Genes and Memes


So last night I was doing research when this happened (~4:55):

I had no idea how to react when I first watched this and really I still don’t. All I know is that I love it. Apparently Dawkins loved it as well.


I know this video is destined to go viral (despite New Media Rockstars nonsensical hate), but I want to make sure that the central concepts related to genetic and memetic evolution resonate, because they are important.

Genes and memes are central concepts to evolutionary science. Genes are biological units of information. Memes are cultural units of information. Both types of information evolve over time via similar processes:

In order for selection to operate on anything there needs to be two requirements:

Both variability and differential success are largely connected. Let’s take a specific example with a random animal, let’s say… penguins (of course, this example could be done with any organism). All penguins are different. They are not all genetic clones of one another. This is because they have different genomes (meaning: all the genes!). Because penguins do not live in a “penguin garden of eden” with no predators and infinite resources, not all penguins will survive and reproduce with equal “success” (or “fitness”). The information transferred over time will change (i.e., the penguin gene pool will change). And it will not change randomly. The gene pool will change depending on the environment the penguin is living in. Let’s say that one population of penguins lives in an environment that requires very good swimmers to catch elusive and speedy fish in a cold ocean environment. The penguins in this population with genes coding for traits that enable faster swimming speed will survive long enough to reproduce more often than those who are slow. The gene pool will have changed non-randomly.

In order to give an analogous example of how variability and differential success affect the evolution of memes we cannot pick an animal at random. We must use humans as our example. Humans are the only animal with a memetic pool large enough to significantly impact evolutionary change. Let’s say there is a hypothetical population of ancient humans that live near a shallow sea. Because humans did not evolve in an aquatic environment our gene pool would not be suited to exploiting shallow sea food resources. However, we have memes, which are a faster and more efficient way of adapting to an environment. In this particular population memes (or cultural ideas) that allowed the population to extract more resources from a shallow sea environment would be selected for and propagate. Specific examples would likely include the manufacture, distribution, and use of specialized fishing equipment.

Both of the above examples of how gene and meme pools change use natural selection as a mechanism by which change occurs. But as I stated above, sexual selection can also influence changes in gene and meme pools. Natural selection is governed by differential survival. Sexual selection is governed by differential reproduction. Often times sexual selection produces sexual dimorphism (pronounced differences between males and females). This is because one sex will be selecting for desirable traits that will confer some type of evolutionary advantage for their offspring. Usually the more desirable sex (i.e., the slower reproducing sex) will direct sexual selection because they will, usually, have more choices and options of who to reproduce with.

To give an example of sexual selection’s impact on a gene pool let’s use another random example, this time with cardinals. Male cardinals are bright red and female cardinals are a drab grey. This colour dimorphism is not uncommon among birds. It is driven by the fact that females are hyper-selective for male birds that can prove they are healthy. Since the male birds cannot communicate detailed information about their health culturally, they must do it with genes (i.e., biological information expressing the colour of their feathers). The brighter and more vibrant colour of red a male is, the higher likelihood that he will pass on his genes to the next generation. For a male cardinal, having dull coloured feathers is like having permanent unkempt hair and a scraggly beard.

For humans sexual selection can change both the gene and meme pool. To date, the power of sexual selection on human culture has been under appreciated. At the genetic level, humans tend to select mates more frequently that exhibit creativity and neophilia. At the memetic level, this can be expressed differently in different cultures and subcultures. This is difficult to give a specific example of, but variability in cultural information (i.e., how you approach, interact with, speak to another person) will impact your success in reproducing. To give an overly simplistic example, memes coding for strict adherence to the christian god will have a better chance of attracting a mate on Christian Mingle than they will attracting a mate at Single Muslim (and vice versa).

The comparison between genes and memes can continue on with knowledge creation as well. For genes, new knowledge (variability) is created via genetic mutation. Every time organisms reproduce copying errors are made. These copying errors are infrequent, and usually contribute harmful or neutral changes to the gene pool of an organism. This is because genetic mutations are random. What are the chances that a mistake during transcription will prove beneficial? About the same chance as if I were to type out Hamlet, and accidentally make a typo that improved the book. The cumbersome and random mutation process is the primary reason why biological evolution occurs at such a glacial pace. In order for new and useful information to become highly distributed within a population, many generations of differential survival and reproduction must occur.

As for memes, knowledge creation is more of an intelligently directed phenomenon. New memes can be created by brains in the form of ideas and spread from brain to brain via language. In this sense, ideas are cultural mutations analogous to genetic mutations. The functional or utilitarian reasons why memes spread through selection are very complicated, but are largely connected to things like power structure, communication technologies, social prestige, size of memetic sphere, etc. Because death and reproduction are not necessarily factors in creating new memetic information, this process occurs at a much faster pace than does genetic mutation.

There are also parallels between genetic and memetic flow. Genetic flow occurs when two formerly isolated gene pools come into contact via “interbreeding”. The nature of this contact is obviously contingent on a number of factors. Most notably, how long the two gene pools had been separated and how much change has occurred within both since they split. If two gene pools are too distinct, gene flow is impossible for either pre or post-zygotic complications. However, if the gene pools can be mixed than genetic variation will be reduced overall because dominant functional genes will predominate over time.

In terms of memetic flow, “interbreeding” consists of sharing of memes (i.e., ideas having sex). The most obvious example of this occurs when two formerly distinct memetic pools come into contact. Obviously the process of memetic flow played a massive role during the development of human civilization when no memetic sphere was global and ideas spread and interacted slowly. The largest clash of memetic spheres (arguably) happened when the Spanish stumbled into the Americas. As always, the more powerful group was able to memetically overwhelm the other groups memetic sphere, decreasing overall memetic variation in an analogous way to the process that occurs with gene flow. Clashes of this nature obviously don’t happen today because we live within one global memetic sphere. The memetic composition of the sphere has been shaped by an uncountable number of clashes between memetic spheres over time.

Finally, genetic and memetic drift. With genetic drift non-functional genes can be transferred during reproduction randomly. Because these genes do not effect an organisms ability to survive and reproduce there will be no non-random selection for or against them. Due to sheer random chance, the genes may remain neutral, become widespread, or disappear from the gene pool. The same happens with memes that are essentially non-functional. Due to sheer chance of an powerful individual spreading the meme or the meme being in ‘the right place at the right time’, it may remain neutral, become widespread, or disappear from the meme pool entirely.

I hope I have demonstrated how genes and memes evolve in similar ways. A systematic analysis of how these processes occur is essential for understanding the biosphere and our species in contemporary times. If you would like to now re-watch Richard Dawkins psychedelic presentation on memes and genes, click here.

I’d rather spread memes than genes anyway.

Discuss this on Hubski or let me know what you think on Twitter!


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