To be human is to imitate. This is a strong claim, and a contentious one. It implies that the turning point in hominid evolution was when our ancestors first began to copy each other’s sounds and actions, and that this new ability was responsible for transforming an ordinary ape into one with a big brain, language, a curious penchant for music and art, and complex cumulative culture. The argument, briefly, is this. All evolutionary processes depend on information being copied with variation and selection. Most living things on earth are the product of evolution based on the copying, varying and selection of genes. However, once humans began to imitate they provided a new kind of copying and so let loose an evolutionary process based on the copying, varying and selection of memes. This new evolutionary system co-evolved with the old to turn us into more than gene machines. We, alone on this planet, are also meme machines. We are selective imitation devices in an evolutionary arms race with a new replicator. This is why we are so different from other creatures; this is why we alone have big brains, language and complex culture. There are many contentious issues here; the nature and status of memes, the validity of the concept of a replicator, the difference between this and other theories of gene-culture co-evolution, and whether memetics really is necessary, as I believe it is, to explain human nature. I shall outline the basic principles of memetics, show how memes could have driven human evolution, and consider some of these questions along the way.
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