Thinking Memetically

I’ve almost finished reading The Selfish Gene, by Richard Dawkins. I have been wanting to read this for almost ten years, ever since Julien read it and told me about it. This book has now changed the way I look at the world. I mean, yeah, we all know that evolution is the shit, right? But this book makes it clear that evolution is the shit. And this is because it’s a process that is not confined to biological, genetic evolution. Any time there is anything that can self-replicate almost — but not quite — perfectly, it will be swept up in an evolving tide. So a computer program that replicates a bunch of programs in a sandbox to model evolution? That is not just a model of evolution, that is evolution.

Perhaps the most intriguing application of this is the meme: the unit* of information that can be passed along from person to person. “God” is a powerful meme, for instance, that ensures its own survival by having several qualities that cause it to be replicated. Prime among these would be evangelism, the offer of hope and love to those who have neither, intolerance of heathens, commandments to have lots of children, and so on.

And here’s an interesting point Dawkins makes: priestly chastity is itself a meme that has had some pretty good replicative powers. Chastity makes no sense in genetic terms (unless we’re talking about social insects or naked mole rats**) but in memetic terms, it creates a class of people who are able to dedicate much more time to the propagation of the “religion” meme than if they had a family to deal with. A priest who takes a vow of chastity is a more effective meme-spreading tool. This can be partially an algebraic effect of time allocation, and partially the effect of giving an impression of being special, larger-than-life, a beacon of religion for others to flock to. Someone who takes a vow of chastity has put themself on a level higher than the masses and instilled in themself an aura of authority. This all helps the meme propagate, as people look up to and ultimately emulate this priest.

So I’ve been seeing the world an a series of evolutionary interactions. I hear a song and I wonder how it, as a meme, will fare against other musical memes. I think of competing software, and wonder if there is some ESS that will be reached in their interaction. Hell, even feminism has begun to remind me of various evolutionary strategies that genes use to propagate themselves.

So if there is any downside to all this, it is that I fear I may be too completely sold on the idea of gene-level competition. I think that, as influential as Dawkins and other biologists who think along the same lines are, there is still a significant body of work being done to show that individual-level (and perhaps group-level? or is that old news?) competition is still important. Can someone please recommend a good dissenting book to balance the thorough enrapturing I have been subjected to by Dawkins’ book?

Oh, and the first person to recommend The Panda’s Thumb gets slapped.

* Not really a unit, per se. But it is a single clump of information that can be transmitted through our collective “meme pool” in ways sometimes similar to the transmission of genes through a gene pool.
** I don’t feel like explaining this. Just read the book :)