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The Synchronized Evolution of the Meme of Time and Timekeeping Devices

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Jen Schmidt 

March 13, 2011

The Synchronized Evolution of the Meme of Time and Timekeeping Devices


            In my last paper I explored the relationship between evolution and time.  I looked at how evolution as a process is temporally constrained, but then when it's viewed as a theory evolution can transcend these temporal boundaries allowing it to describe and predict events in the past, present, and future.  While I found dealing with time to be conceptually difficult, once again I find myself intrigued by the relationship between evolution and time. Currently, however, I?m interested in investigating the cultural aspect of time, specifically how this meme of time (the idea of being on time etc.) has changed over time (the literal passage of time) with the evolution of timekeeping technology (clocks).  From a general standpoint over the last 10,000 years we have clearly made magnificent technological advances in timekeepers, so much so that we can now measure time more accurately than a physically observable property like length.  With each change in our ability to measure time, the cultural idea of time has shifted, ultimately impacting various cultural institutions such as the economy and society.  These changes in both humanity's perception and use of time in cultural institutions demonstrate the actuality of Dennett's claim, memes can be thought of as a unit cell or hypothetical gene of cultural evolution.  However, in looking at the evolution of the meme of time I will also demonstrate the necessary boundaries to cultural evolution, which Dennett did not address in his original proposal.

        In order to eventually address how the evolution of timekeeping devices has led to changes in society?s thoughts about time, or cultural evolution, I will now briefly restate Dawkins? definition of a meme and Dennett?s notions about memes in cultural evolution. Dawkins coined the term meme in reference to an idea or belief that serves as a cultural subunit which able to be transmitted amongst individuals in an imperfect manor, parallel to the transmission of a gene.  Dennett describes these memes as a unit of cultural evolution, where cultural evolution is equivalent to genetic evolution only at a faster pace.  In an evolutionary context he notes that memes vary in their content or vary in their meaning from person to person, they are transmitted from brain to brain, and then are subjected to selective pressures leading to survival of the most "fit" memes (Dennett, 343).  These most ?fit? ideas then persist, changing slowly and unconsciously shaping our lives and different institutions in society.  While Dennett acknowledges that cultural evolution mirrors genetic evolution with similar philosophical concept (reproduction, genotypes, phenotypes, DNA, selective pressures etc.) nowhere does he allude to the boundaries of memes. Yes, science fiction memes may have no boundaries, but memes aimed at describing and thinking about the earth and reality are constricted by societal and scientific boundaries.  

        In applying these notions to time, it may be helpful to clarify how time is a meme.  Time can be understood and quantified in many ways, and it is our perception of time in terms of purpose, specificity, duration, value etc. that is itself a meme. Perception of time can influence to many different areas, but I will focus on how it is regarded in a social and economic sense.  I will specifically examine how a change in technology leads to a change in the meme of time accuracy perception, which then leads to visible changes in social and economic institutions; this is cultural evolution. 

            While today time is kept in a very precise manor by an atomic clock, it has taken the human race thousands of years to accurately track units of time.  Time keeping initially began through the study and observation of natural cycles.  Patterns in the stars, moon, and sun enabled astronomers to track years, seasons, months, and days.  Going back over 20,000 years it is appears that Ice-age hunters used scratches on sticks to keep track of the days in regard to the lunar cycle (NIST).  More recently, within the last 10,000 years, devices have slowly been invented to follow time more precisely, eventually getting down to the hour, minute, second, and even nanosecond.  One of the initial and most basic instruments used to keep time is the sundial, which originated about 5,500 years ago in ancient Egypt (Levine). The basic principle behind a sundial is that the sun hits a landmark stick casting a shadow, this shadow continually shifts throughout the day reflecting to the suns own changing location.  The most simple of sundial, obelisks, consists of a single stick in the ground, this form only enables individuals to tell the difference between the morning and afternoon (NIST). However, more elaborate forms were later invented including a T shaped sundial used in Egypt and prominent structures like Stonehenge these enabled individuals to roughly estimate the hour of the day or celestial events, respectively (Levine). While sundials where able to measure hours, as one can imagine it is fairly imprecise and of no use at night or on a cloudy day. 

     Indirectly, based off the social changes observed during this time period we can infer that increased time accuracy did lead to a changed perception about time. Even such a small transition in timekeeping going from an obelisk to a T shaped sundial impacted specific individuals, mainly astronomers and priests.  Increased time accuracy allowed these individuals to roughly determine the hour of the day, which was critical in organizing social events such as religious prayers and festivals (Eternal Egypt).  The ability to specify a time in the day more generally enabled individuals to make appointments and organize daytime activities efficiently.   These changes in the social arena demonstrate how by viewing time as a measurable quality new memes regarding time in a social context (meetings, organization, synchrony) descended.  While the more developed sundials had these positive social and potentially economic effects, the unpredictability of the weather and inevitability of night limited the development of these memes.

            Around 1500 BCE new timepieces emerged that eliminated timekeeping's dependence on the weather and on the daytime in general. Some less accurate, but creative methods of time keeping included sand, oil or candles, and incense which would run out, burn out, or change scent roughly every hour, indicating the passage of time. One of the prominent inventions at this time was the water-clock, which kept time based on the amount of water that dripped through a hole into a marked container.  While it is not the most precise in cold climates or over long periods of time, water clocks were a fairly accurate way to keep track of time by the hour.  In fact, this device was so accurate that it was prominently used up until the 1700's.  

