Brain Pickings

How Richard Dawkins Coined the Word Meme: The Legendary Atheist’s Surprising Religious Inspiration

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“Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.”

Most people know that the word “meme” was coined by legendary evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his seminal 1976 book The Selfish Gene. What few realize, however, is that the vocal atheist and champion of evidence as the holy grail of life, who even penned a children’s book rebutting religious mythology with science, had his first experience of a true meme, decades before he had the word for it, in a religious context. In his altogether fantastic new memoir, An Appetite for Wonder: The Making of a Scientist (public library), Dawkins describes his largely unhappy days at boarding school, where he was sent away at the age of seven:

Every night in the dormitory we had to kneel on our beds, facing the wall at the head, and take turns on successive evenings to say the goodnight prayer:

Lighten our darkness, we beseech thee, O Lord; and by thy great mercy defend us from all perils and dangers of this night. Amen.

None of us had ever seen it written down, and we didn’t know what it meant. We copied it parrot fashion from each other on successive evenings, and consequently the words evolved towards garbled meaninglessness. Quite an interesting test case in meme theory. . . . If we had understood the words of that prayer, we would not have garbled them, because their meaning would have had a ‘normalizing’ effect, similar to the ‘proofreading’ of DNA. It is such normalization that makes it possible for memes to survive through enough ‘generations’ to fulfill the analogy with genes. But because many of the words of the prayer were unfamiliar to us, all we could do was imitate their sound, phonetically, and the result was a very high ‘mutation rate’ as they passed down the ‘generations’ of boy-to-boy imitation.

Dawkins adds that it would be interesting to investigate this effect experimentally, but admits he’s yet to do it. (I wonder whether he knows of Buckminster Fuller’s scientific revision of The Lord’s Prayer.)

But rather than mindlessly succumbing to the meme, young Dawkins found himself asking the types of profoundly philosophical questions of which children are capable, and seeking their answers in science rather than religion:

I became a secret reader. In the holidays from boarding school, I would sneak up to my bedroom with a book: a guilty truant from the fresh air and the virtuous outdoors. And when I started learning biology properly at school, it was still bookish pursuits that held me. I was drawn to questions that grown-ups would have called philosophical. What is the meaning of life? Why are we here? How did it all start?

Richard Dawkins at age 7. Photograph courtesy of Edge.org

Nearly thirty years later, he came to formulate his meme theory in The Selfish Gene, which remains an essential piece of cultural literacy. In considering the primeval soup of “replicators” responsible for the origin of all life, he casts human culture as a different kind of “primeval soup” driven by the same mechanisms and coins his concept of the “meme,” which has since itself mimetically overtaken popular culture, even offering a pronunciation pointer:

I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged. . . . It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate which leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain, via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.

Returning to his days at public school, Dawkins offers another intriguing example of meme theory in action by way of “the weirdness of nickname evolution,” which operates much like mimetic mutation:

One friend of mine was called ‘Colonel’, although there was nothing remotely military about his personality. ‘Seen the Colonel anywhere?’ Here’s the evolutionary history. Years earlier, an older boy, who had by now left the school, was said to have had a crush on my friend. That older boy’s nickname was Shkin (corruption of Skin, and who knows where that came from — maybe some connection with foreskin, but that name would have evolved before I arrived). So my friend inherited the name Shkin from his erstwhile admirer. Shkin rhymes with Thynne, and at this point something akin to Cockney rhyming slang stepped in. There was a character in the BBC radio Goon Show called Colonel Grytte Pyppe Thynne. Hence my friend became Colonel Grytte Pyppe Shkin, later contracted to ‘Colonel’. We loved the Goon Show, and would vie with each other to mimic (as did Prince Charles, who went to a similar school around the same time) the voices of the characters: Bluebottle, Eccles, Major Denis Bloodnok, Henry Crun, Count Jim Moriarty. And we gave each other Goon nicknames like ‘Colonel’ or ‘Count.’

An Appetite for Wonder is an altogether fantastic read, offering a fascinating glimpse of how one of today’s most influential scientific minds blossomed into himself.

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