Thursday, 29 March 2012

William Hamilton on memes

The late William Hamilton - an evolutionary biology superstar - was a meme enthusiast from the early days. In 1977 he correctly predicted that the term would come to dominate - writing:

He floats the term "meme" (short for mimeme) for the cultural equivalent of "gene". Hard as this term may be to delimit - it surely must be harder than gene, which is bad enough - I suspect that it will soon be in common use by biologists and, one hopes, by philosophers, linguists, and others as well and that it may become absorbed as far as the word “gene” has been into everyday speech.
His "Narrow Roads of Gene Land" volumes mention memes at numerous points. Here he is in one of the introductions in "Narrow Roads of Gene Land, Volume 2: Evolution of Sex" from 2002:
Quite possibly new memes that we are creating and are themselves vigorously 'Darwinizing' and thus self-improving may acquire strength to take us over almost completely, much in the way that a brain worm takes over behaviour in an ant. Whenever a weakness in the meme-acceptance system has been discovered there still seems little to stop this happening, at least within an individual lifetime.
As usual, Bill was ahead of his time.

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