Imitation, a meme? Photo (cc) Sean Dreilinger
Memes are a difficult concept to tackle, particularly if you’re talking to a mixed audience. Talking to an audience of scientists you can explain the problems with them, but if you’re talking to someone from the humanities then you have to start by explaining what a meme is. It’s not a concept that has made much headway in the social sciences and I’m not sure if it will.
The meme started as an example of a replicator in Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene. The intention was to demonstrate that the principle of natural selection is independent of biology. The Selfish Gene focuses on what is the unit of replication and Dawkins concludes it’s the gene. This is somewhat dated in biology these days, but many popular books start from a simplistic version of this 30 year old model. The result is the idea that a meme is a simple unit of culture like the Amish virus.
You have just received the Amish virus.
Since we have no electricity or computers, you are on the honor system.
Please delete all of your files on your hard drive. Then forward this message to everyone in your address book.
We thank thee.
The Amish virus is also found as the Indian virus, the Irish virus and the virus of more or less any other people you want to make funny. That’s fairly obviously a meme because it includes instructions to replicate it, though it’s the humour rather than the instructions that causes replication.
Nothing kills a joke like an academic explanation. You should hear my explanation of Police Academy* via Structuration.
It’s harder to identify memes in the wild, and no-one has a convincing definition for them. Is a pot a meme or is the pot-making process the meme? Susan Blackmore has written a lot on this in The Meme Machine.
Kristine Steenbergh’s post on memes and The Meme Machine gives another good example of a difficulty with memes. Memes don’t address questions that many historians or other social scientists ask. Her post reminded of a paper by Adam Kuper If memes are the answer, what is the question? in Darwinizing Culture. If I were to write a book on evolution based on what I’ve learned in school – or even from fairly recent popular books – there’s a good chance I’ll be painting a picture in primary colours and skipping over issues that are important. Similarly research in social sciences has moved on a bit since Desmond Morris’s Manwatching. It’s not that the memetic view of culture is badly wrong, but it can be simplistic. There’s not an inherent hostility to memes, Kristine ends her post “If you know of any more attempts to ‘bridge the gap,’ or even works that provide a Foucauldian reading of the meme episteme, do drop a comment!” but I haven’t found one yet and I wonder how many people coming from natural sciences would have the will to tackle Foucault.
Darwinizing Culture, edited by Robert Aunger, is the best meme book I’ve read because none of the papers are irrevocably hostile or uncritical to memes. Another of the papers in there which is helpful is Boyd and Richerson’s Memes: Universal acid of better mousetrap? You can read an earlier version of it online as a PDF from Rob Boyd’s site. This provides an evolutionary alternative to memes in looking at variations in populations. If Boyd and Richerson are right then you can have a Darwinian model without replicators.
Another useful book is Ben Cullen’s Contagious Ideas. It’s a posthumous collection of his papers on Cultural Virus Theory. It’s not easy reading but the reason why I stick with it is that it’s derived from an archaeological perspective. Cultural Viruses sound so much like memes you can more or less assume they are. The difference is that Cultural Virus theory isn’t stuck on this idea of what the unit of replication is. Instead it asks How do ideas spread? This is a question that archaeologists and historians do ask. Cullen took the time to place his ideas in the wider context of archaeological theory, so he took time to explain how it related to other ideas like processualism (which I’ll describe briefly and inaccurately as ‘scientific archaeology’) and post-processualism (which I’ll describe briefly and perhaps more inaccurately as ‘non-scientific archaeology’).
Cullen’s view was that questions about the processes of human activity were at one level and the realm of his theory, whether evolution of society was Darwinian or Lamarckian operated at a higher level. This is the Holy Grail of Theoretical Archaeology because it neatly side-steps any criticisms based in current schools of Theory. Cynicism aside, I think Cullen was right, evolutionary questions are different from questions about process or agency. Boyd and Richerson’s work tackles memes and cultural virus theory because it is explicitly about evolution. I don’t know if Kristene Steenbergh’s request for a Foucauldian reading of memes is can be found, but this difference in approach suggests to me that it’s not impossible. It won’t be me who does it though as I really struggle to understand Foucault.
* The original version. Police Academy 2 is an allegory of the Vietnam War.