The term ‘meme’ first appeared in 1976, in Richard Dawkins’s best–selling book The Selfish Gene. In that book Dawkins, an Oxford zoologist, popularised the increasingly influential view that evolution is best understood in terms of the competition between genes. Earlier in the twentieth century, biologists had blithely talked about evolution occurring for the ‘good of the species’ without worrying about the exact mechanisms involved, but in the 1960s serious problems with this view began to be recognised (Williams 1966). For example, if a group of organisms all act for the good of the group then one individual who does not can easily exploit the rest. He will then leave more descendants who in turn do not act for the group, and the group benefit will be lost. On the more modern ‘gene’s eye view’, evolution may appear to proceed in the interests of the individual, or for the good of the species, but in fact it is all driven by the competition between genes. This new viewpoint provided a much more powerful understanding of evolution and has come to be known as ‘selfish–gene theory’.
We must be absolutely clear about what ‘selfish’ means in this context. It does not mean genes for selfishness. Such genes would incline their carriers to act selfishly and that is something quite different. The term ‘selfish’ here means that the genes act only for themselves; their only interest is their own replication; all they want is to be passed on to the next generation. Of course, genes do not ‘want’ or have aims or intentions in the same way as people do; they are only chemical instructions that can be copied. So when I say they ‘want’, or are ‘selfish’ I am using a shorthand, but this shorthand is necessary to avoid lengthy explanations. It will not lead us astray if we remember that genes either are or are not successful at getting passed on into the next generation. So the shorthand ‘genes want x’ can always be spelled out as ‘genes that do x are more likely to be passed on’. This is the only power they have – replicator power. And it is in this sense that they are selfish.
Dawkins also introduced the important distinction between ‘replicators’ and their ‘vehicles’. A replicator is anything of which copies are made, including ‘active replicators’ whose nature affects the chances of their being copied again. A vehicle is the entity that interacts with the environment, which is why Hull (1988a) prefers the term ‘interactors’ for a similar idea. Vehicles or interactors carry the replicators around inside them and protect them. The original replicator was presumably a simple self–copying molecule in the primeval soup, but our most familiar replicator now is DNA. Its vehicles are organisms and groups of organisms that interact with each other as they live out their lives in the seas or the air, the forests or fields. Genes are the selfish replicat