Authors: Carl Zimmer
The tree of culture took on a striking resemblance to the tree of life. Many anthropologists began to borrow ideas and methods from evolutionary biology in the hopes of coming up with a scientifically precise theory of their own. They wanted to distill culture into mathematical equations, to make predictions about how cultures change. For most of the twentieth century, the work of these evolution-inspired anthropologists didn't draw much notice outside of academic circles. In 1976, however, the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins offered an idea about culture that became a cultural force of its own: the meme.
Dawkins unveiled memes at the end of his first book,
The Selfish Gene
. The book mostly concerns itself with genes and biological evolution. The most important quality of a gene, Dawkins argued, did not lie in the details of its chemistry. What mattered about a gene was that it could be inherited. When parents have children, a new copy of the gene gets replicated, and those genes that do a better job of getting replicated become more common over the generations. In a sense, Dawkins argued, we exist simply as vehicles that genes build to get themselves transported into the future.
At the end of
The Selfish Gene
, Dawkins added a provocative coda. He argued that replicators didn't have to be made from DNA. Astronauts traveling to another world might find life built from some alternate molecules. And we didn't even have to go to space to find other replicators.
a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet,” Dawkins declared. With the emergence of humanity, Earth was overrun with self-replicating pieces of culture: “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches,” Dawkins wrote. These new replicators deserved a name of their own, he decided, one as catchy as
. He dubbed them memes, harkening back to the Greek word for an imitated thing.
“When we die,” Dawkins said, “there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes.”
Dawkins wrote about memes so beguilingly that the concept
lodged itself in the heads of many readers. Some researchers tried to build a science out of memes, even launching the
Journal of Memetics
. They used memes to explain religions. They claimed that memes were responsible for the
evolution of our big brains. And the appeal of memes reached far beyond academic circles. It became a popular label for trends and slogans. Advertisers saw themselves as meme designers. And when the Internet arose, it proved to be an environment tailor-made for memes. “
The Net has effectively become a meme factory,” the
declared in 1996.
In 1996, only 2 percent of the world's population was on the Internet. They struggled to reach it from sluggish desktop computers and through screeching modems. In the following decades, the Internet expanded its reach, infiltrating phones and cars and refrigerators. By 2016, almost half the world was prowling its nodes. The early listservs and forums gave way to giant social media platforms. Across this new memetic ecosystem, LOLcats and the Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger began to roam. A website called Know Your Meme cataloged thousands of digital replicators, to help the befuddled keep up with new memes, and to help the forgetful to recall those of years gone by. The 2016 United States presidential election became a war of memes as operatives looked for the stories and photographsâgenuine or doctoredâthat could spread a political message.
The nature of the Internet itself gave memes extra legitimacy. A gene, Dawkins often observed, is digital. It encodes a protein or an RNA molecule in a string of bases, with only four possible choices for each position. Because genes are digital, they have the potential to be replicated precisely. A computer file, made up of a string of zeros and ones, can be copied just as accurately.
Of course, both kinds of digital replication can fall short of perfection, acquiring mistakes thanks to sloppy enzymes or a dropped server connection. But molecular proofreading and error-correction software can fix most of them. Social media platforms have worked hard to make this replication not merely perfect but easy. You don't have to dig into the HTML code for your favorite political slogan or your favorite clip of an insane Russian driver. You press
. You retweet. It's not just easy to spread memes; it's also easy to track them. Data scientists can track memes with all the numerical precision of a geneticist following an allele for antibiotic resistance in a petri dish.
Forty years after the publication of
The Selfish Gene
, Dawkins wrote an
epilogue to an anniversary edition in which he looked back at his idea with satisfaction. “
The word meme seems to be turning out to be a good meme,” he declared.
It's entirely possible, though, that you have never heard of the Crazy Nastyass Honey Badger. An Internet meme is successful only insofar as it holds people's attention long enough for them to be amused or horrified by it, and to feel moved to transmit it to other people. They don't endure in people's minds very well. They don't combine with other concepts or values to grow into a more complex cultural development. Internet memes get knocked out of the spotlight by the next amusement, the next horror. The Nastyass Honey Badger never taught anyone how to eat nardoo.
Dawkins had broader ambitions for memes, to explain everything from technology to religion. But those ambitions have mostly gone unmet. The
Journal of Memetics
shut down in 2005, and no new journal took its place. Many researchers who study culture decided memes were too superficial to help them dig deeper. In 2003, the Stanford scientists Paul Ehrlich and Marcus Feldman went so far as to declare memes ready for their scientific funeral. “Identifying the basic mechanisms by which our culture evolves will be difficult,” they said. “The most recent attempts using a âmeme' approach
appear to be a dead end.”
Instead of dissecting memes, many researchers searched for the
biological building blocks that made human culture possible in the first place. The most fundamental ingredient seems to be learning.
But not just any learning will do. Wills and Burke might well have gotten back safely to Melbourne if they had been able to learn for themselves how to prepare nardoo, by dint of their own reasoning. But they simply weren't smart enoughâcertainly not as smart as the collective experience of hundreds of generations of Yandruwandha. Culture runs on social learning, on the ability of people to learn from other people. Yet it's become clear that social learning evolved long before human culture. Our species has no monopoly on that skill. In 2016, a team of scientists discovered that even bumblebees can learn cultural practices from one another.
Lars Chittka, a biologist at Queen Mary University of London, and his colleagues created an experiment in which bumblebees had to learn how to get sugar out of fake flowers. Each flower was a blue plastic disk with a well at the center holding a dollop of glucose.
