Wake up! Wake up!
Errrr, ummmm, grrrrggr, Oh yes, I'm awake now. Wow, that was a
weird dream. I really thought I had to escape from the slurb, and it
mattered terribly to get to the cupboard in time. How silly! Of
course, now I see it wasn't real at all.
Wake up! Wake up!
What do you mean, "wake up", I'm already awake. This is
real. This does matter. I can't wake up any more. Go away!
But I don't understand - From what? And how?
These are the questions I want to tackle today. From what are we to awaken?
And how? My answers will be "From the meme dream" and "By
seeing that it is a meme dream". But it may take me some time to
There is a long history, in spiritual and religious traditions, of
the idea that normal waking life is a dream or illusion. This makes no
sense to someone who looks around and is convinced there is a real
world out there and a self who perceives it. However, there are many
clues that this ordinary view is false.
Some clues come from
spontaneous mystical experiences in which people "see the
light!", realise that everything is one, and go "beyond
self" to see the world "as it really is". They feel
certain that the new way of seeing is better and truer than the old
(though of course they could be mistaken!).
Other clues come from
spiritual practice. Probably the first thing that anybody discovers
when they try to meditate, or be mindful, is that their mind is
constantly full of thoughts. Typically these are not wise and
wonderful thoughts, or even useful and productive thoughts, but just
endless chatter. From the truly trivial to the emotionally entangling,
they go on and on. And what's more they nearly all involve
"me". It is a short step to wondering who this suffering
self is, and why "I" can't stop the thoughts.
Finally clues come from science. The most obvious (and scary)
conclusion from modern neuroscience is that there is simply no one
inside the brain. The more we learn about the way the brain functions
the less it seems to need a central controller, a little person
inside, a decider of decisions or an experiencer of experiences. These are just fictions - part of the story the brain tells itself
about a self within (Churchland and Sejnowski, 1992; Dennett, 1991).
Some say there is no point in striving for an intellectual
understanding of spiritual matters. I disagree. It is true that intellectual understanding is not the same as
realisation, but this does not mean it is useless. In my own tradition
of practice, Zen, there is much room for intellectual struggle; for
example, in the cultivation of the "don't know mind", or in
working with koans. You can bring a question to such a state of
intellectual confusion that it can be held, poised, in all its
complexity and simplicity. Like "Who am I?", "What is
this?" or (one I have struggled with) "What drives
There is also a terrible danger in refusing to be intellectual
about spiritual matters. That is, we may divorce our spiritual
practice from the science on which our whole society depends. If this
society is going to have any spiritual depths to it, they must fit
happily with our growing understanding of the workings of the brain
and the nature of mind. We cannot afford to have one world in which
scientists understand the mind, and another in which special people
So I make no apologies for my approach. I am going to try to
answer my questions using the best science I can find. We seem to live
in a muddle that we think matters to a self that doesn't exist. I want
to find out why.
Darwin's Dangerous Idea
There is one scientific idea which, to my mind, excels all others.
It is exquisitely simple and beautiful. It explains the origins of all
life forms and all biological design. It does away with the need for
God, for a designer, for a master plan or for a purpose in life. Only
in the light of this idea does anything in biology make sense.
It is, of course, Darwin's idea of evolution by natural selection.
The implications of natural selection are so profound that people have
been awe-struck or maddened; fascinated or outraged, since it was
first proposed in The Origin of Species in 1859. This is why Dennett
(1995) calls it Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Sadly, many people have
misunderstood the idea and, even worse, have used it to defend
indefensible political doctrines which have nothing to do with
Darwinism. I therefore hope you will forgive me if I spend some time
explaining it as clearly as I can.
All you need for natural selection to get started is a replicator
in an appropriate environment. A replicator is something that copies
itself, though not always perfectly. The environment must be one in
which the replicator can create numerous copies of itself, not all of
which can survive. That's it.
Can it really be that simple? Yes. All that happens is this - in any one copying generation, not all
the copies are identical and some are better able to survive in that
environment than others are. In consequence they make more copies of
themselves and so that kind of copy becomes more numerous. Of course
things then begin to get complicated.