            The growing use of water-clocks resulted in the emergence of an increasingly accurate perception of time.  Increased time accuracy led to sequentially visible changes in the social and economic institutions.  Notably, time became a countable and hence a valuable resource, particularly in the economic sense.   During this time period Roman courts and lawyers coined several phrases equating the loss or gain of water (from the clock) to the wasting of time or a plea for more time (Levine).  Thus the meme of time as money emerged, which later becomes enhanced and significantly important in driving the industrial revolution and today's society.  In the social sense the quantification of time also enhanced social interactions allowing individuals to meet at more precise times in order to fulfill communal or religious obligation, enhancing and selecting for the memes that emerged with the invention of the sundial.

            In Europe around the 14th century mechanical timepieces, which used a weighted driving force, were invented.  While at first these devices were not more accurate than water-clocks, still measuring time by the hour, with the invention of the spring and balance wheel by the 1700's clocks became smaller and lighter, enabling individuals to carry the time with them in pocket watches.  Also around this time period the pendulum clock was invented, providing an accurate measurement of time in hours, minutes, and eventually seconds, with little deviation. Using these highly accurate time keeping devices more portable instruments like wristwatches were invented.  Around the 1920s the steady frequency of quartz oscillation became measurable and provided more accurate methods to track time to the 100th of a second.  Skipping ahead to the present day via measuring a cesium atom?s vibration frequency we are able to keep time to the nanosecond.

            From the 1700?s onward there has clearly been a drastic change in the meme of time perception in both an economic and social sense.  One of the notable changes in both social and economic circles is the appearance of time related vocabulary.  With the invention of a reliable mechanical clock a new meme of speed descended, this idea was only feasible with the new increased time accuracy.  Perhaps more important from a societal standpoint, however, was the idea of time punctuality.  Not until the pendulum was perfected to accurately measure minutes did the idea of being on time have any significance. As the measure of time has become standardized the meme of punctuality has also shifted to contain a moral implication.  As a result of time becoming accessible (wristwatches) and coordinated (transportation and long distance communication) lacking punctuality began to imply a lack of commitment to social obligations and acquaintances.  Also from a social standpoint the standardization of time significantly changed the meme of organization.  Once time could be accurately kept, one of the major movements  involved establishing time zones, which allowed for the organization of trains to work efficiently, running on a schedule.  

The idea of organization and efficiency also played an important role in economic institutions.  Much more so than in the Roman era, time most became a valuable recourse, with payroll solely based on the time-spent working.  Better timing devices sparked the emergence of ideas like synchrony and efficiency.  This particularly impacted workers in that specific memes, like the assembly line, descended to maximized efficiency and thus economic profit. Today (at least in the US) with highly accurate timekeeping instruments these social and economic memes have been strengthen to the point where we base our days on them.  We assume we can count on other individuals to be punctual and it is expected that we will, roughly, get paid by the amount of time we spend working, "tick tock tick tock and one day we no longer let time serve us, we serve time and we are slaves passing, --bound into a life predicated on restrictions" (Ellison).

            It is expected that timekeeping devices have evolved to accurately measure time.  Along with this evolution, the meme of time perception in a social and economic sense has also changed in both a linear pattern, with the meme adjusting to the technological reality, and in a branched tree pattern, where new ideas (like punctuality) emerge as a result of changes in the meme of time perception.  This notion of a meme evolving over time to find a new significance in culture and ultimately drive cultural changes in institutions such as society and the economy is exactly as Dennett proposed.  There are variations of the meme of time perception, these are passed on, the most fit or applicable remain in the culture and then new versions of this meme and new branches from this meme undergo the same cyclical process of natural selection.

The one limitation that Dennett does not address, but becomes apparent in the above changes to the meme of time is the boundaries of meme variation.  Particularly when a meme is pertinent to reality (not a fantasy meme) it is restricted by the boundaries of science and everyday life.  The evolving memes of time strictly correlate to changes in timekeeping technology either by directly descending from a previous time meme, or emerging as a secondary meme to the new or original time meme.  For instance, as time instruments improved modified memes of time descending and once a certain accuracy was achieved new memes like punctuality could emerge.  The development of idea of punctuality however, was restricted until the boundaries of time accuracy allowed it to be meaningful.  Like genes, ideas and memes don't just appear, but rather descend or come into being through the interpretation of a previous meme.  This point further enhances Dennett's conclusion that culture evolves through memes in a similar process as natural evolution does through genes.


 Works Referenced:

  • Dennett, Daniel C. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995. Print.
  • Ellison, Harlan. "'Repent, Harlequin!' Said the Ticktockman." Galaxy Science Fiction Dec. 1965: n. pag. Rpt. in A Brief History of  Clock Time. By Robert Levine. New York: Basic, 1997. 51. PDF file.
  • Levine, Robert. "A Brief History of Clock Time." A Geography of Time. New York: Basic, 1997. 51-80. PDF file. NIST. "A Walk through Time." NIST Physical Measurement Library. N.p., 5 Oct. 2010. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. <>.
  • "Measuring Time in Ancient Egypt." Eternal Egypt. IBM, Center for Documentation of Cultural and Natural Heritage, The Supreme Council of Antiquities, 2005. Web. 14 Mar. 2011. <>.