The human brain is one of the most complex and fascinating constructions in all the known universe, namely because it can attempt to contemplate the vastness of space and express a sense of self. All brains have neuron networks, and many other animal species have mirror neurons as well, but the human brain has the most complex neuron network with the most extensive mirror neuron pathways. It is these mirror neurons that give human beings our distinct ability to create and evolve culture, by giving us the means to emulate general social behaviors and manners of speech, to imitate complex sets of instructions, and to empathize by adopting another person’s point of view and relate to it while maintaining its own. But what is a mirror neuron?
When you perform an action such as reaching out to grab a cup off the table, a motor command neuron in the front of the brain will fire, instructing your arm to perform the action, which is something researchers have known about for over fifty years. However in 1997, researchers in Italy discovered a part of the same neuron that fires when the subject witnesses another person perform the same action. This is the mirror neuron, and it is not merely limited to action. Sensory neurons fire in response to touch, responsible for communicating the sensation of pain I would feel as I recoiled if when I reach to grasp the cup, it is full of very hot water. Mirror neurons found along these pathways will fire if one were to watch someone else recoil in pain. There are other mirror neurons, that sense and imitate another persons emotional state as well. And these are just the one we know about!
Understand that, mirror neurons are not exclusively found in human beings. The Italian researchers originally observed mirror neuron activity in Japanese Macaques; however there is a vast difference in the level of complexity between the Macaque and human mirror neuron network. Neuroscientists believe these mirror neurons comprise our single most useful tool for developing civilization. Just as a human being can run, no human being can run like a horse. As such, just as other animals can imitate via their mirror neurons, they cannot imitate like we imitate. Around 75-100,000 years ago, the human species made a great leap forward through widespread tool use, harnessing fire and constructing shelter. Thus free time was found, and with such a big brain and expansive mind, it was inevitable that humans began to ponder the nature of things and develop culture and civilization, language and eventually a well-coordinated and stratified society that is not only functional but also explores the curiosities, such as what it means to be human.
Evolutionary biologist, Richard Dawkins, using Darwin’s Theory of Evolution, posits a theory behind such human conditions as love, jealousy, and greed. Dawkins explains that our genes seek to create an environment conducive to replicating itself. Additionally, he writes about how the more two individuals are genetically related, the more likely one would be to observe instances of altruism. Based on his evidence, Dawkins attempts to further the idea of selfish replicators by describing another phenomenon – human culture.
For an organism to be successful it has to have a set of mutually cooperating genes. In a carnivorous animal, for example, it needs genes for sharp teeth, claws, keen eyesight etc. in order for the organism to successfully replicate genetic material to the next generation. We can see this in memetics as well. If one views religion through a memetic lens, one might name the threat of hell as being particularly effective in maintaining adherence to a religion. Religious memes may also serve as an example of how memetic fitness can sometimes trump genetic fitness when one considers the celibate priestly class. In a human, memes appear to compete over influencing your use of time. If a meme can free a person from spending time seeking out and engaging in sexual activity, which can be lumped under biological influence, the person has more time to spend in service of that meme. Another example might be how pop music relies on a catchy beat to get stuck in your head over another song. In this way, just like gene-complexes, meme-complexes co-adapt and selection seems to favor those memes which exploit the cultural environment to their own advantage.
The theory of memetics is grounded in the theory of universal Darwinism. If you have variation, selection and heredity, then you must get evolutionary design, or design out of chaos without the aid of mind. Richard Dawkins revealed in The Selfish Gene, that evidence of universal Darwinism is not just found within biological evolution, but within cultural evolution as well. Language, for example, is information that is copied with variation and selection. Clothing and hairstyles, sports and even recipes are just a few other easily observable evolutionary memes.
Upon realizing this, Dawkins then had to decide on a name for this epiphany. He decided to take the Greek word – “mimeme” (that which is imitated), and shorten it to meme, not only to parallel gene, but also to increase the likelihood of memetic transference. Meme theory, as it turns out, is an easily transferrable meme itself. But what does memetic theory tell us?
It gives us a whole new view of cultural evolution. Before, all cultural theories describe our big brain, tool use, language and the like through genetics. “Tool use enhances our survival.” Certainly, this is true, and yet there are plenty of memes within cultural evolution which replicate and are subject to evolution just the same. Evidence exists of guitar-like instruments in Babylon over 4,000 years ago. Of course these guitars are a far cry from your modern day Telecaster. So then the question becomes: “What does the evolution of the guitar have to do with our own biological evolution?”
