24: Memetics!

December 19, 2010

The term meme was introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 bestseller “The Selfish Gene.” Dawkins was trying to establish the idea that Darwinian evolution is a universal, almost logically necessary phenomenon. He couldn’t, however, point to exobiological examples to reinforce the concept of universal Darwinism, so he turned to cultural evolution, renamed “ideas” as “memes” (in direct analogy with genes), and voilà, the field of memetics was born.

Despite staunch support by authors such as Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett, among others, serious questions can be raised about memes and memetics as a viable concept and field of inquiry. To begin with, how is memetics different from classical studies of gene-culture co-evolution? Second, what exactly are memes, i.e. what is their ontological status? Third, how do memes compete with each other, and for what resources? Is it even possible to build a functional ecology of memes, without which the statement that the most fit memes are those that spread becomes an empty tautology? Could this explain why the “Journal of Memetics” closed shop, or is it that they discovered everything there was to discover about memes?