PBS Evolution A Critical Review
Viewers Guide

Episode 6: The Mind’s Big Bang

The emergence of art, technology, and society about 50,000 years ago. Hominid evolution and Neanderthals. Early human migrations. Language. Memes and how they now counteract biological evolution.

A. Cave Paintings, Stone Tools, and Fossil Skulls

An archaeologist crawling through a cave in France is “searching for a special moment in evolution,” the narrator tells us, “an era cloaked in mystery, when with hardly a change in appearance, humans began behaving in ways they had never behaved before. He wants to find out how it was our ancestors became truly human.” Where once there were just bare cave walls, suddenly there was art, technology, communication and culture. “The question is, What happened to make all this possible? How could it be, a species opened its eyes and burst into a new realm? How was it, human ancestors evolved a whole new way of seeing themselves? And because of this, in time transformed the planet?”

We fly over a mist-shrouded landscape. “The Great Rift Valley of East Africa,” the narrator continues, “here is where the human story began. For millions of years, Africa was the landscape of human evolution. Across this terrain, an ancestral people survived, reproduced, and passed on who they were to succeeding generations. Without Africa, humanity as we know it might never have become.”

We stop at a spot in the Great Rift Valley which was “once inhabited by hominids, before they were truly human.” Smithsonian Institution paleoanthropologist Rick Potts clambers up a hillside looking for fossils and stone tools. “Now it’s a site scientists visit to understand how people lived and what they thought about a million years ago.” Potts digs up a stone axe, and a computer animation shows us primitive humans making such tools and using them to butcher a large animal.

“Here, across this terrain,” the narrator says, “these paleolithic or ancient stone-tool people made one simple implement for nearly a million years.” According to Potts, the stone axe he found was the Swiss Army knife of the paleolithic period. The people who made them, he says, made the same thing over and over, but they probably didn’t speak to each other as we do. “They didn’t have something that we have — the creativity, the innovation, the diversity of cultures that of course characterizes our own species.”

Another computer animation takes us on a long journey through time. “On the tree of life,” the narrator tells us, “human evolution began around six million years ago when hominids split off from the common ancestor they shared with chimpanzees. They descended from the trees about four million years ago and entered a new world. Two and a half million years ago with a modified hand they fashioned stone tools and began to depend more and more on a diet of meat.” Thanks to the computer, this all happens before our very eyes.

“The size of their brains increased substantially,” continues the narrator. “At about two million years ago they began to leave Africa. These early humans were successful for a while but in the end every one of them would become extinct. It wasn’t until fifty or sixty thousand years ago that the first truly modern humans, our ancestors, left Africa.” Human actors take the place of computer-generated figures. “They were hunter-gatherers, foraging for food living in small groups roaming the wide landscape, but they were different from their predecessors. They had begun to live a revolutionary new way of life.”

A series of reconstructed skulls appears on the screen, starting with one that is very ape-like and ending with one from a modern human. “This lifestyle had been achieved over millions of years,” says the narrator, “through the multiple processes of evolution—adaptation, competition, mutation, selection, and failure, punctuated by the occasional success. Ours was a routine story of evolution, of change over time, no different from the stories of so many other species, but it produced behavior new to the planet.”

B. The Beginnings of Art and Technology

“Behavior changed very radically around fifty thousand years ago,” we are told. A fossil skull appears, but “this hundred-thousand-year-old human did not behave like us.” Fully modern human behavior, we are told, included the making of a wide range of artifacts, such as art and jewelry.

According to Massachusetts Institute of Technology psychologist Steven Pinker: “In a sense, we’re all Africans.” He explains that human babies from all over the world have the same basic ability to learn languages, how to count, and how to make and use tools. “It suggests,” says Pinker, “that the distinctively human parts of our intelligence were in place before our ancestors split off into the different continents.”

“After leaving Africa some fifty or sixty thousand years ago,” the narrator continues, “this fully modern species headed east, into Asia, and even to Australia. Others followed the coast of the Mediterranean north, dispersing into the hills and leaving behind evidence that their minds were unique to this planet.” A small boat rounds a point of land, and we are introduced to University of Arizona anthropologists Mary C. Stiner and Steven L. Kuhn. Stiner and Kuhn are “excavating a home that these early immigrants occupied,” the Ucagizli Cave in Turkey, “one of the earliest modern human living sites.” To their surprise they find an abundance of ornaments, including beads dated at forty-three thousand years ago — making them “the oldest beads found so far anywhere in the world.”