The rapidly expanding population of copies starts to change the
environment and that changes the selective pressures. Local variations
in the environment mean different kinds of copy will do well in
different places and so more complexity arises. This way the process
can produce all the kinds of organised complexity we see in the living
world - yet all it needs is this one simple, elegant, beautiful, and
obvious process - natural selection.
To make things more concrete let's imagine a primeval soup in
which a simple chemical replicator has arisen. We'll call the
replicators "Blobbies". These blobbies, by virtue of their
chemical constitution, just do make copies of themselves whenever they
find the right chemicals. Now, put them in a rich chemical swamp and
they start copying, though with occasional errors. A few million years
go by and there are lots of kinds of blobbies. The ones that need lots
of swampon have used up all the supplies and are failing, so now the
sort that can use isoswampin instead, are doing better. Soon there are
several areas in which different chemicals predominate and different
kinds of blobby appear. Competition for swamp chemicals gets fierce
and most copies that are made die out. Only those that, by rare
chance, turn out to have clever new properties, go on go on to copy
Clever properties might include the ability to move
around and find the swampon, to trap isoswampin3-7 and hang onto it,
or to build a membrane around themselves. Once blobbies with membranes
appear, they will start winning out over free-floating ones and super-blobbies
Another few million years go by and tricks are discovered
like taking other blobbies inside the membrane, or joining several
super-blobbies together. Super-dooper-blobbies appear, like multi-celled animals with power
supplies and specialised parts for moving about and protecting
themselves. However, these are only food to even bigger super-dooper-blobbies.
It is only a matter of time before random variation and natural
selection will create a vast living world. In the process billions and
billions of unsuccessful blobbies have been created and died, but such
a slow, blind process produces the goods. "The goods" on our
planet includes bacteria and plants, fish and frogs, duck-billed
platypuses and us.
Design appears out of nothing. There is no need for a creator or a
master plan, and no end point towards which creation is heading.
Richard Dawkins (1996) calls it "Climbing Mount Improbable".
It is just a simple but inexorable process by which unbelievably
improbable things get created.
It is important to remember that evolution has no foresight and so
doesn't necessarily produce the "best" solution. Evolution
can only go on from where it is now. That is why, among other things,
we have such a daft design in our eyes, with all the neurons going out
of the front of the retina and getting in the way of the light. Once evolution had started off on this kind of eye it was stuck
with it. There was no creator around to say "hey, start again
with that one, let's put the wires out the back". Nor was there a
creator around to say "Hey, let's make it fun for the
humans". The genes simply do not care.
Understanding the fantastic process of natural selection we can
see how our human bodies came to be the way they are. But what about
our minds? Evolutionary psychology does not easily answer my
For example, why do we think all the time? From a genetic
point of view this seems extremely wasteful - and animals that waste
energy don't survive. The brain uses about 20% of the body's energy
while weighing only 2%. If we were thinking useful thoughts, or
solving relevant problems there might be some point, but mostly we
don't seem to be. So why can't we just sit down and not think?
Why do we believe in a self that does not exist? Someone may yet
explain this in evolutionary terms, but at least superficially it
appears pointless. Why construct a false idea of self, with all its
mechanisms protecting self-esteem and its fear of failure and loss,
when from the biological point of view it is the body that needs
protecting. Note that if we thought of ourselves as the entire
organism there would be no problem, but we don't - rather, we seem to
believe in a separate self; something that is in charge of the body;
something that has to be protected for its own sake. I bet if I asked
you "Which would you rather lose - your body or your mind?"
you wouldn't spend long deciding.
Like many other scientists I would love to find a principle as
simple, as beautiful and as elegant as natural selection that would
explain the nature of the mind.
I think there is one. It is closely related to natural selection.
Although it has been around for twenty years, it has not yet been put
fully to use. It is the theory of memes.
A Brief History of the Meme Meme
In 1976 Richard Dawkins wrote what is probably the most popular
book ever on evolution - The Selfish Gene. The book gave a catchy name
to the theory that evolution proceeds entirely for the sake of the
selfish replicators. That is, evolution happens not for the good of
the species, nor for the good of the group, nor even for the
individual organism. It is all for the good of the genes. Genes that
are successful spread and those that aren't don't. The rest is all a
consequence of this fact.
