Educationists and academics are up in arms about the increasing incidence of plagiarism in theses and dissertations submitted by post-graduate students doing higher research.
But is plagiarism—borrowing from another person’s work—such a no-no?
If so, what price Shakespeare? Not to mention Einstein, Martin Luther King, the Indian Constitution, and all those who have ever invented the wheel—in whatever form—without duly acknowledging its original inventor. For, all these stand accused of the unoriginal sin of plagiarism.
“Why do you think God gave you eyes?” sang Tom Lehrer, “But to plagiarise, plagiarise, plagiarise…” Biology, it would seem, is copycat destiny. There are only six basic story lines in the entire realm of fiction, from Scherezade to Salman Rushdie, the celebrated ‘Shah of Blah’, from the Panchatantra to the remembrance of things Proust; the rest is all permutation and combination, ringing the changes and getting cross-connections.
Seneca grasped the nettle and defiantly declared, “Whatever is well said by another is mine.” A millennium and a half later, Shakespeare paid back the Roman stoic in his own coin by helping himself not only to the Senecan legacy but also to anything else he could lay his ex-poacher’s hands on. No wonder 300 years after that Emerson was to sigh: “Every man is a borrower and a mimic; life is theatrical and literature a quotation.”
TS Eliot went one better. When between his conception and his creation, between the emotion and the response, fell the shadow of a reader wanting to know if those lines didn’t in fact sound as though they’d been borrowed from Ernest Dowson’s Cynara, far from hiding his blushes under a bushel, Old Possum proved what a practical cat he was by formulating his theory of Tradition and the Individual Talent, which, in short, says: In literature, you’re only as good as the chap you crib from, and as the fellow who in his turn is going to crib from you.
In this seamless continuum of mimesis, the sincerest flattery of life is not that it imitates art but that it imitates itself, endlessly going up and down the spiral staircase of the double helix of the DNA molecule. In evolution, success literally breeds success. The hidden ghost in the evolutionary machine, the immortal gene, has dictated this message through history. Reproductive success is the demiurge that shapes our ends, rough-hew them—or gloss them over—how we will.
Sex, said Bernard Shaw, was a biological ploy devised to keep the species alive. Modern sociobiologists go further and say sex is the individual gene’s way of making more genes in its own image; in other words, sex is the ultimate principle of successful genetic plagiarism.
But sex is not all, sociobiology notwithstanding. Lyall Watson has coined the term ‘memes’, or memory genes, comprising ideas which have greater potency than sperm cells, concepts which convey more than chromosomes. Like a gene, a meme fosters replication. But unlike a gene, it does not need biological fusion to come into being and reincarnate itself in future generations.
The great religions of the world are memes, as are political theories and scientific discoveries. Cultural and social trends—whether Cubism or Women’s Lib—are memes. Some memes are harmful, like Nazism, or merely irrelevant, like the streaking fad of the early 1970s, and get selected against, though atavistic throwbacks may keep cropping up from time to time.
The best memes, however, span centuries, countries and cultures, cross-breeding and cross-fertilising—like the pacifism of Tolstoy and the civil disobedience of Thoreau which inspired Mohandas Gandhi, who in turn provided a guiding light for Martin Luther King. Memes are strands in a design which exhort us to be both borrowers and lenders, seeking not to unravel the ‘subtle knot’ of humankind but to weave it closer and more intricately together.
The never-ending plagiarised story doesn’t end there. Fred Hoyle and other astrophysicists have suggested that our living planet is itself a plagiarism, in that the primordial ‘soup’ from which all earthly life emerged was catalysed by sporadic bombardments of micro-organisms from outer space. In which case, we are such stuff as stars are made on, quite literally, and could well be infringing some cosmic code of copyright at our own plagiaristic peril.
Writer, columnist and author of several books