Beads, however, are of no practical use in a hunter-gatherer society. “They would suggest,” says the narrator, “that those who lived in this formidable place had more on their minds than straightforward survival. What could have been so important about these beads, and what can they tell us about these early days of modern humans?” By the time humans had migrated to what is now southern France, we are told, they were mass-producing beads with a distinctive grinding technique. “Beads are an artifact of the mind’s big bang,” the narrator says. “They are evidence of our creative and cultural beginnings. They suggest a time when humans began relating their own social groups to groups of other humans.”

By wearing ornaments such as beads, we are told, these ancient humans were “expressing social relationships.” And that was “very new in human evolution.” Some prehistoric jewelry is displayed. “Humans using technology in the service of social identity,” the narrator says. “This was momentous.” A shadowy figure pulls a burning stick out of a fire. “This transformation of our minds began in Africa, and it left a trail of evidence as far away as Australia. But the clues are most abundant in Europe.”

The scene shifts to a green countryside. In Europe, the narrator tells us, “humans encountered another species of hominid — a species almost identical to us — but not quite.” A drawing shows massive, hairy, almost-human figures. “It’s this ‘not quite’ that tells us about our selective advantage. We call these ancient Europeans Neanderthals.”

Neanderthals were bigger than we are, and they had receding chins and foreheads. Most notably, Neanderthal burial sites were simple compared with ours, and these creatures apparently did not use pictures or symbols. “In contrast,” the narrator says, “modern humans seemed to be treating their dead with extreme care.”

A researcher compares the heavy stone-tipped spears used by Neanderthals with the lighter antler-tipped spears used by modern humans, and he concludes that modern humans were smarter and more technologically advanced. He says that Neanderthal culture was relatively unchanging, but modern human culture changed rapidly after it first appeared about fifty thousand years ago. This suggests that modern humans — unlike Neanderthals — were able to improve on what went before, from one generation to the next, and the narrator calls this ability “a strategic advantage.”

“Improved technology suggests much,” says the narrator, “especially humans’ emerging ability to transmit information over great distances and through the realms of time.” We see more drawings of massive, hairy figures, as we are told that Neanderthals lived in small, isolated groups. “For modern humans,” the narrator continues, “portable art may have served as a means of communication — some of it travelling many hundreds of miles from where it had been created.” Thus modern humans, unlike Neanderthals, were able to establish a far-ranging culture.

So we are told that we have evidence of modern humans — people, like us — starting about fifty thousand years ago. But a few minutes ago we were told that “for millions of years . . .an ancestral people survived, reproduced, and passed on who they were.” We were told that scientists visit the East African rift valley to “understand how people lived and what they thought about a million years ago.” Clearly, the “people” who lived a million or more years ago were not people in the ordinary sense of the word. Among other things, they didn’t have language, technology or art. Apparently, not even Neanderthals were people in the ordinary sense of the word. Why, then, does Evolution call million-year-old animals “people”?

It seems we are being conditioned to accept the Darwinian account of human origins before we even see the evidence. The truth is that fossil skulls are reconstructed from fragmentary evidence, sometimes collected from different sites. The reconstruction and interpretation of such skulls is so controversial that paleoanthropologists — people who study human origins — call them “bones of contention.” And even if individual specimens were not so controversial, it would still be impossible to arrange them confidently in a series of ancestors and descendants. As we saw in Episode Two, the picture of human evolution we are being shown here carries the same validity as a bedtime story. According to evolutionist Henry Gee, chief science writer for Nature, it is “a completely human invention created after the fact, shaped to accord with human prejudices.”1

Since the evidence for human evolution is so weak, Evolution simply expects us to take the Darwinian account for granted. Instead of acknowledging that we have no way of knowing whether these extinct creatures were related to us — much less “what they thought” — Evolution calls them “people” and tells us more just-so stories.

We find ourselves in a cave, where an archaeologist shows us a “spit-painting” technique that may have been used by ancient humans to produce the cave art we find today. He speculates about why people made cave-paintings; he also finds evidence that cave-dwellers may have made music. As we leave the cave, the narrator says: “So below and above ground, our ancestors were refining technology and art, and communicating in complex ways. And it appears as if these changes occurred almost overnight. How could it have happened?”

C. Brain Mutations and Child Development

Reflections of primitive-looking figures shimmer on some water, as a man flanked by fossil skulls says: “My own view is that there was a brain change — that there was a genetic change that promoted the fully modern human brain, that allowed the kind of innovation and invention — the ability to innovate and invent — that is a characteristic of modern humans. If you accept the idea that there was a neurological change fifty thousand years ago, and that this was rooted in biology, it would just become the latest and most recent in a long series of mutations on which natural selection operated to produce the human species as we understand it today.”

