Tag Archives: Yuval Noah Harari

Memes that Make the World

dnaMemes are the cultural equivalence of biological genes. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in the 1976 publication of The Selfish Gene. The premise behind The Selfish Gene is that Darwinian natural selection acts at the level of genes; ultimately, it is genes that guide evolution by controlling the traits in bodies that contain the genes. In order for natural selection to work, there needs to be something like DNA and genes in which information is replicated. There also requires some copying errors so that small variations can occur from one generation to the next. Memes also fit that description.  Memes are ideas that survive in human brains, and similar to genes they can be copied and passed on.

There are many different types of memes: for example, songs, hairstyles, phrases, beliefs, words and manners. In today’s world the word meme has become popular on the internet. Whenever we here that something has “gone viral,” it is often referred to as a meme. In most cases the meme is something trivial, such as a piece of music, a surprising story or a silly video. It spreads rapidly, but usually it will not last very long. However, other memes have a far greater impact on society, and become part of cultural evolution. Or you could say that the memes guide cultural evolution, much like “the selfish genes.”

The Meme Codes

Language may be the key ingredient that allows memes to spread. Like a DNA code, language is also coded information. It comes in the form of letters and words. Speech is one variation of language, which is surely copied, but written language is even more stable as a replicating code.

We can all recall numerous instances when an event is passed from one story-teller to another. In most cases the details in the story changes until we have conflicting accounts. The information is transferred from one individual brain to another, but memories are not perfect and the copies are not exact. However, written language can exchange hands without the story being altered. The stories still have to resonate in people’s brains and the interpretations will vary, but the fidelity of the written word is higher than the spoken word.

Music is another meme that has two routes of transition. 1) Tunes are passed on by hearing the sounds and attempting to duplicate them. If a tune sounds appealing there is a higher chance it will be copied. As time passes the tune will change a bit. 2) Music can also be written in sheet music using mostly symbols. Like written language, the written music will remain close to the original form. One piano player following a sheet music may sound slightly different from another player. But as the song is played by many piano players it will not change significantly.

MathematicsMathematics is a meme of numbers, symbols and diagrams. It is more accurately copied than language, because there is less ways it can be altered. 2 plus 2 will always equal 4. There is an order in mathematics that is self-correcting, although concepts evolve over time with new applications. Language, music and mathematics are coded information that are replicated and evolve in human brains.

Marching on Through the Generations

The idea of generations is different for memes than it is for genes. A different generation for a gene is an offspring, which will carry some of the same genes. For memes, there is a double meaning for a generation. A meme can be passed on from person to person in a single day, or survive for many years. For instance, I tell you an idea, and you share it with someone else. That’s 3 generations, from me to you to someone else. In this scenario the meme could evolve like microbes, where mutations can occur in a matter of days or weeks. The idea will spread quickly, but each person could add to it or leaves something out; these would be mutations of the original idea.

There are also memes that are handed down in the traditional sense of generations, that is, from a father to a son. These memes are long-lasting and could become cultural norms or traditions. For example, holidays are memes that have survived for many years. In many cases the original customs and purposes behind the holidays are lost or changed (at least by some people). Still the celebrations continue and millions of people observe the holidays. Do we know why the colors of Christmas are red and green, or why the Easter Bunny gives out eggs, or why children get candies at Halloween?

Memes Working Together

Similar to a single gene, a single meme has a minor impact. Genes are effective when they combine with other cooperative genes. Memes also combine with compatible memes and also compete with other memes for attention in human brains. One could think of different ideas as a meme pool, which people select (consciously or subconsciously). The memes that work well together will be more likely to be copied. A meme-complex could be copied because it benefits society, but it could also be copied because it aids the propagation of itself. It is not a guarantee that humans will make the best possible choices; there are equal reasons to believe that we will choose unwisely.

football stadiumA sport is an example of a well-established meme-complex. The North American culture is fascinated with sports on a daily basis. Many play sports at local venues; many more watch sports at stadiums and on televisions. What memes could be working together? How about this list: (memes for running, throwing and catching), (memes for competing, winning and losing), (memes for watching, cheering and analyzing). Any stable and self-replicating cultural norm will consist of mutually beneficial memes.