Of course the main replicator he considered was the gene - a unit
of information coded in the DNA and read out in protein synthesis.
However, at the very end of the book he claimed that there is another
replicator on this planet; the meme.
The meme is a unit of information (or instruction for behaviour)
stored in a brain and passed on by imitation from one brain to
another. Dawkins gave as examples; ideas, tunes, scientific theories,
religious beliefs, clothes fashions, and skills, such as new ways of
making pots or building arches.
The implications of this idea are staggering and Dawkins spelt
some of them out. If memes are really replicators then they will,
inevitably, behave selfishly. That is, ones that are good at spreading
will spread and ones that are not will not. As a consequence the world
of ideas - or memosphere - will not fill up with the best, truest,
most hopeful or helpful ideas, but with the survivors. Memes are just
survivors like genes.
In the process of surviving they will, just like genes, create
mutually supportive meme groups. Remember the blobbies. In a few million years they began to get
together into groups, because the ones in groups survived better than
loners. The groups got bigger and better, and a complex ecosystem
evolved. In the real world of biology, genes have grouped together to
create enormous creatures that then mate and pass the groups on. In a
similar way memes may group together in human brains and fill the
world of ideas with their products.
If this view is correct, then the memes should be able to evolve
quite independently of the genes (apart from needing a brain). There
have been many attempts to study cultural evolution, but most of them
implicitly treat ideas (or memes) as subservient to the genes (see
e.g. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman, 1981; Crook, 1995; Durham,1991;
Lumsden and Wilson, 1981). The power of realising that memes are
replicators is that they can be seen as working purely and simply in
their own interest. Of course to some extent memes will be successful if they are
useful to their hosts, but this is not the only way for a meme to
survive, and we shall soon see some consequences of this.
first suggested the idea of memes Dawkins has discussed the spread of
such behaviours as wearing baseball caps back to front (my kids have
recently turned theirs the right way round again!), the use of special
clothing markers to identify gangs, and (most famously) the power of
religions. Religions are, according to Dawkins (1993), huge co-adapted meme-complexes;
that is groups of memes that hang around together for mutual support
and thereby survive better than lone memes could do. Other meme-complexes include cults, political systems, alternative
belief systems, and scientific theories and paradigms.
Religions are special because they use just about every meme-trick
in the book (which is presumably why they last so long and infect so
many brains). Think of it this way. The idea of hell is initially useful because
the fear of hell reinforces socially desirable behaviour. Now add the
idea that unbelievers go to hell, and the meme and any companions are
well protected. The idea of God is a natural companion meme, assuaging
fear and providing (spurious) comfort. The spread of the meme-complex
is aided by exhortations to convert others and by tricks such as the
celibate priesthood. Celibacy is a disaster for genes, but will help
spread memes since a celibate priest has more time to spend promoting
Another trick is to value faith and suppress the doubt that leads
every child to ask difficult questions like "where is hell?"
and "If God is so good why did those people get tortured?". Note that science (and some forms of Buddhism) do the opposite and
Finally, once you've been infected with these meme-complexes they
are hard to get rid of. If you try to throw them out, some even
protect themselves with last-ditch threats of death, ex-communication,
or burning in hell-fire for eternity.
I shouldn't get carried away. The point I want to make is that these religious memes have not
survived for centuries because they are true, because they are useful
to the genes, or because they make us happy. In fact I think they are
false and are responsible for the worst miseries in human history. No
- they have survived because they are selfish memes and are good at
surviving - they need no other reason.
Once you start to think this way a truly frightening prospect
opens up. We have all become used to thinking of our bodies as
biological organisms created by evolution. Yet we still like to think
of our selves as something more. We are in charge of our bodies, we
run the show, we decide which ideas to believe in and which to reject.
But do we really? If you begin to think about selfish memes it
becomes clear that our ideas are in our heads because they are
successful memes. American philosopher Dan Dennett (1995) concludes
that a "person" is a particular sort of animal infested with
memes. In other words you and I and all our friends are the products of
two blind replicators, the genes and the memes.
