welcome covers

Your complimentary articles

You’ve read one of your four complimentary articles for this month.

You can read four articles free per month. To have complete access to the thousands of philosophy articles on this site, please


The Dragon: Memes, Culture and Evolution

In a follow-up to last issue’s focus on Darwin, we have two articles looking at memes, supposed ‘units of cultural transmission’. First, Daria Sugorakova explores the concept of memes by pondering how the idea of dragons evolved.

Culture makes Homo Sapiens a very special species. Cultural transmission may not be exclusively a human affair, since some other animals seem capable of it too, but the best examples of cultural evolution are human: clothing, ceremonies, paintings, books, architecture. Richard Dawkins argued in The Selfish Gene (1976) that we are survival machines which behave as if our only agenda were to replicate our genes. But he also said that “a new kind of replicator has recently emerged.” He calls this a meme, “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.”

Dawkins claims that memes are in a sense ‘alive’ and capable of propagating and spreading themselves. For example, the same legends or proverbs can be found all over the world. In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meaning of Life (1996) Daniel C. Dennett goes even further, suggesting that memes are immortal invaders which simply “depend on the existence of a continuous chain of physical vehicles.” According to Dennett, our written resources are relatively persistent, and technological development only enlarges the duration of the physical vehicles available for these ‘body-snatchers’. He says that “cultural evolution operates many orders of magnitude faster than the genetic evolution, and this is part of its role in making our species special, but it has also turned us into creatures with an entirely different outlook on life from that of any other species.” For example, we have language, which eases cultural transmission; and what we are is largely what our culture has made us. But how did this memetic evolution get started? How did memes emerge in the first place?

Although cultural evolution is much faster than the genetic equivalent, the two are analogous, in that memes like genes can modify, multiply, and spread. Dennett continues,

“just as the genes of animals could not come into existence on this planet until the evolution of plants had paved the way … so the evolution of memes could not get started until the evolution of animals had paved the way by creating a species – Homo Sapiens – with brains that could provide shelter, and habits of communication that could provide transmission media, for memes.”

Our primate progenitors were suited for those invaders. In fact, as Dennett claims, memes actually originated in primates; “they were themselves created by their hosts, in much the way spiders create webs and birds create nests.” These invaders were the products of our evolution, but at the same time they made us what we are – capable of imagination and of “leaping through Design Space as nothing had ever done before.”

To throw some light on the transmission of ideas, Dawkins considers the idea of God. No one can say exactly when the God idea originated, but we do know how it was consolidated in our minds: “by the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art.” What is so fascinating about the idea of God is that it is stable and has thoroughly penetrated our cultural environment, by promising a better life after death and by comforting our doubts about existence.

The Myth

There are many ideas shared by many cultures, but one idea in particular is common to almost all cultures and is almost as intriguing as the idea of God: the dragon. All around the world there are legends and myths about dragons which have similar features. Of course each culture has its own version, and details differ: some cultures tell myths about a giant snake; some describe a fire-breathing monster, while others worship a wise, god-like creature, but all seem to agree on certain basics. There are many hypotheses about how the notion of dragons originated. The first two consider dinosaur fossils and comets. The third one concerns our ancient fear of snakes.

Edward O. Wilson’s In Search of Nature (1996) argues that the notion of the dragon has had an important place in the lives of humans: “Dragon-like figures covered stone ornaments of Europe’s Paleolithic period and were carved on mammoth teeth in Siberia.” The dragon is no ordinary reptile. It is a miraculous creature; wise and ruthless; horrible and beautiful; fascinating, spectacular and terrifying. The Hydra in Greek mythology, the many-headed monster which can re-grow its heads unless its neck is burnt, resembles the Zmiy of Slavic culture, which, like many European dragons, could also breathe fire. In the Bible, Satan is described as a giant fiery dragon with seven heads and ten horns. Asian dragons have long snake-like bodies with four legs – they don’t have wings, but they still can fly. The Basilisk, on the other hand, a colourful serpent-like creature from Polish fairytales, along with being the king of snakes, is able to turn people into stone with a single gaze, like the Medusa in Greek myths. Legends from the Urals tell us about the Mistress of the Copper Mountain ( Hoziayka Mednoy Gory), a beautiful woman who rules the Earth’s treasures and can turn into a giant lizard. German mythology also mentions a dragon who guards a treasure in a cave, while Turks and Persians have a myth of Shahmeran, the queen of snakes. But what are the possible origins of the dragon myth? Why did we create them through our imagination and spread them all over the world?

Fossils and Stars

Nowadays it is hard to believe in dragons. There are dinosaur remains exhibited in museums all over the world, but not a single dragon bone in all those glass cases. Could it be that the notion of the dragon first arose when primitive societies discovered dinosaur fossils? Imagine your tribe finding a fossilized dinosaur , in all its greatness, and with huge horrifying teeth and claws. Wouldn’t you be shocked to see the remains of such a monster?

