virus: Meme Update #24: The Evolution of Music

Richard Brodie (
Thu, 25 Feb 1999 17:21:09 -0800

Meme Update #24

In this issue:

	The Evolution of Music
	New! Improved! Internet Mind Virus Antidote
	Book of the Week: How To Build A Multilevel Money Machine
	Bonus Book: The Meme Machine


The Evolution of Music

One of the criticisms being leveled at the budding science of memetics is a valid one: what is it good for? Can memetics explain historical facts any better than existing theories? Can it make better predictions? If not, it can hardly be called a science, let alone a paradigm shift in understanding culture. To the rescue comes philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, deliverer of the first Charles Simonyi Lecture at Oxford last week. What does memetics explain that we otherwise have no clue about?


Traditional evolutionary theory -- not taking memes into account -- boils down to the idea that in the end, everything is about improving an organism's chances for reproducing its genes. While there has been ample speculation as to the biological function of music, most people thinking along traditional lines of evolutionary theory have concluded that it's at best some kind of not-yet-understood social-group bonding mechanism and at worst a mistake that hasn't been caught yet by Mother Nature. Given enough time, they say, genes for liking music will be out-competed by genes for something more productively related to reproduction.

Dennett proposes that music has less to do with genes, and more to do with much-quicker-evolving memes. Memes may actually be directing the evolution of genes to suit themselves much the way we breed dogs so they look and behave the way we fancy them. When one looks at the sex lives of popular musicians, that's not so far-fetched a thought, is it? Why is it that rock stars have so many adoring admirers? What possible genetic function could it serve to want to mate with a singer?

Dennett weaves a tale of how it might have happened, beginning with caveman Og pounding with a stick on a log. Some of the rhythms he pounds, for whatever reason, are more catchy than others. The ones that are catchy get picked up by other cavemen. These rhythms are mental information patterns: early memes.

Now this pounding evolves for awhile, and it turns out that some of the rhythms that get pounded out are more pleasing than others, and crowds tend to gather around when someone pounds them out. Since the crowds gather around, the meme spreads faster. As a byproduct of this, the best rhythm-pounders gain in social status and therefore get more chance to spread those genes that give them the knack for rhythm.

Eventually, pounding gives way to more complex music, and all the while the better musicians attract more attention, spread the memes better, and as a byproduct get more mating opportunities. It's all driven by the memes, which evolve so much faster than genes that unless the direction the memes take is so toxic to the genes that we find ourselves wiped out -- by global nuclear war, for example -- the genes can never catch up.

So by the time we reach 1999, our genes have evolved a bit, perhaps, over thousands of years, to make us enjoy music more. But look at how music has evolved in only the last thousand years! We've gone from Gregorian chants to Bach to Tchaikovsky to Celene Dion! (OK, it's not always an improvement.) But the point is that the music evolves to push our buttons -- to draw our attention and compete with everything else out there that wants our attention too.

Does this mean it's bad to listen to music? Of course not. As with everything, the key is consciousness. Are you spending your time on what's most important to you or on what's unconsciously demanding your precious time? Like a pet dog, the memes in your life can be a source of delight and can be kept on a leash.

The question is, who's pulling the leash: you or your memes?

[Daniel Dennett's latest book, Brainstorms, is now available through by pointing your web browser to ]

New! Improved! Internet Mind Virus Antidote

If you haven't seen my Internet Virus Antidote page lately, it's much improved thanks to the excellent contribution of Sonia Lyris. Send this page back to anyone who sends you annoying chain letters, bad jokes, or get-rich-quick schemes.

Book of the Week: How To Build A Multilevel Money Machine by Randy Gage
Hardcover, 282 pp.

If you are in multi-level marketing (MLM), you probably already know about Randy Gage. He has analyzed, though firsthand experience, the factors necessary to be a success in what I predict is the business of the future, and they aren't necessarily what you might guess. Do you try to sell product first and only then recruit distributors? Randy says that's the wrong approach. Do you look for "natural" salesmen to put in your downline? Randy says don't do it! Surprising? Randy Gage understands the nature of the business and what it takes to succeed in it: self-replication. I don't know anyone writing about MLM who understands this better than Randy. A must read and it's 30% off at the Memetics Bookstore. Point your browser to


The Meme Machine
by Susan Blackmore
Hardcover, 272 pp.

Shh---I'm not supposed to review this book until the publication date a couple weeks from now, but trust me. Order it now. It's 30% off at the Memetics Bookstore and it's worth the price for the introduction by Richard Dawkins alone. It's the best book on memetics to come along in years, and if you're not left swimming with cool new ideas I'll be surprised. Order now at and be the first one on your block to get it.

All the best memes,


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Richard Brodie is the author of the first and best-selling book on memetics, VIRUS OF THE MIND. VIRUS OF THE MIND is in its third printing and spent over six months on the best-seller list! Start reading VIRUS OF THE MIND on-line, for FREE, at

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