Steven Pinker returns to tell us: “It’s very likely that the changes in the brain didn’t happen overnight. There wasn’t one magical mutation that miraculously allowed us to speak and to walk upright and to cooperate with one another and to figure out how the world works.” Primitive-looking figures walk down a stream-bed as Pinker continues: “Evolution doesn’t work that way. It would be staggeringly improbable for one mutation to do all of that. Chances are, there were lots and lots of mutations over a span of tens, maybe even hundreds of thousands of years that fine-tuned and sculpted the brain to give it all the magnificent powers that it has today.”

But Pinker knows nothing about “mutations” that could have “fine-tuned and sculpted the brain.” Nobody does. There is no evidence that genetic mutations can do such a thing — not even over thousands of years. In fact, scientists have only vague ideas of how genes affect brain development, even in simple animals. And all known mutations that affect development — such as the Antennapedia mutation described in Episode Two — are harmful. As Cambridge University geneticist David L. Stern wrote in 2000, “one of the oldest problems in evolutionary biology” — the generation of relevant variations by mutations — “remains largely unsolved.” Pinker’s statement that mutations could have given the brain “all the magnificent powers that it has today” is sheer speculation.2

We watch a cartoon animation of the brain, and Pinker tells us that “a lot of our evolution consisted not just in getting more of this stuff, but in wiring it in precise ways to support intelligence.” The narrator adds: “So it may not have been the size of the human brain, but its wiring, that endowed us with substantial new skills.”

Chimpanzees scamper through the trees in a Ugandan forest, as the narrator says that one of those new skills might have been “the knack for living a complex social life. Here in East Africa, chimpanzees show us how we might have interacted with others before the mind’s big bang.” Chimpanzees can induce other chimpanzees to behave socially only through direct physical force. “But after six million years of separate evolution,” the narrator says, “humans have acquired a significant advantage” — language.

We go to the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, where psychologist Andrew Whiten studies learning patterns in young children. According to the narrator, Whiten found that through the age of three “a child cannot ascribe actions, motives and beliefs to others. But by the age of five, the child’s brain has developed the capacity for stepping into someone else’s mind.” Chimpanzees, however, never reach this stage.

Actors portraying primitive people stand over a blazing fire, as Whiten says: “In a society of humans, being socially competent really counts. Being socially competent allows you ultimately to out-compete others, to gain better access to resources, the best mates. And in those kind of societies, it seems the brain can be more important than brawn. So it’s potentially a very powerful evolutionary force, because it’s driving a kind of upward spiral. Social complexity begets greater social intelligence; social intelligence presents even greater problems to the individuals in the next generation; and they have to become more socially complex.”

But the “evolution” Whiten describes here is social progress — not evolution in the Darwinian sense of new species originating from a common ancestor through natural selection. And as interesting as his research in developmental psychology may be, it tells us nothing about the origin of our ability to “ascribe actions, motives and beliefs” to others. Of course it is advantageous to understand how others think. But how did that ability originate? Nothing that has been presented here helps to answer that question.

D. Language

“Complex social relationships,” the narrator adds. “A theory of mind. These are qualities we associate with modern humans. But how could we practice any of them without language?” The camera focuses on people’s mouths as they speak. “With language we can relive the past, ponder the future, teach our children, tell secrets, manipulate crowds. But imagine a world without language.”

We travel to Managua, Nicaragua, where we meet “Mary No-Name” — a woman who has been deaf since birth. Years ago, U.S. experts went to Managua to teach standard sign-language to deaf children who had just been brought in from isolated villages, but they failed. It turned out that the children developed their own sign-language instead, without any help from the experts. Apparently, the only stimulus they had needed was to meet other deaf people with whom they wanted to communicate.

“Might this moment,” the narrator asks, “resemble what happened around fifty thousand years ago — the turning-point that led to the explosion of human creativity?” A girl gestures expressively with her arms. “Language does not need a voice,” the narrator says, “it is our legacy, an inevitability of being human. Today, we still don’t know exactly when language evolved — when it opened the door to our phenomenal success as a species.”

“While many species can communicate, even vocalize,” the narrator continues, “only human languages are driven by complex rules.” All human languages have these rules, called syntax, which enable us to organize information hierarchically, and to construct sentences.

