Kilroy Was Here

Martin Gardner is the author of some 70 books, including "Visitors From Oz" and "The Night Is Large." His latest is "The Definitive Annotated Alice" (W.W. Norton)

The word “meme” was introduced in an offhand way by Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins at the end of his book “The Selfish Gene.” Reviewers of Dawkins’ book liked to quote Samuel Butler’s remark that a chicken is an egg’s way of making another egg. Dawkins’ theme was similar. An organism is a gene’s way of making other genes. The genes are “selfish in the sense that they care not a fig about the welfare of the organisms that preserve and keep them going.”

A meme (it rhymes with “dream”) is short for mimetics, a word denoting mimicry. Dawkins wanted to identify a self-replicating unit of culture that would play a role in cultural evolution similar in some ways to the role played by self-replicating genes in the evolution of bodies. He chose the word “meme” because it had one syllable, like gene, and because it sounded like gene.

A meme is anything humans do or say that is not genetically determined and is passed from person to person by imitation or copying, such as the wish to “have a nice day.” The term has already entered the Oxford English Dictionary, in which it is defined as “an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by nongenetic means, esp. imitation.” Memes are invisible self-replicators that live in human brains the way genes live in cells. They become tangible when they jump from one brain to another. Relativity theory, for example, slumbered in Einstein’s brain as a meme before it went public in a technical paper.


After memes were tossed into the English language by Dawkins, memetics quickly caught fire, especially on the Internet, where it has a cult-like following. Daniel Dennett, Tufts University’s energetic and wide-ranging philosopher, has become the top fugleman of memetics. He vigorously defends the meme concept at length in “Consciousness Explained” and at even greater length in “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” But, as I will argue here, a meme is so broadly defined by its proponents as to be a useless concept, creating more confusion than light, and I predict that the concept will soon be forgotten as a curious linguistic quirk of little value.

Every idea or form of behavior that you learned from someone else, not on your own, is a meme. The list is endless: gestures, tunes, catch phrases like “Kilroy was here,” fashions in clothes such as the current droopy trousers worn by young boys, ways to make anything (pots, chairs, cars, planes, skyscrapers), marriage customs, diet fads, art, novels, poems, plays, operas, tools, games, inventions, ideas in science, philosophy and religion--all are memes. What sociologists call mores and folkways are memes. From a “meme’s-eye view”--a favorite phrase of memeticists--all your beliefs about anything are clusters of memes. If you are a skeptic, your skepticism is made of memes. Was Jesus the son of God? If you think yes, that’s a meme. If you think no, that’s also a meme.

There are three ways in which memes leap from person to person. They jump vertically from parents to offspring. They jump horizontally from person to person in ways resembling the spread of a virus. Third, memes can move obliquely from someone to a near relative or friend. All words are memes. Spoken and written languages are clusters of memes.

Along with Dennett, two authors in 1996 also promoted the meme craze: Richard Brodie in “Viruses of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme” and Aaron Lynch in “Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society.” Last year came a third spirited defense of memetics, “The Meme Machine” by Susan J. Blackmore, a psychologist at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Born in London in 1951, she is best known today among parapsychologists and skeptics for her disenchantment with psychic research. Blackmore goes far beyond her predecessors in her enthusiasm for memetics. In his foreword to “The Meme Machine” Dawkins recognizes that Blackmore’s vision of the future of memetics far exceeds his own. She has “greater courage and intellectual chutzpah,” he writes, “than I have ever aspired to. . . .” Indeed, Blackmore speaks of her book as actually laying the foundation for a new science.


Blackmore believes that certain big questions can be answered fully only by invoking memes; for example, why do we have such large brains? The conventional answer is that complex thinking has enormous survival value in the ability of a species to control its environment and keep itself from extinction. Blackmore puts it differently. Our brains are meme machines that have evolved to store and transmit memes. We are back to a version of Butler’s topsy-turvy aphorism. Instead of brains creating memes, such as Huckleberry Finn and quantum mechanics, it is the other way around. “The enormous human brain,” she writes, “has been created by the memes.”

Many pages of “The Meme Machine” concern ways in which memes influence sexual behavior. All cultures have memes about what makes a person sexually attractive. Two such popular memes are that women should marry men taller and older than themselves. Such memes obviously influence mating choices, but Blackmore argues that we should override such trivial rules and mate with those who are the most skillful in “copying, using, and spreading memes.”


