Here’s the book to which memes owe their beautiful name. The Selfish Gene (1976) is written by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins and explores evolutionary thought in an imaginative and new way that still finds its relevance today. Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ in one of the last chapters, still decades before they became famous on the World Wide Web.
As its title may already suggest, the book's primary concern is genetic behaviour. Dawkins elaborates on Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection and evolution by proposing to look at the perspective of genes in the evolutionary process. This gene-eyed view is needed, since natural selection happens at that level: all the inheritable information that causes species to adapt is passed on through the DNA in genes. Therefore, he argues, all organisms (including humans) are ‘survival machines’ for their genes, behaving just so that the genes can propagate themselves.
After establishing that genes as units of heritable information cause natural evolution, he states that organisms are also subjected to cultural evolution, which works in a similar way. ‘Cultural transmission is not unique to man’, Dawkins explains. And he finds proof in how songbirds in New Zealand pass on different song patterns. The song patterns catch on solely through mutual adaptation, without any genetic component. Sometimes a song changes, causing a ‘cultural mutation’, and is then again taken up by the other birds. For anyone who is a bigger fan of the version of the song ‘Hurt’ by Nine Inch Nails than sung by Johnny Cash, this process may sound painfully familiar.
The name for the cultural units that are transmitted amongst birds, humans and who knows which other species can be easily guessed at this point. Memes have, long after the publication of The Selfish Gene, taken up a life of their own on the internet, as cultural units we share, create and alter at a sometimes amazing speed. In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins illustrates beautifully how genes and memes around us continue to evolve with us.
The Selfish Gene is available at Amazon.