When Richard Dawkins made the “discovery” (or more accurately, had the insight) in 1976 that there are two “replicators” on this planet, namely genes and memes, I was eight years old and watching the Fourth of July fireworks from the roof of our house in Chatham, New Jersey. Jimmy Carter was president, Farrah Fawcett was a superstar, and I had not a clue who Dawkins was.
To refresh our memories:
Genes are genetic replicators made up of peptides (Adenine, Cytosine, Thymine and Guanine), constituting the universal alphabet of DNA (and the letters A, C, T, G). All life is made possible through genes and their self-replicating and evolving nature. Genes spread through the proliferation of a species, and in a way, any organism, be it an amoeba or a human, is a platform for the replication of genes.
Memes are mental replicators made up of ideas, thoughts, and emotions. All civilization is made possible through memes and their self-replicating and evolving nature. Memes are spread through thinking and sharing from one mind to another. Today, social media and the Internet are providing an accelerated and exponentially greater opportunity for memetic dissemination. But memes have been around since the first human ancestors had ideas and decided to share with them with their fellow hunter-gatherers.
So, back to me in 1976. As Richard Dawkins was publishing his world-changing book The Selfish Gene, my friends Richie, Eddie, and I were watching a spectacular fireworks show that marked the 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence, which in 1776 marked the true spiritual beginning of the United States. That document, written by a group of rather angry but brilliant colonists, contained a memetic code about autonomy and human rights that rapidly caught fire in the colonies. Without the Internet or even telephones, the spread was breathtakingly fast and deep. The key meme sequence is contained in that immortal phrase “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. A meme that never seems to stop replicating in the hearts of Americans and milions of others around the planet.