History-Making Memes

Recorded human history is a story of culture. The ideas that populations believed in mass, whether real or imagined, has fueled the events of history. The most influential ideas (memes) have won out over other ideas. Not always because they were better ideas, but because they were more effective at spreading from brain to brain. Historian Yuval Harari writes in Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind:

… history’s choices are not made for the benefit of humans… There is no proof that cultures that are beneficial to humans must inexorably succeed and spread, while less beneficial cultures disappear.

Religion symbolsThe cultural enterprises that have dominated human life contain large numbers of memes. Such examples are: religion, war, agriculture, kingdoms, art, music, politics, nationalism and science. No one can tell if the history-making memes (or meme-complexes) took the best course of action for humanity. Some did and others did not. Nevertheless, they had the attributes to enter human brains and to be imitated. Our modern culture is formed by memes with the same qualities as the historical memes. That is, copying fidelity, with variation, and wide-spread selection from the meme pool.


References: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (Canada: Signal Books, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, 2014).

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 30th anniversary edition, 2006).

Richard Dawkins | Memes | Oxford Union, Published on Feb. 26, 2014. 

Susan Blackmore sobre memes e “temes” – TED Legendado, Published on Jul. 13, 2013.

The Rise of Homo Sapiens

From about 2 million years ago until about 10,000 years ago, the world was populated by at least 6 different human species. They evolved from a common ancestor in East Africa, a hominid called Australopithecus (Southern Ape). Over thousands of years these primitive humans migrated to regions in North Africa, Europe and Asia. It is likely that environmental changes initiated the exodus, and as time passed new opportunities opened up in other lands. The diverse environments caused humans to evolve different survival traits, eventually branching out into several species.

For many years vast distances separated each species, which allowed them to survive independently. For instance: Homo neanderthalensis (Neanderthals) occupied regions in Europe and the Middle East, and Homo denisova (Denisovans) settled in Asia. Homo erectus (Upright Man), the human species with the most longevity (around 2 million years), populated eastern Asia. And a few species, including Homo sapiens (Wise Man), continued to evolve in East Africa. How closely related to Homo sapiens these other humans were is difficult to assess. How were they genetically different? What were their mental capabilities? And how complex were their social structures?

Homo sapiensNevertheless, starting at about 70,000 years ago Homo sapiens began moving north from Africa; they spread into the Arabian Peninsula and Eurasia. This led to direct competition with other humans. It is difficult for anthropologist to piece together what actually happened in the ensuing millenniums. But the Neanderthals became extinct about 30,000 years ago, and all other humans also disappeared (except for the sapiens). The extinction of Homo floresiensis in Indonesia (13,000 years ago) ended the last of the other human species. Interestingly, Homo floresiensis were a dwarf species, which had become isolated on the island of Flores. What caused Homo sapiens to outlive all other human species?

Two Possible Theories

1) The Interbreeding Theory: When Homo sapiens encountered other humans they coexisted peacefully. The species were genetically close enough that they could have interbred. The result being that today’s human population is not pure Homo sapiens, but rather a genetic mix of humans that lived 70,000 to 30,000 years ago.

2) The Replacement Theory: In this scenario, the genetic difference between species was too great to allow for interbreeding. Or possibly the sapiens’ way of life was drastically different from the others, and they had no interest in mingling with them. Or more likely, there would have been an intense competition for resources. Homo sapiens were the winners in a battle for survival. One could entertain a number of possible ways in which the battle could have been fought and won.