It is possible that members of early civilizations found dinosaur fossils. However, such features of dragons as fiery breath or multiple heads are not directly observable from any dinosaur fossil discovered so far. These features attributed to dragons are common even in cultures which were geographically isolated from each other.

Another hypothesis has a greater likelihood: for every culture to have these shared myths, and legends with similar features, a very long time ago there was a common observation of some disastrous event. What kind of event could have been observable all over the world, disastrous and looking like a dragon? Two different kinds of astronomical event seem like candidates. A particularly bright comet passing close to the Earth, perhaps, early in human history, with a long glowing tail unfurling itself across the night sky for weeks on end, visible from every continent? We know from medieval records that comets were traditionally regarded as omens of doom, associated with predictions of cataclysms and plagues. They created horror and fear in people’s minds. Alternatively, an actual impact on the Earth by a large meteor would have been seen as a brilliant light streaking across the sky and would have been followed by an impact involving a vast explosion which flattened trees for miles, threw vast amounts of dust into the atmosphere and therefore perhaps altered the course of the seasons for a while. Many different legends (especially Slavic and European) mention the disastrous effects of dragon attacks. Myths tell that fire breathing monsters killed children, women and the elderly, ate domestic animals and burnt crops, gardens and forests. Failed harvests and lack of protein due to the inability to hunt would have caused widespread hunger and poverty. In turn, this would have caused numerous human deaths, especially among children, women and the elderly. Those lucky enough to survive would have told their children and grandchildren about those horrible times when the ‘dragon’ attacked.

This comet/meteorite hypothesis has its problems too. For example, although it explains a link with disasters dragons might have brought, it does not elaborately explain such attributes as the Medusa’s deadly gaze, the Basilisk’s inability to fly or the wisdom and grace of Chinese dragons.

The Snake and the Child

When we look into the cold eyes of a snake we feel great, unexplained fear. Is that fear innate, or are we taught to fear snakes? Experiments show that baby chimpanzees born in captivity (like their parents) who have never seen a snake in their lives (like their parents) show fear and make warning signals even when they see an object that resembles a snake. In their natural environment, chimps are very likely to confront a snake, so their reaction is natural and innate.

On the one hand it seems that in humans such fear must be taught, since little children are rarely scared of snakes, and learn to avoid them only after they’ve reached a certain age. According to Wilson, “human beings have an instinctive inclination to learn this fear fast and easily once they reach the age of five.” On the other hand, the reaction we show to a snake’s sudden movement is an instinctive reflex we cannot control. Wilson reminds us that “the rule imprinted into the mind is as follows: be alert whenever you confront an object that resembles a snake. In order to stay alive, memorize this reaction.” The risk a snake carries and the images this fear creates can emerge even through our dreams. Wilson describes a dream of the dragon threat:

“The area in front of me is mysterious, at the edge of unknown, both serene and scary… Suddenly the dragon appears. Not an ordinary well-known reptile; something much more, a threatening creature with incredible powers. Its size and shape varies… its poisonous head spreads alien intelligence… somehow it is both the soul of that shadowed place and the guardian of a much deeper path… life-promising and life-taking, seductive and deceiving… sensing this transformation triggers ancient, nameless feelings. It also makes us feel a vague risk, like the risk of a razor blade or of a high cliff.”

According to this ‘snake’ hypothesis, the myth of the dragon is a reflection of our instinctual relationship with nature, especially of the reptilian kind.

Why are we afraid of snakes in particular? As ruthless predators, snakes played an important role in development of primates. When confronting a snake, chimpanzees and monkeys scream with fear, but lemurs by contrast show no habitual panic response, perhaps because there are no poisonous snakes in Madagascar. Since our progenitors came from the African continent, it’s natural then that we fear snakes and dream about dragons.

The Dragon Evolves

However promising the ‘dinosaur’ and ‘comet’ hypotheses may be in some respects, they’re not able by themselves to explain the persistent power of our notion of the dragon, nor some of its specific features. The snake hypothesis may be helpful for this. So I find it useful to pull all three hypotheses together and combine them using the elements of cultural evolution I mentioned – memes.

The human mind has not evolved merely to react to snake threats. It also is capable of imagination. We not only receive and transmit ideas, but thanks to our imaginations we also elaborate them and sometimes combine them with other ideas to make hybrids.

Can we say that the dragon is a meme? Such a dragon meme might have originated with snakes, and an imaginative elaboration of our instinctive fears, using ideas from comets and fossils. Once it emerged as a replicator, this meme then evolved in many different ways. Just like the meme of God, it might have failed to replicate itself continually; but it has found its way, through art, literature and education. Or we can speculate that perhaps it came back to life when the first dinosaur fossil was discovered. Then the dragon meme might have ‘died’ yet again, but an observation of a comet enlivened it in the hearts and minds of people all over the world all over again. Thus a long time ago the fear of snakes invaded the subconsciousnesses of our progenitors, and now the dragon is propagated in our minds. The meme of God is obviously of great psychological appeal, but is this the case with the dragon? Indeed, its psychological appeal lies in the ancient, primitive, fear and awe it awakens. The more complicated the feelings, the more the dragon fascinates us and conquers our minds. The fear of snakes, our progenitors’ heritage, turns into the fear of dragons. A real reptile turns into a mystical monster.

