselves, and yet we are free to engage with the biological and cultural forces that have shaped us. While we are indebted to biology and culture for our very existence, we are not fully determined by their pressures. I was surprised to find that this insight, common to Heidegger and Arendt (and many other philosophers), is also shared by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene.

  4. He says definitely what the new soup is. If that is true, what is the scientist to do?

    1. Yes that's true. Dawkins is clear that he thinks that memes are a new breed of replicators that exert pressure on the movement of culture, perhaps even more strongly than genes (for humans). This leads him to say: "The new soup is the soup of human culture" (192).

      However, my point is that Dawkins (surprisingly) takes a strong stance on how human individuals are not slaves to memes and genes: "We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators" (201). So while Dawkins introduces a new framework for the analysis of culture (which he admits is only preliminary and speculative in The Selfish Gene), he does not seem to be claiming to offer an exhaustive scientific description of human behaviour. Perhaps later Dawkins would tend in a more reductionistic direction.