Imitation, a meme?
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.

Social Evolution


Darwin Statue
Darwin Statue. Photo by Kevinzim.

This is just me think­ing out loud rather than pro­du­cing fin­ished or even coher­ent work, so much of it will be wrong or at least naïve. The reason I’m open­ing it up is to pin down some thoughts. I could do it in a Word file, but this is access­ible at work, and also has a slight “My good­ness! Did I say some­thing that fool­ish?” kick to it, which might make my think­ing a bit sharper.

There is a prob­lem of where to start. I could start in the middle with Richerson and Boyd’s book “Not by Genes Alone” which I’m about half-way through*. It’s thought-provoking and is say­ing a lot of what I’m think­ing, only more artic­u­lately. When I’m fin­ished I’ll be a bit frus­trated by that, but for now it’s a fun read. The reason I like it so far is that it provides an argu­ment for Darwinian Social Evolution that doesn’t use memes. That’s help­ful because I’m not con­vinced by memes and am work­ing on a non-memetic model, but for many in the social sci­ences memes and Darwinian Evolution have a bad name.
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