Richard Dawkins and Memes

For being an early and vigorous defender of the theory of evolution by natural selection against its critics, 19th century biologist Julian Huxley became known as “Darwin’s bulldog.” In the late 20th and early 21st century, the sinewy and quick-witted Oxford biologist Richard Dawkins, in his equal enthusiasm for the power of evolutionary explanation, has been called “Darwin’s greyhound,” and in his seminal 1979 work on evolution, The Selfish Gene, he argues that what underlies all of life’s activity is the reproductive imperatives of genetic material: a chicken, as it were, is an egg’s way of making another egg; an anthill is a way to make another egg-filled queen ant, and so on.

Dawkins in turn argues that human language, being also a code for carrying information, functions analogously to genes, moving words, phrases, and ideas about like viruses from human mind to human mind, some being more successful at provoking humans to reproduce them than others.

In the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins coins a term for language’s viral nature. Cleverly combining the word memory with genes, he calls those bits or clusters of language that go viral memes. Among their potential iterations, memes can travel small and independent (“Got milk?”); can mutate (“Got beer?”); and be carried along in some larger memetic cluster of language (the 23rd Psalm—“The Lord is my Shepherd . . .”—in the King James Bible).

Imagine reading a short story with Dawkins’s idea of memes brought to it as an analytical tool. The questions that follow below are inspired by Dawkins’s original insight about the reproductive imperative that adheres to language:

  • Is the story you are reading memorable? Do you imagine it staying with you for decades to come?
  • Does the story mesmerize or haunt you in some way?
  • Will you be telling the story to others, encouraging them to read it?
  • Is there a turn of phrase, a metaphor, a sentence, a paragraph, or an idea that is especially memorable in this story? Will you be repeating it to others? To what purpose? What impels you to do this? Why does that particular piece of memorable language fit into your mental ecology so well?
  • Within the story itself, are there memes infecting the minds of your story’s characters?

An obvious example of a meme in a short story is the repetition of the phrase, “I prefer not to,” by Bartleby, a copyist in a 19th century law office, in Herman Melville’s “Bartleby the Scrivener.” The phrase comes to infect the minds of the copyist’s employer and coworkers, and it has even taken on a life of its own outside the story itself, becoming readily associated with all forms of passive resistance to authority, from Thoreau to Gandhi to Martin Luther King.

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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4 Responses to Richard Dawkins and Memes

  1. Staffan says:

    I’ve always been a meme skeptic. The analogy to evolution is fundamentally flawed since genes that are competitive make up more and more advanced organisms. Memes do no such thing. They are not part of larger systems that themselves compete with other systems, progression. It’s really just a fancy (and erroneous) way of saying that some things get sticky.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      I wouldn’t be that quickly dismissive, though you are right that the analogy is not 1 for 1. But it’s clear, for example, that the fitness of ideas, over time, evolve and become better formulated through competition.

      Take Christian apologetics over the past two millennia. Christians, in the face of pagan, humanist, and atheist competition, have become ever more complex and refined in defending their faith.

      And it seems quite clear that one idea will often come into association with other ideas, making for a cooperative body against other bodies of ideas,


  2. Alan says:

    Forget not that technology is ideas and can be modeled as memes. Fire, tool use, language – without these various things we ‘know’, humans would not be viable. Without tools and fire, we could not collect and process enough food to survive as a species. Without being taught at a young age, we would not be able to use language nor even to walk upright (look into ‘feral children’). Any knowledge – technology or culture – passed between generations, can be modeled as a meme. Because we humans are dependent upon our culture for survival, I thought that the meme model could have been useful. I think the ‘gene-culture co-evolution’ model will replace it though.

  3. Pingback: The Definition and Origin of the Phrase “The Whole Nine Yards” | Prometheus Unbound

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