Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’, published in 1859, provided the first plausible mechanism for evolution. Just 7 years later Mendel published his work on trait inheritance, after meticulously cross-breeding 29,000 pea plants. He exposed the gene as the unit of heredity – a crucial gap in Darwin’s work – and no one noticed. After his death, his personal papers were burned by his fellow monks. Luckily some of his letters were rediscovered in the monastery archives, and modern Genetics was born.
Fisher and others formalized the maths in the 1930s, of how multiple genes interacted through time in a large population. Thus was proven that many small changes over long time spans were capable of yielding large evolutionary effects. Watson and Crick’s 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA revealed the source code. DNA was what governed the behavior revealed by the maths. Crucially it gave us something to edit, leading to many great advancements in the 20th Century.
Hamilton and others in the 1960s devised formulas explaining how altruism evolved: “I would lay down my life for two brothers or eight cousins”. They flipped the usual thinking that genes exist for the benefit of organisms. Instead they showed organisms are merely vehicles for carrying around genes. Of course genes aren’t really in control – natural selection is – it’s just a helpful analogy.
Dawkins synthesised all this into an international best seller, ‘The Selfish Gene’, published in 1976. In this book the word ‘meme’ was coined, as the information equivalent of a gene. Memetics shows great promise, but is still pre-Mendel. Nobody has meticulously traced the inheritance of thousands of memes. With advancements in machine learning, virtual reality, and neural imaging, perhaps memetics’ own Mendel, Fisher, and Watson are right around the corner.