Blackmore on Memes

Blackmore on Memes - Home Search Who am I? Curriculum Vitae...

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Home Who am I? Curriculum Vitae Media Photos Search Publications Conferences and Lectures Research Topics Zen Memetics The Power of Memes Behaviors and ideas copied from person to person by imitation - memes - may have forced human genes to make us what we are today By Susan Blackmore Scientific American, Vol 283 No 4, October 2000, p 52-61 Reproduced with permission. Copyright 2000 by Scientific American, Inc. All rights reserved. http://www.sciam.com Human beings are strange animals. Although evolutionary theory has brilliantly accounted for the features we share with other creatures—from the genetic code that directs the construction of our bodies to the details of how our muscles and neurons work—we still stand out in countless ways. Our brains are exceptionally large, we alone have truly grammatical language, and we alone compose symphonies, drive cars, eat spaghetti with a fork and wonder about the origins of the universe. The problem is that these abilities seem surplus to requirements, going well beyond what we need to survive. As Steven Pinker of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology points out in How the Mind Works, "As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless." We might say the same of art, chess and pure mathematics. Classical (Darwinian) evolutionary theory, which focuses on inheritable traits of organisms, cannot directly justify such riches. Expressed in modern terms, this theory holds that genes control the traits of organisms; over the course of many generations, genes that give their bearers a survival advantage and that favor production of many offspring (who will inherit the genes) tend to proliferate at the expense of others. The genes, then, essentially compete against one another, and those that are most proficient at being passed to the next generation gradually prosper. Few scientists would want to abandon Darwinian theory. But if it does not clarify why we humans have come to apportion so much of our resources to so many abilities that are superfluous to the central biological task of further propagating our genes, where
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else can we look? The answer, I suggest, lies in memes. Memes are stories, songs, habits, skills, inventions and ways of doing things that we copy from person to person by imitation. Human nature can be explained by evolutionary theory, but only when we consider evolving memes as well as genes. It is tempting to consider memes as simply "ideas," but more properly memes are a form of information. (Genes, too, are information: instructions, written in DNA, for building proteins.) Thus, the meme for, say, the first eight notes of the Twilight Zone theme can be recorded not only in the neurons of a person (who will recognize the notes when she hears them) but also in magnetic patterns on a videocassette or in ink markings on a page of sheet music. The Birth of Memes
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This note was uploaded on 11/11/2009 for the course ANTHRO 186P taught by Professor Boyd during the Fall '09 term at UCLA.

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Blackmore on Memes - Home Search Who am I? Curriculum Vitae...

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