Women: Femme Fatalities
( Discussion from Chapter 2 )
Discussion: Civilization Memes
The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world.
-William Ross Wallace
Genetic evolution is a fascinating concept, but a different kind
of evolution is far more relevant to our daily lives: cultural
evolution. Many critical discoveries that we exploit to shape our
world have nothing to do with genetic changes. The domestication
of animals, the smelting of copper, and the invention of writing
have all dramatically altered our environment-and the methods we
use to survive.
Humans learned to write less than six thousand years ago, as
astoundingly recent as that sounds. Cognitive capacity developed
for other survival purposes was adapted to a new use. The
discovery that we could manipulate abstract ideas using concrete
symbols, and in the process archive knowledge, revolutionized our
lives. The change came from a cultural idea, and not a genetic
Genetic changes proceed so slowly as to be imperceptible.* (See
sidebar on page 28). Barring the emergence of a strong new
selective pressure, it can take a hundred thousand years to mold
a new species. But cultural evolution is rapid, and far more
relevant to us on a day-to-day basis. It can alter our lives in
the course of a millennium (as with agriculture), a generation
(as with birth control), and, now that information propagates
around the globe at the speed of the Internet, in a day.
We thrive in the vastly altered terrain of the modern world,
adapting to new circumstances though our genes are substantially
unchanged from ten thousand years ago-a time without modern
technology. How is it possible for our culture to evolve so
It is due to a unit of information called a meme. The meme,
analogous to the genetic gene, is a self-propagating nugget of
information with the capacity to infect and transform the
thoughts of each person it encounters. It is our memes that allow
current human circumstances to differ so dramatically from
pre-technological civilization. This unseen agent of change is
cloned, mutated, and spread through the medium of
noun: A unit of information, such as a cultural practice or idea, transmitted from one mind to another in a self-propagating manner analogous to the replication of the genetic gene.
Language is a striking example of cultural evolution based on a
highly contagious meme. Once held to be a spontaneous sudden
mutation, it has been viewed more recently as resulting from
"a simple case of humans tinkering around with the natural
sounds of the mouth."** Perhaps humans, like infants, first
communicated with a universally understood "babble" of
simple concepts such as alarm and warmth, until the unbelievably
powerful realization dawned that one could modulate sounds to
express complex concepts. The notion of language was so useful
that it spread quickly from group to group, each inventing their
own words and perhaps creating, as a side effect, the confusion
of the Tower of Babel.
Memes can also be spread nonverbally. A tossed ball conveys the
idea that objects can be transmitted without continuous hand to
hand contact. Cave paintings, pantomime, and teaching by doing
are all ways of transferring memes without language. But language
is a particularly adept agent of meme infection because it can
more easily convey complex abstractions to a wider audience.
Our brains are able to produce and exploit language and writing
because we are capable of abstract thought. Next time you make a
statement about your views, think about the memes it contains-and
which are of your own invention. We each generate and replicate
memes as readily as we breathe air.
C h a p t e r 2 S t o r i e s
Fast Food Fatality
That Sinking Feeling
Fatal Footwear Fashion
Explosive Mix of Girls
Eat the Young
Brush with Stupidity
Darwin Awards Honorable Mentions Urban Legends Personal Accounts
|Chapter Links: IS EVOUTION SLOW?
Punctuated Equilibrium Theory says no!
The chronology of technology.
**P. F. MacNeilage and B. L. Davis, "Motor explana-
tions of babbling and early speech patterns,"Develop-
mental Neurocognition: Speech
and face processing
in first year of life. Boysson-Bardies B. et al, 1993.