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mcurrie's picture
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Genes determine the physical features of an organism.  Although genes are very important to life they do not govern the character of a human? But what does?  Dawkins decided to answer that question with another type of material that helps determine our character.  In his book "The Selfish Gene" Dawkins writes about a component of cultural evolution, called memes.  They can be affected by the environment and the individual that the memes inhabit.  These invisible components of the brain remain as important as genes in determining the character of a living organism.

By definition a meme is an idea, behavior, style or usage that spreads from person to person within a culture3.  In humans the memes have aided in our intelligence, our ability to make tools and form languages in order to aid in the spreading of the ideas.  A meme has been described as a virus.  In order for a meme to survive it needs a vehicle5.  Although memes do not ensure the survival of a vehicle, they can only transmit information to be spread and replicated.  This replication occurs as a memory, a story passed from generation to generation.  Only when the meme is remembered over the ages has it been "fit" enough to survive. The memes can remain stable or mutate in order to continue their survival.  These memes are the history that has been recorded over the years, the past that has been analyzed and learned from so that the survival of a species can continue.  For memes in order to continue they can mutate as the environments changes and as the mind learns from the memes present. 

Memes can blend together.  With that blending some will change due to others and some will stay the same.  The more one meme is used the greater chance it will be remembered and the greater its survival.  The process of memes being remembered or forgotten is the meme undergoing natural selection as the mind of an organism sorts through the memes that are useful and useless.  Other times the memes are lost due to the lack of communication.  If there is no interaction or reading, the memory or meme can fade and be forgotten while anther can take its place.

In Dennett's book "Darwin's Dangerous Idea" he uses the concept of memes and genes as little molecules with their own minds and goals.  He describes memes as if they have a brain or some form of intelligence that makes them selfish.  Only worrying about their survival and using their "brains" to ensure their survival2.  In reality memes have no emotion, goals, or intentions.  They rely on the vehicle to determine if there is a goal or emotional connection with the meme.  It is the vehicle that determines in the meme is important to remember, to write down, and to spread.  They can be added, removed, or changed in order to give an organism an advantage, or just a memory to keep safe.

Do these memes identify a person?  Memes are only a small component to determining a person.  A human still has a choice if they would like to act upon a meme; they have a choice to remember.  It is what you remember that can determine who you are.  Memories of the past can aid in the determination of the choices of an individual in the future.  The individual can act upon the good or bad memes.  These actions due to memes can define the individual.

Memes depend on the environment around the vehicle or the changes in the vehicle itself.  As individuals age they increase their knowledge with new experiences.  The memes present within the brain can be questioned and changed.  When the environment changes so can memes.  As a child gets older they experience new events that can determine if the memes presently in their brains are useful or need to be changed.  When the vehicle changes so can a meme making them dependent upon the environment of the individual and the outside environment.

Memes are not only able to be found in humans, they can also be present in other organisms.  Memes can be habits passed down by imitation.  As the parents take care of their offspring, the offspring watch their mothers as they scavenger for food.  Over time the offspring are able to fend for themselves as they imitate their mother.  This imprint for survival becomes part of the animal's behavior and by definition is a meme.  It is not only humans that imitate their parents but also other organisms.  Humans are also able to write the stories "memes," read, and continue to learn and increase the number of memes in the brain.  While other organisms only learn the essentials that are needed to survive.

The combinations of memes aid in forming the character of an individual.  Memes go through natural selection forces, being forgotten or remembered over time.  In many organisms it is their memories that can define who they are or at least are one part of the decision process.  Over time the useful memes continue to be passed from generation to generation.  The memes remain dependent upon the environment and the vehicle they have infected.  There is no mind behind meme's; they do not have their own goal or intention that decides the memes actions.  Overall memes are important to the imprinting of certain behavior, a way to keep history alive, and a way to learn through the changing or mutation of memes.

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1)      Blackmore, Susan. "Do Memes Make Sense?." 06-22-2000. 11 Mar 2009 <>.

2)      Dennett, Daniel C.. Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster Paperbacks, 1995.

3)      N/A, "Meme." Merion Webster Online Dictionary. 2009. Merrion Webster, Incorporated. 11 Mar 2009 <>.

4)      Reader, S. M. & Laland, K. N. (1999). Do Animals Have Memes?
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 3.

5)      Team C004367, "Memes and Genes." Think Quest. 2000. Think Quest. 11 Mar 2009 <Blackmore, Susan. "Do Memes Make Sense?." 06-22-2000. 18 Mar 2009 . >.

6)      Willett, Martin. "What are Memes?." 1999-2009. Debate Unlimited. 11 Mar 2009 <>.




Paul Grobstein's picture

Genes, memes, and ... mind?

"There is no mind behind memes; they do not have their own goal or intention that decides the memes actions."

Important point, but then where do goals or intentions come from?

"A human still has a choice if they would like to act upon a meme ..."

Where did that ability come from, if not from genes and memes?