I find these ideas absolutely stunning. Potentially we might be
able to understand all of mental life in terms of the competition
between memes, just as we can understand all biological life in terms
of the competition between genes.
What I want to do now, finally, is apply the ideas of memetics to
the questions I asked at the beginning. What are we waking up from and how do we do it?
Why is my head so full of thoughts?
This question has a ridiculously easy answer once you start
thinking in terms of memes. If a meme is going to survive it needs to
be safely stored in a human brain and passed accurately on to more
brains. A meme that buries itself deep in the memory and never shows
itself again will simply fizzle out. A meme that gets terribly
distorted in the memory or in transmission, will also fizzle out. One
simple way of ensuring survival is for a meme to get itself repeatedly
rehearsed inside your head.
Take two tunes. One of them is tricky to sing, and even harder to
sing silently to yourself. The other is a catchy little number that
you almost can't help humming to yourself. So you do. It goes round
and round. Next time you feel like singing aloud this tune is more
likely to be picked for the singing. And if anyone is listening
they'll pick it up too. That's how it became successful, and that's
why the world is so full of awful catchy tunes and advertising
But there is another consequence. Our brains get full up with them
too. These successful memes hop from person to person, filling up
their hosts' minds as they go. In this way all our minds get fuller
We can apply the same logic to other kinds of meme. Ideas that go
round and round in your head will be successful. Not only will they be
well remembered, but when you are next talking to someone they will be
the ideas "on your mind" and so will get passed on. They may
get to this position by being emotionally charged, exciting, easily
memorable or relevant to your current concerns. It does not matter how
they do it. The point is that memes that get themselves repeated will
generally win out over ones that don't. The obvious consequence of
this fact is that your head will soon fill up with ideas. Any attempt
to clear the mind just creates spare processing capacity for other
memes to grab.
This simple logic explains why it is so hard for us to sit down
and "not think"; why the battle to subdue "our"
thoughts is doomed. In a very real sense they are not "our"
thoughts at all. They are simply the memes that happen to be
successfully exploiting our brain-ware at the moment.
This raises the tricky question of who is thinking or not
thinking. Who is to do battle with the selfish memes? In other words,
who am I?
Who am I?
I suppose you can tell by now what my answer to this one
is going to be. We are just co-adapted meme-complexes. We, our
precious, mythical "selves", are just groups of selfish
memes that have come together by and for themselves.
This is a truly startling idea and, in my experience, the better
you understand it, the more fascinating and weird it becomes. It
dismantles our ordinary way of thinking about ourselves and raises
bizarre questions about the relationship of ourselves to our ideas. To
understand it we need to think about how and why memes get together
into groups at all.
Just as with blobbies or genes, memes in groups are safer than
free-floating memes. An idea that is firmly embedded in a meme-complex
is more likely to survive in the memosphere than is an isolated idea.
This may be because ideas within meme-groups get passed on together
(e.g. when someone is converted to a faith, theory or political
creed), get mutual support (e.g. if you hate the free-market economy
you are likely also to favour a generous welfare state), and they
protect themselves from destruction. If they did not, they would not
last and would not be around today.
The meme-complexes we come across are all the successful ones!
Like religions, astrology is a successful meme-complex. The idea
that Leos get on well with Aquarians is unlikely to survive on its
own, but as part of astrology is easy to remember and pass on.
Astrology has obvious appeal that gets it into your brain in the first
place; it provides a nice (though spurious) explanation for human
differences and a comforting (though false) sense of predictability. It is easily expandable (you can go on adding new ideas for ever!)
and is highly resistant to being overturned by evidence. In fact the
results of hundreds of experiments show that the claims of astrology
are false but this has apparently not reduced belief in astrology one
bit (Dean, Mather and Kelly, 1996). Clearly, once you believe in
astrology it is hard work to root out all the beliefs and find
alternatives. It may not be worth the effort. Thus we all become unwitting hosts
to an enormous baggage of useless and even harmful meme-complexes.
One of those is myself.