The point is that there are two replicators that we know about. From the moment that our ancestors began imitating with variation, perhaps some 2.5 million years ago, there was a new replicator let loose upon the world. And while copying how to build a fire is entirely functional, it was inevitable that human beings would also copy memes like putting a feather in your hair, putting ochre on your face. At this point it became an arms race between genetics and memetics. Our genetic drive would have us spending all our time on imitating functional memes to increase survivability, while our memetic drive pushes us to pick up the sounds we hear out of others and ultimately create language. This competition drives the brain to get bigger and bigger, to house more innovative and complex memes. As the memes evolve they drive a brain that becomes better and better at copying memes. Take reading for example; as there is no genetic difference between a literate and illiterate person, and just by learning to read, a person can gain a distinct memetic advantage over those within the same culture who cannot. Not so surprising then, when one considers that a nation can lower their birthrate by teaching the female population how to read!
Humans alone possess the two replicators; all other animals can be considered gene machines. That is, an organism which seeks to replicate its genetic material. Humans have the dual purpose of being gene machines and meme machines. It may even be safe to say that there is a new replicator through technology, as selection and variation and evolution of technology occurs outside the human body and forces us to adapt our behavior through our interaction with it. Susan refers to this new concept as techno-memes, or temes.
Philosopher Dan Dennett lectures at Ted2002 on dangerous memes within society. He begins with a story of the lancet fluke gets into an ant’s brain, hijacks the body, and drives the ant up a blade of grass to be eaten by a cow. This is all done so that the lancet fluke can reach the next stage of its lifecycle in the cow’s stomach. At this point he reveals how this story is a metaphor for how parasitic ideas can hijack the brains of human beings.
Take for example, that Islam means submission of self –interest to the will of Allah. But it’s not just a sizeable religious minority which has succumbed to parasitic ideas, its most people. The state slogan for New Hampshire reads, “Live Free or Die!” Now, how many people have laid down their lives, or killed another, in the name of freedom, truth, justice, communism, capitalism, Catholicism, or Islam? All of them.
Dennett’s chief concern; is that most widely spread ideas as of late, those ideas that spread with that pathogenic fervor which is considered to be a key trait of a good meme, hasn’t been that bold, ground-breaking, out of the box thinking that can revolutionize human civilization. Rather it is what we call infectious repititis- the tendency to repeat old mistakes without thinking.
According to Eriksen, memetics differs from sociobiology and evolutionary psychology in that it does not, “seek to expand the scope of biological explanations in order to be able to subsume human thought, behavior and culture under the Darwinian umbrella.” Rather, it’s a metaphoric Darwinism, and its similarities can be summed up in two points:
· Darwinian principles of evolution are relevant in more contexts than commonly assumed, notably with reference to human life.
· There exists only one form of scientific knowledge, and ultimately all phenomena can be accounted for according to the same procedures of discovery.
While sociobiology teaches that human behavior should, whenever possible, be viewed as a response to selective pressures just as other mammals, memetics would have us believe that culture is a response to an entirely different kind of replication mechanism still bound by Darwinian evolution. And while the details concerning the differences between memetics and sociobiology have not been fully worked out, some authors prefer it that way. Authors like Stephen Pinker, for example, illustrate these points simultaneously; that reproductive strategies of humans were adapted the same as other mammals; while at the same time ideas spread according to the same principles, and yet quite independently from genetic selection.
Some anthropologists have noted with some irritation that these advocates never discuss earlier work on cultural diffusion. It’s understandable; when one considers that some of the most original research can be developed by those unburdened with conventional assumptions, although ignorance of earlier research can also lead newcomers into the same pitfalls. Thus far, memetics has not delivered anything but pretentious programmatic statements backed up by anecdotal evidence. What was for Dawkins a mitigating idea, for Blackmore and Dennett, has come close to absurdity.
Nobody doubts cultural diffusion takes place. Diffusionism was fashionable a hundred years ago when it owed more to Marx and Spencer than to Darwin. The problem with diffusionism is that it’s difficult to show whether or not similarities are due to diffusion, and that a single cultural item is never the same after having been moved from one context to another. So diffusionism gave way to functionalism, which has its flaws as well. Yet it yields high quality ethnographic description, revealing some of the complexities at work in actual society. Thus far, memetics has done nothing of the sort.
Memetics may not have much to offer in the way of valid explanation, though it has raised some interesting questions just right for anthropologists. It views human culture as part of nature yet rejects the simplifications of human sociobiology, asking important questions about transmission and diffusion. However, thus far, it has lacked the holistic perspective of the anthropologist- the recipe, the ingredients, the oven, the cook; and it must supplant the conventional culture/nature divide.
Blackmore, S. (1999). The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.
Eriksen, T. H. (2006). Memetics and the Anthropologists. In T. H. Eriksen, Engaging Anthropology (pp. 57-63). New York: Berg.
TED2002 (Director). (2007). Dan Dennett on Dangerous Memes [Motion Picture].
TEDIndia (Director). (2009). VS Ramachandran: The neurons that shaped civilization [Motion Picture].