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RS24 - Memetics!

Release date: 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?

Comment on the episode teaser.

Julia's pick:  "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality"

Massimo's pick: The New York Times' "The Stone"

References (1)

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Reader Comments (10)

Good episode, although I sometimes feel that Massimo is beating up on Dawkins unfairly. Dawkins is pretty clear that genes cannot be considered is isolation but only in the context of the whole genome. Maybe rather than jumping right into 'memes' and social psychology it would be more productive to try to develop a more basic and generalized theory of self-replicating information based on information theory (too bad Claude Shannon is no longer with us). A sequence of base pairs on a strand of DNA could be considered as a sub-category of information encoding 'technology'. As a computer scientist I have a vested interest in robust theory being developed. My impression is that most biologists have no idea how much in love some of my colleagues and I are with the power and beauty of genetic algorithms. The possibilities at our disposal are mind boggling: Three sexes? No problem. Pick any mutation or crossover rates you want. Haploid, diploid, triploid, n-ploid? Again no problem.
Thank you to Julia and Massimo. I eagerly await every episode

December 19, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJim Steele

I have to be careful because I am not familiar with Dawkins' ideas on "memetics," so maybe a lot of this discourse had an implied context that would change my opinion. But here it is, anyway. :) The genetics analogy is, I assume, only supposed to act as a familiar vector for the concept of natural selection. As explained, natural selection has three requirements: reproduction, a measure of reproductive fitness, and random changes to fitness across generations. Those three do have their own requirements; e.g., reproduction depends on a definition of form that allows you to identify when the form has been reproduced. However, the "form" of a meme is outside the scope of the genetics analogy. It is wholly irrelevant whether genotypes lead to phenotypes and memes are the opposite, etc. I was disappointed that so much of the discussion was spent improperly extending the analogy.. But with that said, I still enjoyed listening, and I am glad I found these podcasts!

December 21, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterJames

This isn't as serious as you guys like to get but check out this site that covers Internet memes...

January 19, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterLexington Steele

"Dawkins is pretty clear that genes cannot be considered is isolation but only in the context of the whole genome."

The problem is, once you accept this, Dawkins no longer has anything to say that is actually original. "Gene selectionism" starts it's journey toward becoming devoid of content, and you may as well just read what everyone else says about evolution, and let "The Selfish Gene" take its rightful place amongst the Gaia hypothesis and other largely dead-end ways of conceptualising the natural world.

April 22, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterCyn

Hi Massimo and Julia,
Enjoyed the podcast. (And the recommendation of Eliezer's Harry Potter fan fiction :)

See what you make of this:

And keep up the great work



December 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJT Velikovsky

It seems odd to me that you feel comfortable making pronouncements about memes when you yourselves have no functional understanding of them. I would never make pronouncements about brain surgery or about the mathematics governing string theory because I have never studied either. There is a lot that is not understood about memetics. That is a fact that cannot be denied. But spreading disinformation helps neither those pursuing the theory nor those intent on debunking it. This podcast was, ultimately, more of a hatchet job than it was a rational discussion because you really didn't even attempt to address what can be gained by embracing memetic theory. Full disclosure, I am a memeticist, so my bias is clear. That being said, it seems obvious to me that to rationally discuss memetics, you should have either had someone versed in the field on the show, or have done your homework yourselves. As a simple example, when discussing the idea of functional ecology, you struggled to find a reason that memes are adaptive and yet while struggling, you forgot entirely what memes are. They are units of cultural inheritance. Humans are social animals and when they have and express adaptive memes, they gain cultural capital. If they have maladaptive memes they lose cultural capital. Their fitness isn't tied to being fit, it is tied to the phenotype, the individual's behaviours within a given cultural context and the ramifications of those behaviours. So a beginner anthropologist could make predictions about which sorts of memes and memeplexes will be fit within a given environment and if the environment changes, they can recalculate. For example, I can state with confidence that someone spouting virulently anti-semitic memes at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem will lose cultural capital and that those memes will have a remarkably low representation in the Jerusalem meme pool. That's just off the top of my head, so if it is an idea that you want to discuss further, I'd be happy to do that in a more conducive forum than the YouTube comment section. If you ever want to have a conversation about memetics, I would be happy to participate. At any rate, thank you very much for the podcast. Despite my criticisms I did enjoy listening.

March 28, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKanyanta Alexandre
Memes confuse me, but perhaps try this: Define a meme as a "Simple Statement". Memes can join with other memes to form arguments, and those arguments can then augment each other to form ideologies. Those memes that promote arguments and ideologies that then promote the survival of the ideologue, or that spread well throughout the human population due to psychological factors that make the argument or ideology popular, will give the meme an advantage.

A meme for walking through the streets nude would generally lead to social opprobrium, and thus people would disfavor the meme since it conflicts with the quite successful meme for social acceptance. Thus adaptive selection would favor the socially acceptable conduct set of memes, and disfavor the public nudity memes. Some people do use public nudity as a form of protest, however. So the public nudity meme could interact favorably with the get attention meme to enhance the public protest meme, all leading PETA members to make the argument for laying out nude in public whilst holding anti fur signs.

Suicide Bombing as a meme could function like a cancer gene. Although the meme kills its host, and other members of the species, the meme also enhances that gain attention meme that links to some sort of political, fundamentalist, psychotic, or other agenda meme. Thus a person who lacks good ethical memes to block this self destructive and murderous meme could use this tactic to gain attention for their cause. This resembles a person with a dysfunctional immune system that cannot target and destroy cell with metastatic genes, and the resultant caner kills the person.

Memes do seem to have the same qualities as genes. They do replicate (genetic inheritance), they do change constantly (spontaneous mutation), and they do compete with one another (environmental stress). Evolution does select for the memes that adapt best to our Culture (Environment).
February 5, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
Memetics is just religion in disguise. Saying the meme-plex of a religion infected someone's brain, is not meaningfully different than saying that that religion's god saved his soul.

I suspect that Dawkins introduced the idea of memetics as a spot-the-loony exercise, and never expected that the entire Skeptic community would fail to get the joke.
July 22, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterCollin
I don't fully agree that because genes have emergent functionalities in concordance with other genes that they therefore can't be selfish elements. Just like with organisms. They can both be altruistic and selfish at the same time. They are altruistic because it helps them to reproduce thus reinforces fitness. The same can go for genes. And yes this sounds like a fallacy. But it serves to prove that selfishness and cooperation are not mutual conclusive. And as others have pointed out already, Dawkins actually said that genes are not individual elements but work in group context with other genes.

It's clear that you guys did not do your homework or you are a bit biased against the idea that genes and therefore organisms are fundamentally selfish, but still can be cooperative, altruistic, reciprocal and social creatures.
November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEmiel de Jonge
Haha I meant mutually exclusive 😅
November 29, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterEmiel de Jonge

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