Chittka and his colleagues tied a string to each of the flowers and tucked them under a tiny transparent table made of plexiglass. The scientists then put bees into this flower chamber and observed them. The bees could see the flowers through the plexiglass but could not directly reach them. They could eat the sugar only if they first pulled on the string to draw the flower out from under the table. Chittka and his colleagues put 291 bees to this test. Not one could figure out how to get to the sugar.
To make the puzzle easier for the bees to solve, the scientists broke it down into simpler tasks. In the first lesson, the bees could land directly on the flowers and drink from them. After the bees learned that they could get food from the flowers, the scientists presented them with a new challenge. They tied a string to each flower and nudged them only partway under the plexiglass table. The bees were now trained well enough to fly straight to the flower. But to reach the sugar, they had to push their heads against the edge of the table and extend their tongues. Once they learned this new technique, the researchers pushed the flowers completely out of reach underneath the table. Now the bees could get the sugar only if they pulled the string to draw out the flower.
Once their task was broken down into these smaller puzzles, some of the bees could learn how to drink the sugar by pulling on the string. Only twenty-three of forty bees figured out the task completely, though, and only after five hours of lessons. But, after all that hard work, Chittka and his colleagues had twenty-three trained bees. Now the scientists could see if other bees could learn from them.
Chittka and his colleagues built a tiny observation box where untrained bees could sit and watch the trained bees go about pulling out the flowers and drinking sugar. Each untrained bee got to watch ten different bees perform the entire routine. When Chittka then put the observers into the flower chamber, 60 percent of themâfifteen out of twenty-fiveâheaded to the plexiglass, tugged on the string, and pulled out the flower.
That experiment showed that the bumblebees could learn by observing other bees. For his last study, Chittka wanted to see whether the practice of string pulling could spread, meme-like, through a group of insects. Chittka maintains a number of colonies in his lab, each made up of a few dozen bumblebees. From three colonies, Chittka and his colleagues picked out a single bee to train. They returned it to its colony, and then hooked up a tunnel so that any of the bees could walk into the flower chamber if they were so inclined.
The scientists then played the role of doorman, letting two bees at a time crawl down the tunnel of the colony to the flowers on a first-come, first-served basis. They repeated this procedure 150 times with each colony and then tested the bees to see how many knew to get the sugar by pulling the string. In each colony, they found, about half the bees had learned the lesson.
Only some of the bees learned directly from the original trained insect. The rest of them learned secondhandâor even third- or fourthhand. In fact, the original trained bee in one of the colonies died in the middle of the experiment, yet the string pulling continued to spread. Her intellectual legacy extended well beyond her own life.
What makes these experiments especially striking is that scientists have not found any sign that bumblebees in the wild learn from each other. For bumblebees, social learning may be a dormant skill, one that can be awakened only by an unnatural experiment.
Vertebrates, on the other hand, don't need a scientist to help them show off their social learning. They learn from each other on a regular basis in the wild, and their cultural practices can last for yearsâand perhaps far longer.
One of the first of these animal traditions to be documented arose in 1921 in a small English town called
Swaythling. The people of Swaythling were annoyed to find that someone was vandalizing the milk bottles on their doorsteps. The foil caps that covered the mouths of the bottles were pierced, torn, and sometimes ripped clean away.
It turned out that the vandals were birdsâin particular, a chickadee-like species called the blue tit. The birds would land on a bottle, pull away the foil, and then sip from the layer of cream atop the milk. Bird-watchers
were so taken with the innovation that they looked for it in other villages, and kept looking for it for years. In 1949, two scientists, James Fisher and Robert Hinde, contacted birders and mapped three decades of their observations across much of the country.
These maps revealed that a few blue tits had independently started ripping milk bottle foil. Other members of their species took up the practice as well, either after watching them in action or just discovering a cap torn by another bird. The movement of birds between towns spread the foil-ripping long after the original inventors had died. The practice endured across much of Britain for decades, finally disappearing when milkmen stopped delivering foil-covered bottles of milk each morning.
Yet the birds have not lost their capacity to invent new ways to get food, or to inherit them from other birds. In 2015, Ben Sheldon of Oxford University and his colleagues gave a lesson to
birds known as great tits, close relatives of blue tits. They captured wild birds in a forest and took them into their lab, where they were taught how to open a box full of mealworms. Each bird learned one of two ways to open the box: either sliding a red door to the left or a blue door to the right. The scientists set more of the boxes out in the woods, where they released the tutored birds.
Now in the wild, the birds continued to open the boxes as they had been taught in the lab, opening either the red or blue door. And the wild birds around them watched what they did. Three-quarters of the forest's population ultimately learned how to get mealworms out of the boxes. The tradition spread through the social networks of the birdsâmostly among relatives or friendly birds that spent a lot of time together. And they reliably passed on the technique they had seen other birds use: Some learned to open the red door, the others the blue.
Sheldon and his colleagues also found that the memory of the birds helped extend their traditions. They left the boxes in the forest for three weeks and then took them away. Over the next nine months, over half of the original birds died. The scientists then brought the boxes back to the forest and waited to see what would happen. The older birds started opening them again, and the new generation of birds learned from their elders once more.
Other researchers have searched for
more animal traditions, and they've found examples everywhere from the open ocean to dense jungles. In 1978, a University of Rhode Island biologist named
James Hain and his colleagues discovered a striking case among humpback whales in the Gulf of Maine. When the whales chase after schools of fish, they typically dive about sixty feet underwater and use their blowhole to produce nets of bubbles that corral their prey. Once the fish have retreated into a tight clump, the whales lunge at them with an open mouth. In 1978, while observing whales in the Gulf of Maine, Hain spotted a single animal use a new technique.