Dawkins re-interprets memes and offers a creative tautology

June 25, 2013

Reviewed by John Keane

Rickard Dawkins continues his Odyssey in search of scientific truth against the forces of superstition. In the sponsored advertising video Just for Hits he raises interesting questions about the logic behind his reasoning and the hint of tautology in that logic

What lies at the core of this eight-minute glossy video? Its title hints at it. At one level it is Just for Hits. That which is designed is designed for a purpose, he declares. If designs are fit for purpose they survive and spread.

He has already borrowed the metaphor of a virus. Concepts intended to spread are fit for purpose if they spread. I rather like to concept of a meme spreading through imitation. It offers a description (but not necessarily an explanation) of the processes of cultural replication. I am the sort of person who likes to examine possible mechanisms in search of explanations. The principle behind a design, if you like.

The Darwinian principle of natural selection

The Darwinian principle of natural selection is a very satisfactory one which fits observations and permits predictive trials. I prefer it to other wide-range explanations, as does Professor Dawkins. The mechanism is elegantly captured in the notion of blind variation and selective choice.

‘As if’

At very least, I believe that the concept captured as blind variation and selective choice ‘works’ in the natural world. It offers what most scientists would consider a robust basis of an explanatory theory. Its scientific respectability can be examined in various ways. One way is to assess its success as if it describes what results in the variety of the world, the survival of genetic material or natural selection. It works as if the world operated according to its beautifully elegant principles.

The whiff of tautology

I am not the first to be troubled by a whiff of tautology in the concept of natural selection. I struggle with the argument that ‘success’ in evolutionary terms arises because the successful are more equipped to succeed.
Many years ago, before I had heard of Richard Dawkins, I asked a distinguished Professor of Cell Biology whether a gene was a material entity or a metaphor. He told me that was a good question, which I came to suspect was polite way of saying he would have trouble providing an answer.

For the hits

The whiff of tautology is stronger in the concept of a meme. The closest I get to the memetic replicator is that humans have a deeply-embedded inclination to imitate. Well, yes. So viral messages ‘go viral’ because they have something which triggers the imitative response. Their purpose is to exist.


Dawkins suggests that creativity may be part of the story. He reinvents (or knowingly imitates) a mechanism for creativity examined by scholars such as Dean Simonton. Pithily, it is a version of the natural selection mechanism of blind variation and selective choice.

The ghost in the machine

Arthur Koestler was another deep thinker about the act of creation. He offered the wonderful metaphor of the brain as a machine, with creativity as the ghost in the machine. This recognizes the mysterious nature of the creative principle. Professor Hawkins has written about his own sense of awe at the evolutionary principle. Koestler would probably agree, although perhaps favouring the aha moment of creative discovery. Another of his books was called The Sleep Walkers which examines the way progress is ‘stumbled upon’


To Andrew Brown who drew my attention to the tautology in his comment piece about Richard Dawkins’ meaningless meme.