Education: The View From Here: Unlike religions, scientific theories court their own destruction

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The Independent Online
I was shocked at this little piece of gossip. The other day a scientific paper of mine was found with one of those jolly little yellow slickers on it saying "Who is distributing this rubbish?".

Perhaps it was written in green ink, or all in capitals. I did not ask. But I sensed the tone of it. Someone thinks I ought not to be writing about this subject. Someone thinks I am "distributing" my ideas - trying to force them upon him (why did I assume it was a him?) - trying to indoctrinate him or his students. After all, he didn't have to read it did he?

Now I have to say that this paper was not rubbish in any ordinary sense of the word. It was well argued, clearly organised and properly referenced. It just happened to be about ... memes.

The idea of memes was invented twenty years ago by the biologist Richard Dawkins, His best-selling book The Selfish Gene expounded the theory that evolution occurs not for the benefit of the species, or even the individual, but for the genes. This is because genes are the "replicators" that get (slightly inaccurately) copied. Darwinian selection gets to work and the result is systems of enormous complexity, arising as if out of nowhere. This is biology's solution to the mystery of creation.

Right at the end of this powerful book, he asks whether there are any other replicators on our planet. Yes, he says, there are also "memes". Memes (pronounced like creams or dreams) are ideas or inventions, skills, fashions or behaviours, passed on from one brain to another by imitation. Some are terribly good at getting copied and almost everyone comes across them. Others perish at birth. So the world of ideas evolves as the memes fight it out to survive.

Have you heard the one about the dog in the microwave? You know, the American woman who dried her poodle in the oven and then sued the manufacturer because it was dead? That's a meme. It may or may not be true, but it certainly gets around.

Do you recycle your bottles, or eat only vegetables? Do you drive on the left, or leave one of those embarrassing messages on your answering machine? These are memes. In fact, everything you do or say that began with someone else doing or saying it, is a meme.

Perhaps the most contentious examples are religions. Dawkins has made himself extremely unpopular in certain circles by pointing out religions' use of vicious meme-tricks. Exhortations to kill the infidel, prizes in heaven for making converts and a preference for faith over doubt all ensure that religious memes find safe homes in as many brains as possible.

Are scientific theories memes too? Of course they are, but unlike religions they court their own destruction. If they fail the test of research, out they go. Thus science should be able to reject the clever replicators in favour of the truth.

Why, then, does the meme meme raise the hackles so? Stephen Jay Gould calls it a "meaningless metaphor" (can there be such a thing?). And few biologists ever utter the word. Perhaps they fear it will turn them into a frog. Or perhaps memetics really is a terrible threat to "science as we know it today".

If the theory of evolution applies to ideas, then our precious minds become creations of the meme-race. Free will takes another knock, since the memes are in charge and not our conscious "selves". And the Internet suddenly begins to look like something created for and by the memes, not for us, who thought we had made it for ourselves. Frightening stuff, but is it true?

I can only say that the meme meme must be put to the test like any other scientific idea. If memetics revolutionises psychology in the way that genetics revolutionised biology, then we won't need to argue about whether it is "true" or not. We'll be too busy getting on with the research. lf it proves to be Gould's "meaningless metaphor", then it will go the way of all failed memes - into oblivion. Either way, we will have learnt a lot.

But the little yellow sticker reminded me that science isn't always played that way. Scientists can fight hard and unfairly for their own ideas (I suppose the memes make them do it). Even Sir Isaac Newton was cowed into submission by his rival Robert Hooke, who said his "Experimentum Crucis" (the famous one with the prism) didn't work. And Newton published nothing more on light until Hooke died.

So should I be scared into submission by the little yellow Post-it and keep quiet about the memes? Should I rise to the challenge and shout "I'll show 'em!"? Or should I just have faith in science and let the best meme win?n

The author is senior lecturer in psychology at the University of the West of England. Her most recent book, 'In Search of the Light; the adventures of a Parapsychologist', is published by Prometheus, pounds 14.50.