According to Oxford University zoologist Richard Dawkins, those of our ancestors most gifted with the tools of language might have been those to prosper. We visit Dawkins as he waters his garden. “We don’t know when language started,” says Dawkins, “but as soon as language did start it provided an environment in which those individuals who were genetically best equipped to thrive and survive and succeed in an environment dominated by language were the ones who left the most offspring. And that probably — in our forefathers — that probably led to an improvement in the ability to use language.”

Once again we find ourselves in the company of primitive-looking people, squatting next to a blazing fire. “What, exactly, was the evolutionary purpose of language?” the narrator asks. “Was it to discuss waterholes, weapons, and what lay over the hill? Or might it have had another advantage?”

In the passenger car of a train somewhere in the United Kingdom, University of Liverpool evolutionary biologist Robin Dunbar is eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. “The kind of situations we’re looking for to study language,” he says, “[were] just the sort of natural spaces where you would have a conversation — a very informal, relaxed conversation — with friends.” According to Dunbar, the standard view of people who study language is that its primary function is “the transmission of technically complex information. This is what I kind of call the Einstein and Shakespeare version of language.” Dunbar finds, however, that “what people talk about on a day-to-day basis, back there in their homes, or on the street, or over the garden fence, then it’s about social relationships.”

The narrator says: “Two-thirds of all our conversations, Robin Dunbar believes, are dedicated to gossip. Throughout human evolution, could nature have selected not just for the fittest, but for those with the most refined social skills?” Dunbar continues: “What language does — the bottom line, if you like — is it just allows us to hold big groups together. It’s like kind of opening a window of opportunity. Suddenly there’s all sorts of other things you can do with it. Because you can use it to solicit information about third parties so you can now see what happened when you weren’t actually present at the time.” This gives us an advantage over monkeys and apes, because “if they don’t see it, they don’t know about it, and they never will.”

Steven Pinker, however, thinks Dunbar’s view is only part of the story: “Gossip is certainly one of the things that language is useful for, because it’s always handy to know who needs a favor, who can offer a favor, who’s available, who’s under the protection of a jealous spouse.” But “there are all kinds of ways that language can be useful. Gossip, I think, is just one of them.”

So to be human, we are told, is to have language — even if it is language without speech. And language is useful in many ways — including holding together big groups, gossiping, and communicating technical information. But what do language and evolution have to do with each other?

Although languages certainly change over time, they do not evolve in the sense of becoming more complex. Languages cannot be ranked in order from primitive to more advanced. According to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language: “Anthropologically speaking, the human race can be said to have evolved from primitive to civilized states, but there is no sign of language having gone through the same kind of evolution.” Complex language simply appeared, fully formed, with the first humans. There is no evidence for Dawkins’s claim that a Darwinian process “led to an improvement in the ability to use language.”

Furthermore, nobody knows how language originated. According to the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language: “For centuries, people have speculated over the origins of human language. . . . [but] the quest is a fruitless one. Each generation asks the same questions, and reaches the same impasse — the absence of any evidence relating to the matter, given the vast, distant time-scale involved. We have no direct knowledge of the origins and early development of language, nor is it easy to imagine how such knowledge might ever be obtained. We can only speculate, arrive at our own conclusions, and remain dissatisfied.”3

So language hasn’t evolved in complexity since it originated, and its origin remains mysterious. We are told that language may have been the evolutionary turning-point that gave rise to modern humans. But in Episode Two we were told that “walking on two feet” may have been that turning-point, and in Episode Five we were told that our ancestors’ “choosing their sexual partners for their brains” may have been that turning-point. The truth is that all of these are mere speculation. From an evolutionary perspective, the origin of language, the brain, and the human species itself remain mysterious. The question asked at the beginning of this episode — “What happened to make all this possible?” — remains unanswered.

This doesn’t deter Evolution, however, from piling speculation on speculation: “Language,” the narrator concludes, is “the force that made modern human culture possible, and that today tells us who we are, how we belong, where we’re bound. Language, according to Richard Dawkins, is also central to a new and powerful evolutionary force.”

E. Memes

“As far as a human lifetime is concerned,” says Dawkins, “the only kind of evolutionary change we’re likely to see very much of is not genetic evolution at all, it’s cultural evolution. And if we put a Darwinian spin on that, then we’re going to be talking about the differential survival of memes, as opposed to genes.”

