Darwin Awards II
"Unnatural Selection"

C h a p t e r  2  S t o r i e s

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 elaboration.

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 rapidly?

meme (m¯em)
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.

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 communication.

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
Enraged Elephant
Christmas Tree
Testing Faith
That Sinking Feeling
Aircraft Airhead

Fatal Footwear Fashion
Explosive Mix of Girls
Snow Bunnies
Dumb Drunk
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,"
mental Neurocognition: Speech and face processing
in first year of life. Boysson-Bardies B. et al, 1993.

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