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Another View

Before writing about convergent evolution of memes, I went back and re-read Memes: the new replicators to see if Dawkins had written anything on the subject. He hadn't, but he had written a couple of paragraphs that I thought gave an interesting perspective on a question that came up in the essay Free Time: why don't I ever get around to doing anything productive?

There is a problem here concerning the nature of competition. Where there is sexual reproduction, each gene is competing particularly with its own alleles—rivals for the same chromosomal slot. Memes seem to have nothing equivalent to chromosomes, and nothing equivalent to alleles. I suppose there is a trivial sense in which many ideas can be said to have ‘opposites’.

I like that … to me, “opposites” sounds like “extremes”.

But in general memes resemble the early replicating molecules, floating chaotically free in the primeval soup, rather than modern genes in their neatly paired, chromosomal regiments. In what sense then are memes competing with each other? Should we expect them to be ‘selfish’ or ‘ruthless’, if they have no alleles? The answer is that we might, because there is a sense in which they must indulge in a kind of competition with each other.

Any user of a digital computer knows how precious computer time and memory storage space are. At many large computer centres they are literally costed in money; or each user may be allotted a ration of time, measured in seconds, and a ration of space, measured in ‘words’.

That takes you back, doesn't it? Now, of course, you can open a free email account and get a huge amount of storage.

The computers in which memes live are human brains. Time is possibly a more important limiting factor than storage space, and it is the subject of heavy competition. The human brain, and the body that it controls, cannot do more than one or a few things at once. If a meme is to dominate the attention of a human brain, it must do so at the expense of ‘rival’ memes. Other commodities for which memes compete are radio and television time, billboard space, newspaper column-inches, and library shelf-space.

In other words, memes compete for processing power because there's not enough time. The one unfortunate thing about this view is that it's objective rather than subjective—it doesn't say anything about what it feels like to be a substrate for competing memes.


  See Also

  Alleles and Loci
  Attention in Myth
  Free Time

@ September (2004)