According to psychologist Susan Blackmore, of the University of the West of England: “Memes are ideas, habits, skills, gestures, stories, songs — anything which we pass from person to person by imitation. We copy them. Now, just as genes are copied inside all the cells of our body and passed on in reproduction, memes are copied by our brains and our behavior and they’re passed from person to person. And I think what happens is, just as the competition between genes shapes all of biological evolution, so it’s the competition between memes that shapes our minds and our cultures. So it’s absolutely essential to understanding human nature that we take account of memes.”

The narrator says that Blackmore “believes memes have been the forces driving human evolution, especially since the mind’s big bang some fifty thousand years ago. She sees ideas, prejudices, trends and breakthroughs behaving much like genes — self-replicating and accumulating from mind to mind, society to society, generation to generation. Memes are the building-blocks of a new kind of evolution.” Richard Dawkins adds: “If units of culture replicate themselves in something like the same way as DNA molecules replicate themselves, then we have the possibility of a completely new kind of Darwinism.”

“Changes in the human lifestyle for the last fifty thousand years,” says Steven Pinker, “have had very little to do with any biological change in our brains. The reason that we live differently today from the way the cavemen lived is not because we have better brains but because we’ve been accumulating all of the thousands of discoveries that our ancestors have made, and we have the benefit of a huge history of inventions that we communicate non-genetically, through language, through documents, through customs.”

“Memes can be more than passing fads,” the narrator tells us. “They can be titanic. They can modify the world, revolutionize life, even suppress the forces of biological evolution. Consider insulin, one such meme, now some eighty years old.” We meet Jared, a fourteen-year-old diabetic, who says he would probably be dead without insulin. “Before the 1920s,” the narrator continues, as we look at old photographs of sickly youngsters, “individuals like Jared would have died as children — never to reach the age of reproduction, never to pass on their genes. Now young diabetics are no longer condemned to death. Insulin, an idea that became a medicine, is just one more meme that helps modern humans elude the forces of evolution. It and so many other scientific breakthroughs provide us with new ways to survive.”

Jared and his friends go on their way, and Pinker remarks: “A lot of the creations of the brain can actually make up for physical deficiencies and could actually change the course of evolution.” To those who might say that it is unwise to interfere with evolution in this way, Pinker responds that for thousands of years humans have depended for survival on their own inventions, and this is simply “the way human evolution works.” As we watch a collage of cultural diversity, the narrator adds: “Our rebellion against evolution has taken many forms. Call it culture, call it memes, call it memetic evolution — whatever. It makes every one of us this planet’s best survivor — so far.”

Blackmore concludes with: “Nowadays I would say that memetic evolution is going faster and faster, and it has almost entirely taken over from biological evolution. Not entirely, in a sense the two are going along hand in hand. For example, birth control — the memes of the pill and condoms and all these things have effects on the genes. In fact, they change quite dramatically, across the planet, which genes are getting passed on and which aren’t. The more educated you are, the less children you have. That is memes fighting against genes. What’s also going on now at the beginning of the twenty-first century is that the memes have suddenly made themselves a new home: the Internet.” Blackmore says that although we thought we created the Internet, in fact we are its slaves. She regards this as an “inevitable” consequence of memetic evolution. “The memes are getting better and faster, and more and more, and creating as they go, better copying apparatus for their own copying. I don’t know where that leaves us in the future.”

So memes invented the Internet. And birth control. And insulin therapy for diabetics. And, it seems, everything else. What’s left? Is there anything that is not a meme? A concept that describes everything describes nothing, and is too vague and too broad to be useful, especially in science. For just that reason, many scientists have criticized the meme concept. In Stephen Jay Gould’s words, it is a “meaningless metaphor.”

Instead of providing us with new insights, “meme” is apparently just a new label for familiar things like invention, science, art, and history. But inventors, scientists, artists, and historians did very well for centuries before Darwin and Dawkins came along. It was people, not memes, who discovered things like insulin, and invented things like the Internet, and created things like the Sistine Chapel, and shaped history by their actions. Blackmore’s claim that memes “create” things is nonsense.

Dawkins talks about putting a “Darwinian spin” on “cultural evolution.” But cultural evolution could just as well be called cultural history, as it was for centuries. Why put a Darwinian spin on it? According to Jerry Coyne (a Darwinist whose criticism of evolutionary psychology we met in Episode Five), memes are “but a flashy new wrapping around a parcel of old and conventional ideas.” Could this simply be an attempt to force absolutely everything into a Darwinian framework? When Blackmore wrote a book promoting her ideas in 1999, Coyne called it “a work not of science, but of extreme advocacy.”4

Whatever else we might say about memes, one thing is clear: They work against biological evolution. This “is not genetic evolution at all,” says Dawkins. Memes are “our rebellion against evolution,” says Pinker. It’s “memes fighting against genes,” says Blackmore. So if memes have any significance at all, they show that Darwin’s theory of the origin of species is not as central as Evolution would like us to believe. Whether memetic evolution is unscientific, as its critics claim, or contrary to biological evolution, as its proponents claim, it is strangely out of place in this series.