“Basic inclinations that are formed by such striking examples of fear and respect for snakes are endless resources of culture. This way, simple perceptions create an endless profusion of images, and these images, while being loyal to the natural selection that created them, gain special meaning. Could it have been otherwise?” (E.O. Wilson, In Search of Nature.)

It does not seem like it could. Humans were once hunter-gatherers living in a fragile balance with nature. To survive, they had to pay attention to even the smallest details around them. The existence of snakes and the fear they created, did not ease our ancestors’ lives, but it improved their chances of survival. Although our environment has changed dramatically, the dragon myth seems immortal. No matter how much we prefer an artificial environment to jungle and desert, and hide ourselves behind concrete walls, the dragon myth might actually be a gift natural selection has blessed us with, in order to preserve instincts that would otherwise be forgotten.

Memes vs. Genes: Is There a Conflict?

Cultural changes occur much faster than biological evolution. The enduring myth of the dragon, as I’ve tried to show, does no harm to our biological survival. On the contrary, it supports our development and gives definite form to ancient, unnamed fears. According to Dennett, “one of the most striking features of cultural evolution is… the confidence with which we can identify commonalities in spite of the vast differences in underlying media.” It is plausible to say in this context, that what actually matters about the dragon is ‘the story, not the text’. In other words, it does not matter how Chinese dragons differ from Slavic dragons – it is the generic effect of the dragon that counts.

Could there be cases where a meme successfully propagates even though it is detrimental to the genetic survival of the people carrying it? There are plenty of memes which make their hosts less likely to pass on their genes. For a particularly clear example, let’s consider the idea of suicide. Usually, suicide is considered an act of mental weakness or a final attempt to take control over our lives. When considered from such a point of view, the psychological appeal can be strong.

“Obviously a meme that causes individuals bearing it to kill themselves has a grave disadvantage [to itself], but not necessarily a fatal one… A suicidal meme can spread, as when a dramatic and well-publicized martyrdom inspires others to die for a deeply loved cause, and this in turn inspires others to die, and so on.” (Richard Dawkins, The Extended Phenotype, 1982.)

So memes can be compared to viruses, which die unless they are spread. (Charles Darwin himself pointed out in The Origin of Species that “a language, like a species, when extinct, never… reappears.”) Of course, memes are not diseases but units of cultural transmission – and such exceptional ideas as suicide in fact confirm that cultural evolution functions through memes.

According to Dawkins, memes also evolve in such a selfish way that their survival is only necessarily advantageous to themselves, just as our selfish genes do. But the meme of suicide would actually be suicidal:

“A meme that made its bodies run over cliffs would have a fate like that of a gene for making bodies run over cliffs. It would tend to be eliminated from the meme-pool… But this does not mean that the ultimate criterion for success in meme selection is gene survival.”

Therefore, although the biological grounds of the dragon meme prevail, this does not mean the only purpose of the idea for people is to be careful with snakes and consequently increase their survival rate. As Susan Blackmore emphasized in The Meme Machine (1999), biological advantages do not necessarily “hold culture on a leash.”


There is no direct connection between meme’s ability to propagate, and its selfish fitness and its advantage to us. And as Dennett elaborately put it, “what requires special explanation… are the cases in which despite the truth or beauty of an idea it is not accepted, or despite its ugliness or falsehood it is.” However, although cultural evolution seems much faster than genetic evolution, this does not mean that meme-driven cultural evolution is independent of our genetic evolution or even suppresses it. But on the other hand, “we haven’t seen the long run yet.”

Our memes do not have to act for the benefit of our genes. This is what Dawkins meant when he proposed that genetic evolution is not the only possible evolution. As replicators, memes have started their own evolution – the signs of which we experience everyday through familiar ideas, tunes, designs and scientific progress. Although it seems arrogant to suggest that human evolution is different from the evolution of other species, I think it is plausible that these new replicators have delivered us from the tightest constriction to the leash of genetic evolution. Yet, however selfish our memes are, we could not have survived without them, since, as units of culture, they have formed and transformed us. As Daniel Dennett has written: “what makes us special is that we, alone among species, can rise above the imperatives of our genes – thanks to the lifting cranes of our memes.”

© Daria Sugorakova 2009

Daria is a PhD student in the Department of Philosophy at the Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey.

This site uses cookies to recognize users and allow us to analyse site usage. By continuing to browse the site with cookies enabled in your browser, you consent to the use of cookies in accordance with our privacy policy. X