More drastic than her view of gender relations, Blackmore’s thesis attacks Western civilization’s understanding of the self. In the book’s final chapter, Blackmore follows Dennett in seeing consciousness and free will (two names for essentially the same thing) as illusions. They are “explained” by simply denying that they are real. For Blackmore and Dennett, the notion of a “self” living inside our brain--an entity that makes decisions--is what Blackmore calls an “insidious and pervasive” notion created by the millions of memes that shuffle about inside our skull. There is, to put it bluntly, no such thing as a self:

“If I genuinely believe that there is no ‘I’ inside, with free will and conscious deliberate choice, then how do I decide what to do? The answer is to have faith in the memetic view; to accept that the selection of genes and memes will determine the action and there is no need for an extra ‘me’ to get involved. To live honestly, I must just get out of the way and allow decisions to make themselves.

“On this view, all human actions, whether conscious or not, become complex interactions between memes, genes and all their products, in complicated environments. The self is not the initiator of actions, it does not ‘have’ consciousness and it does not ‘do’ the deliberating. There is no truth in the idea of an inner self inside my body that controls the body and is conscious. Because this is false, so is the idea of my conscious self having free will.”

And here is how Blackmore describes the illusions of the self in “The Meme Machine’s” final paragraph:

“Memetics thus brings us to a new vision of how we might live our lives. We can carry on our lives as most people do, under the illusion that there is a persistent conscious self inside who is in charge, who is responsible for my actions and who makes me me. Or we can live as human beings, body, brain, and memes, living out our lives as a complex interplay of replicators and environment, in the knowledge that that is all there is. Then we are no longer victims of the selfish selfplex. In this sense we can be truly free--not because we can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators but because we know that there is no one to rebel.”

Observe how this denial of a self meshes with the statement Butler made in jest. Instead of humans thinking about the world and their lives, exchanging information, inventing things, interacting with one another, experiencing pleasures and pains, the memetic language reverses everything. It’s like bending over and looking at the world between your legs. You see the same things as before but from a different perspective. What is really going on is that billions of selfish memes are manipulating us. They have taken over our brains. They shape all our thoughts and actions. The memes are not our creations. We are theirs. We are just a meme’s way of making other memes.

Because Blackmore shares Dennett’s belief that all our decisions are determined by genes and memes--what we are wired to do by heredity and experience--she joins the ranks of thinkers known as determinists. One wonders what she would make of such famous arguments for free will as those found in William James’ essay “The Dilemma of Determinism” or the attacks on determinists by later philosophers.

Note the word “selfplex” in the last paragraph of Blackmore’s book. It is her term for the cluster of genes and memes that gives rise to the illusion of a self. This brings us to the most serious objection that critics have hurled at memeticists: The notion of a meme is too fuzzy, too ill-defined.

A meme is supposed to be an element of imitation that can serve as a significant cultural unit. There have been a few earlier efforts to define such units. Blackmore cites two: “corpuscles of culture,” proposed by anthropologist F.T. Cloak in 1975, and “culturgens,” an equally ugly term suggested by physicist Charles Lumsden and biologist Edward O. Wilson in 1981. Neither has caught on. The question arises: Given that there are cultural elements called memes, how do we distinguish a single meme, such as the “V for victory” gesture, from a vast bundle of memes, such as those that constitute a religion?

To answer this question, memeticists have invented the word “memeplex” to denote a cluster of memes. Hilarious debates have raged over how to draw lines separating memes from memeplexes. For example, the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony (da-da-da-dum), as Blackmore records them, clearly are a meme because millions of people can hum those four notes without being able to hum the entire symphony. The symphony is, of course, also a meme, but best described as a memeplex because it consists of smaller memes.

The question of where to mark the boundaries along meme spectrums is not easy. “Laugh and the world laughs with you; weep and you weep alone.” This clearly is a meme because so many people can repeat it without knowing they are reciting the opening lines of “Solitude,” a poem by Ella Wheeler Wilcox. All poems and novels are memeplexes. They often contain memorable lines that jump from person to person because they are so easily remembered. “Call me Ishmael,” the first line of “Moby Dick,” is a meme. The first chapter of the novel is a memeplex, and the entire novel is a larger memeplex.