New Evidence

Recent evidence has shed light on the competing theories. In 2010 Neanderthal DNA was extracted from fossil remains. Enough genetic material was still intact to map out the Neanderthal genome. A comparison with modern human DNA revealed that 1-4 % of the DNA of people from the Middle East and Europe is Neanderthal DNA.

Several months later a similar analysis was performed from another primitive human. A sample from the Denisova cave in Siberia showed that about 6% of its DNA was found in modern Melanesians and Aboriginal Australians. The Neanderthal and Denisovan findings prove that some interbreeding did occur, but the amount of DNA in modern genomes is still small. This suggests that interbreeding was not the whole story.

The species may have been at a transition phase, in which they were not completely separate species, but merging of populations was rare. The replacement theory still carries a lot of weight in explaining why about 95% of our DNA is pure Homo sapiens. The conclusion being that sapiens essentially drove the other species to extinction. But what was the crucial difference that resulted in one species dominating the landscape?

The Story of Homo Sapiens

When scientists are uncovering evidence from per-historic times there are bound to be gaps in knowledge. Therefore, a fair amount of speculation comes into play. The rise of Homo sapiens from an insignificant animal to one that claimed the globe is remarkable. Especially when you consider that other humans, as far as we know, started out with the same opportunities.

What unique attributes enabled Homo sapiens to become the only human species? Although we are so accustomed to a world with only one human species, it is the rarest of exceptions in nature. In the animal kingdom there are many species of cats, birds, turtles, and whales. Only in modern humans do we find a single unique species.

In the book, A Brief History of Humankind, historian Yuval Noah Harari identifies one critical sapiens trait that allowed our human ancestors to conquer the world. He calls it The Cognitive Revolution. According to Harari, prehistoric sapiens had evolved a rare ability to cooperate in large numbers, and to do so flexibly.

Homo sapien huntersIt was the development of complex language and social structures that set them apart from other humans. They could communicate everyday practical information, such as where and how to hunt and gather berries. In addition, myths, gods, legends and religions emerged at this time. Whether fact or fiction, storytelling allowed large groups to unite and work for a common cause. Stories also made it possible to pass on knowledge and wisdom to the next generation.

Other animals also work together in groups, but their behaviors are inflexible. In order for significant changes to come about, genetic changes have to occur through the process of evolution. This takes a long time, and that is why animal behavior remains consistent from one generation to the next. But this is not the case for modern humans. Our history reveals an unprecedented pace of change with each generation. For the first time in the history of life sapiens were able to adapt using cognitive abilities. Today, humans are the only species that can survive in all land environments and diverse climates. This is mainly due to our adaptability.

 Taking Over the World



When the first wave of Homo sapiens arrived in Neanderthal territory, about 100,000 years ago, the Neanderthals forced the sapiens to retreat. Evidence shows that the Neanderthals had large brains, muscular bodies, could withstand cold temperatures and lived in groups. But it is likely that they could not organize in large groups, or share knowledge in the same way sapiens did. 70,000 years ago a second wave of sapiens left Africa and overran the Neanderthals. This time there was no turning back; Homo sapiens gradually settled much of the globe, and all other human species disappeared.

As Homo sapiens discovered new lands they found an abundance of large animals. This may have been fortunate for the humans, but not for the animals. The archeological records show that roughly 1/2 of the large land mammals became extinct during this period. Climatic or environmental changes may have contributed to the extinctions, however, the human invasion is hard to ignore. In every corner of the world, from large continents to remote islands, extinctions followed humans arriving for the first time.

Large prehistoric animals, such as ground sloths, saber tooth cats and mammoths could have been victims of the sapiens success. This was the first wave of extinction caused by human activity. But they could not have known the full impact of their actions, nor could they have imagined the evolution of human civilizations that would follow. Today, our unique cognitive ability separates us from all other animals. It was developed thousands of years ago in an epic battle for world supremacy.


References: Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens (Canada: Signal Books, an imprint of McClelland & Stewart, 2014)

The Nature of Things: The Great Human Odyssey, (2015).