Weíve gotten used to the notion that genes are the means by which physical characteristics are passed from generation to generation. For example, my tooth and jaw structure are a family trait, visible in my mother and her mother, as well as one of my sisters and all three of my childrenóall victims of our genes. Thereís no evolutionary advantage to this overbite that has caused us all so much embarrassment. Itís just a genetic trait, a happenstance of life. My mother and my sister resorted to having all their upper teeth pulled out early in their adulthood, to be replaced with more aesthetically pleasing dentures. My son and one daughter had jaw surgery to realign their teeth. No doubt later generations will wonder, as we all have, where this configuration came from and when it will give way to more pleasing features. Evolution may be powerful, but it has a lot to learn about beauty and function.
What members of my family did in response to their physical characteristics was determined by available dental technology at the time, and by the cultural norms in their part of the world. Dentures were common among people for centuriesóGeorge Washington, I understand, had wooden dentures. As I grew up, many people I knew had replaced their natural teeth with rather good imitations. When a tooth got bad, one simply had it pulled out, and eventually there was a need and the necessary space for artificial replacements. Because of my overbite, I grew up assuming that my teeth were temporary. I was surprised when my wife-to-be spent a large amount of money to "save" a single tooth. For her, to have a tooth extracted would have been almost as disastrous as having an arm amputated. I thought at the time that it was a matter of moneyóI grew up relatively poor, and a lot of things other people had were out of reach for us.
More accurately, the difference was due to cultural expectations. What we spend our always-limited resources on is influenced by what others in our visible world buy. "Keeping up with the Joneses" names a force in culture that can be just as powerful as what our genes give us. Yet itís often beyond our awareness.
Oxford zoologist Richard Dawkins, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, posed the idea that cultural entities tend to replicate themselves just as do genes in the physical realm. He called these replicators "memes." Someone wears a certain kind of hat, just because he thinks it looks striking. Other people notice it, and although they might not have had the courage to wear such a thing at first, they are inclined to mimic the first hat-wearer, and soon itís a fad, seen everywhere. Thatís a meme. It soon has a life of its own, spreading like a virus through the culture. Memes can be physical things, or expressions or religious convictions, or simply ideas. The crucial element is mimicry. People imitate others, for innumerable reasons, and the imitation spreads.
I like to think that although I have obtained a lot of my ideas from others, much of whatís in my head is the product of my own thinking. But Iím kidding myself. The ideas I hold so dear have a life of their own, independent of this dreary flower of the human race. Iím just the vehicle by which the ideas propagate. True, different ideas are merged in my mind as they come from various sources, and the result may be a "new" synthesis of thoughts, to go out into the world as something differentóa new meme, embarking on its independent life, to infect others or to trigger their cultural immune systems and generate reactions that, in turn, become memes themselves to spread through the culture. Whether a meme survives or not depends upon whether there are available hosts to carry it on. Memes, such as the hoola hoop, often have a limited and recognizable life span, eventually to die out or mutate into something entirely different.
Scholars debate vociferously about whether these memes really do have a life of their own. Some call the whole idea nonsense. People spread ideas and fashions, thatís how it works; the results of human behavior donít have an existence separate from their sources. Still, itís a useful way to look at cultural artifacts. A fashion can be seen only in its expression, such as a particular design of hat, and yet it behaves as though it has a kind of life. If we call it a meme, we can examine its behavior and outward characteristics.
Most would agree that a cold virus has an identity separate from its host. And yet it probably could not survive long without one. Hip Hop music is not likely to survive the present generation, for the social conditions that gave birth to it are bound to give way to the "next big thing." It might "mutate" to a different form, more amenable to the following generation.
Whatever we humans do, having inherited all sorts of physical characteristics, we create evolutionary features of our own making and release them into the stream of time. Such features can have just as much influence upon our future as those physical gene-driven features we feel saddled with. It is difficult, of course, to precisely delineate the boundaries of a cultural meme. That difficulty does not invalidate the usefulness of the concept.
It is as though evolution up to now has been out of our control, but from here on, itís our party. What becomes of the world is in a very real sense, our responsibility.
Donald Skiff, May 26, 2005