All of science is a memeplex, but it is hopeless to decide when a scientific assertion becomes small enough to be called an individual meme. Is the fact of evolution a meme or a memeplex? Roman Catholicism is a monstrous memeplex. What aspects of it deserve to be called memes? The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? Or is this a memeplex made up of such memes as original sin and the Virgin Birth? Should an entire mass be called a meme or a memeplex? The gesture of crossing the heart is surely a meme, but we encounter great difficulty sorting out the memes that make up a doctrine as complicated as, say, the Atonement.

The point is that the notion of a meme is much too broad to be useful in explaining human thinking and behavior. A meme is little more than a peculiar terminology for saying the obvious. Who can deny that cultures change in ways independent of genetics, ways involving information that is spread throughout society mainly by spoken and written words?

As Blackmore makes clear, memes have a physical basis of some sort inside brains, where they are stored in one’s memory in ways nobody understands. This is important in helping us understand how memes and genes differ. Genes have become visible. They are spots along the DNA double helix that have been isolated and observed. They are as real as atoms. How memes live in brains is a mystery.

When memes jump from brain to brain, they often are transported by what memeticists call meme vehicles. Obvious examples of such carriers are newspapers, periodicals, books and recordings. Libraries, museums and art galleries are huge vehicles for storing and passing along memes. “A scholar,” writes Dennett, paraphrasing Butler, “is just a library’s way of making another library.”

For Dennett and Blackmore, memes offer profound new insights into human nature and even lead to theories which may soon be testable. They see memetics as a science in its infancy. To critics, who at the moment far outnumber true believers, memetics is no more than a cumbersome terminology for saying what everybody knows and that can be more usefully said in the dull terminology of information transfer.

Stephen Jay Gould, in a 1996 debate with Blackmore, called memes “meaningless metaphors.” Blackmore cites a letter in the New Scientist in which British philosopher Mary Midgley calls memes “mythical entities” that are a “useless and essentially superstitious notion.” H. Allen Ore, a University of Rochester geneticist, was quoted in Time as dismissing memetics as “an utterly silly idea. It’s just a cocktail party science.”

Let’s try a linguistic thought experiment. In all human cultures, even in chimp society, objects not connected to the body are shifted from place to place. Call every such move a “tran,” short for translocate or transfer. Moving our shoes when we walk, run or dance is not trans because the objects are attached to our body. Nor are the movements of things in cars, trains, ships, planes and elevators examples of trans because the propelling forces are independent of us even though we may direct such movements.

Examples of genuine trans abound. The motions of pitched and batted baseballs are obvious trans, as are the movements of objects in dozens of other sports: football, basketball, bowling, tennis, golf, hockey, pool and so on. When a chess player pushes a pawn, it’s a tran. Dealing playing cards is a tran. Raking leaves and moving vacuum cleaners and using dust busters are trans. Serving food and washing dishes are trans. Hammering a nail and sawing wood are trans. Eating is a tran because food is moved from plate to mouth, though swallowing it is not because the food becomes joined to the body. Punching typewriter and computer keys are trans. Moving piano keys, trumpet valves and drumsticks are trans. Digging ditches and cutting down trees are trans. Serving beer is a tran. There are tens of thousands of other examples.

A vexing question arises: How should we distinguish trans from transplexes? The flight of a pitched baseball is a tran, but if the ball is hit, caught and tossed to first base, is that familiar sequence a tran or a transplex? Shall we call an entire inning a tran or a transplex? Should transplex be reserved for a complete game, with its hundreds of trans?

What is gained by introducing the concept of a tran? Nothing. Trans are no more than a bizarre terminology for saying what is better said in ordinary language. We don’t need a new science of tranetics to tell us that in every culture, persons move things.

Are memes here to stay or will they prove to be as irrelevant as trans? Will memetics turn out to be a new science or a harmless humbug destined to evaporate like Kurt Lewin’s topological psychology, which befuddled Gestalt psychologists in the 1930s, or catastrophe theory, which two decades ago agitated a small group of overzealous mathematicians? Is memetics a misguided attempt on the part of behavioral scientists to imitate genetics with its gene units and physics with its elementary particles? In a few years we may know.