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Daniel Dennett: Memes 101 | How Cultural Evolution Works

We are what we are because of genes; we are who we are because of memes. Philosopher Daniel Dennett muses on an idea put forward by Richard Dawkins in 1976.

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Richard Dawkins coined the term meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. And what he proposed was that human culture was composed, at least in part, of elements, units that were like genes in that they were copied and copied and copied and copied and copied. And it was the differential copying, the differential replication of these items, these memes that accounted for the excellent design of so much in human culture. And this is a very repugnant and offensive idea to many people, especially in the humanities. They wanted to hang onto the idea of the God like genius creator who out of sheer conscious brilliant comprehension makes all these wonderful things, whether they’re poems or bridges or whatever. He was saying in effect well yes people do make amazing things, but if you look at the projects in detail you see that they couldn’t do that if they hadn’t filled their head with all these informational things, which are like genes, which are also information. But they’re not fast down through the germ line. They’re not passed down through the sperm and the egg. You don’t get them with your genes. You get them from the ambient culture, from your parents, from your peers, from the society in which you’re raised. It requires perception.

Now a lot of people think we’ll wait a minute there’s a huge disanalogy here. Genes are DNA. What’s the DNA of memes? And the first thing you have to appreciate is; no genes aren’t DNA. Genes are the information carried by the DNA. Genes are no more DNA than poems are made of ink. I mean you can send somebody a poem that’s written in ink or you can say it aloud. There’s many different ways of transmitting that poem or saving that poem from one place to another.

The same thing is true of genes. Once you get used to thinking of genes as not DNA but the information carried by the patterns of the nucleotides of DNA, then you can see that there really is a nice parallel. Well then what’s playing the role of DNA in the land of culture? What are the physical implementations? Well, they are wonderfully various. There is ink on paper. There’s lines carved into stones. There’s lines drawn in the sand. There’s skywriting. And, of course, there’s what we’re doing right now – there’s audible language.

And one of the great features of language, not sufficiently appreciated by those who aren’t linguists, is that what makes language a potent medium for the transmission of information is that it’s digitized in the same way that DNA is digitized. It’s composed of fundamental elements, in the case of DNA it’s ACGT, four different nucleotides. In the case of language it’s 20 to 30 phonemes. We are designed to pick up the phonemes of our native language and then automatically we categorize incoming utterances by correcting them to the norm of whatever the phonemes in our language are. And it doesn’t matter whether I say doooog or dog or doog or dog or dog, it all comes out as a dog. It doesn’t take any effort to recognize that these are all tokens of the same type. That’s digitization. And that’s what makes it possible to transmit information from one person to another to another and the person in the middle doesn’t have to understand what it means. All they have to do is copy the sequence of phonemes and the message will get through.

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