Two people run across a plain and into the distance, as the narrator says: “For our species, as for all others, biological evolution has been the primary engine of change.” The scene shifts to cave paintings. “But since the birth of culture some fifty thousand years ago, forces far more powerful have overtaken human evolution. The mind’s big bang saw the birth of a new kind of change — not of the body, but of ideas. That means that for the future of humankind evolution may be no more than what we make of it.”

The background music for these closing scenes is the hauntingly beautiful kyrie eleison from the Missa Luba, a Roman Catholic mass set to African music. Still more religion, in a series that promised to avoid “the religious realm.”5

Kyrie eleison is Greek for “Lord, have mercy!”


1. On “bones of contention,” see Roger Lewin, Bones of Contention: Controversies in the Search for Human Origins, Second Edition (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1997). The Gee quotation is from Henry Gee, In Search of Deep Time: Beyond the Fossil Record to a New History of Life (New York: The Free Press, 1999), 32. For more on the controversial nature of paleoanthropology, see Jonathan Wells, Icons of Evolution: Science or Myth? (Washington, DC: Regnery Publishing, 2000), Chapter 11.

2. The Stern quotation is from David L. Stern, “Perspective: Evolutionary Developmental Biology and the Problem of Variation,” Evolution 54 (2000), 1079.

Pinker’s glib statements about mutations ignore the fact that biologists know almost nothing about how genetic mutations might produce the sorts of changes evolution requires. In 1988, evolutionary biologists John Endler and Tracy McLellan wrote: “Although much is know about mutation, it is still largely a ‘black box’ relative to evolution.” John A. Endler and Tracey McLellan, “The Processes of Evolution: Toward a Newer Synthesis,” Annual Review of Ecology and Systematics 19 (1988), 397. Ten years later, evolutionary geneticist Allen Orr wrote: “Our understanding of the genetics of adaptation remains appallingly weak.” H. Allen Orr, “The evolutionary genetics of adaptation: a simulation study,” Genetical Research (Cambridge) 74 (1999), 212.

A mutation that changes the direction of shell coiling in some snails is not known to be harmful, but it does not contribute anything to evolution. See M. H. Sturtevant, “Inheritance of direction of coiling in Limnaea,” Science 58 (1932), 269-270.

3. The quotations from the Cambridge Encyclopedia are from David Crystal, The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, Second Edition. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 6, 290. For a recent story on the controversy over linguistic evolution, see Bea Perks, “Linguists and evolutionists need to talk about linguistic evolution,” The BioMedNet Magazine (August 15, 2001), available at: http://news.bmn.com/news/story?day=010816&story=2

4. Richard Dawkins invented the term “meme” in the last chapter of The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976). Among other things, the idea of God is a meme. Dawkins wrote: “The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. . . God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.” (207)

Stephen Jay Gould called memes a “meaningless metaphor” on a radio show November 11, 1996. See Susan Blackmore, “Memes, Minds and Selves,” at: http://www.tribunes.com/tribune/art98/blac.htm#b

The Coyne quotations are from Jerry A. Coyne, “The self-centred meme,” a review of Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, in Nature (April 29, 1999), 767-768.

For more criticism of the meme concept, see Mary Midgley, “Why Memes?” in Hilary Rose and Steven Rose (editors), Alas, Poor Darwin: Arguments Against Evolutionary Psychology (New York: Harmony Books, 2000), 79-99. See also: http://www.salon.com/july97/21st/meme970710.html

5. The Missa Luba is a mass originally sung in pure Congolese style by Les Troubadours du roi baudouin and directed by Father Guido Haazen. See:


The kyrie eleison in this episode probably comes from a newer version sung by the Mungano National Choir of Kenya and directed by Boniface Mganga; it is available as a Philips CD from Polygram Classics, New York, NY. About ten minutes earlier in the episode, just after Richard Dawkins speaks and some primitive-looking people are standing around a fire, the background music is the agnus Dei from the same Missa LubaAgnus Dei is Latin for “the Lamb of God” — Jesus Christ.