Why do I say that the self is a meme-complex? Because it works the
same way as other meme-complexes. As with astrology, the idea of
"self" has a good reason for getting installed in the first
place. Then once it is in place, memes inside the complex are mutually
supportive, can go on being added to almost infinitely, and the whole
complex is resistant to evidence that it is false.
First the idea of self has to get in there. Imagine a highly
intelligent and social creature without language. She will need a
sense of self to predict others' behaviour (Humphrey, 1986) and to
deal with ownership, deception, friendships and alliances (Crook,
1980). With this straightforward sense of self she may know that her
daughter is afraid of a high ranking female and take steps to protect
her, but she does not have the language with which to think "I
believe that my daughter is afraid ... etc.". It is with language
that the memes really get going - and with language that "I"
appears. Lots of simple memes can then become united as "my"
beliefs, desires and opinions.
As an example, let's consider the idea of sex differences in
ability. As an abstract idea (or isolated meme) this is unlikely to be
a winner. But get it into the form "I believe in the equality of
the sexes" and it suddenly has the enormous weight of
"self" behind it. "I" will fight for this idea as
though I were being threatened. I might argue with friends, write
opinion pieces, or go on marches. The meme is safe inside the haven of
"self" even in the face of evidence against it. "My" ideas are protected.
Then they start proliferating.
Ideas that can get inside a self - that is, be "my" ideas,
or "my" opinions, are winners. So we all get lots of them.
Before we know it, "we" are a vast conglomerate of
successful memes. Of course there is no "I" who
"has" the opinions. That is obviously a nonsense when you
think clearly about it. Yes, of course there is a body that says
"I believe in being nice to people" and a body that is (or
is not) nice to people, but there is not in addition a self who
"has" the belief.
Now we have a radically new idea of who we are. We are just
temporary conglomerations of ideas, moulded together for their own
protection. The analogy with our bodies is close. Bodies are the
creations of temporary gene-complexes: although each of us is unique,
the genes themselves have all come from previous creatures and will,
if we reproduce, go on into future creatures. Our minds are the creations of temporary meme-complexes: although
each of us is unique, the memes themselves have come from previous
creatures and will, if we speak and write and communicate, go on into
future creatures. That's all.
The problem is that we don't see it this
way. We believe there really is someone inside to do the believing,
and really someone who needs to be protected. This is the illusion -
this is the meme-dream from which we can wake up.
Dismantling the Meme-Dream
There are two systems I know of that are capable of dismantling
meme-complexes (though I am sure there are others). Of course these
systems are memes themselves but they are, if you like, meme-disinfectants,
meme-eating memes, or "meme-complex destroying meme-complexes".
These two are science and Zen.
Science works this way because of its ideals of truth and seeking
evidence. It doesn't always live up to these ideals, but in principle
it is capable of destroying any untruthful meme-complex by putting it
to the test, by demanding evidence, or by devising an experiment.
Zen does this too, though the methods are completely different. In
Zen training every concept is held up to scrutiny, nothing is left
uninvestigated, even the self who is doing the investigation is to be
held up to the light and questioned. "Who are you?"
After about 15 years of Zen practice, and when reading The Three
Pillars of Zen by Philip Kapleau, I began working with the koan
"Who...?". The experience was most interesting and I can
best liken it to watching a meme unzipping other memes. Every thought
that came up in meditation was met with "Who is thinking
that?" or "Who is seeing this?" or "Who is feeling
that?" or just "Who...?". Seeing the false self as a vast meme-complex seemed to help - for
it is much easier to let go of passing memes than of a real, solid and
permanent self. It is much easier to let the meme-unzipper do its
stuff if you know that all it's doing is unzipping memes.
Another koan of mine fell to the memes. Q. "Who drives
you?" A. "The memes of course." This isn't just an
intellectual answer, but a way into seeing yourself as a temporary
passing construction. The question dissolves when both self and driver
are seen as memes.
I have had to take a long route to answer my questions but I hope
you can now understand my answers. From what are we to awaken? From the meme dream of
course. And how? By seeing that it is a meme dream.
And who lets the meme-unzipper go its way? Who wakes up when the meme-dream is all dismantled?
Ah, there's a question.