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Memetics is an approach to evolutionary models of information transfer based on the concept of the meme.

History of the term

The term comes from a transliteration of a Greek word and was used in 1904 by the German evolutionary biologist Richard Semon in his work Die Mnemische Empfindungen in ihren Beziehungen zu den Originalenempfindungen, translated into English in 1921 as The Mneme.

In his book The Selfish Gene (1976), the ethologist Richard Dawkins coined the slightly different term "meme" to describe a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to the gene, arguing that replication also happens in culture, albeit in a different sense. In his book, Dawkins contended that the meme is a unit of information residing in the brain and is the mutating replicator in human cultural evolution. It is a pattern that can influence its surroundings and can propagate. This created great debate among sociologists, biologists, and scientists of other disciplines, because Dawkins himself did not provide a sufficient explanation of how the replication of units of information in the brain controls human behavior and ultimately culture, since the principal topic of the book was genetics. Dawkins apparently did not intend to present a comprehensive theory of memetics in The Selfish Gene, but rather coined the term meme in a speculative spirit. Accordingly, the term "unit of information" came to be defined in different ways by many scientists.

The modern memetics movement dates from the mid 1980s (a January 1983 Metamagical Themas column by Douglas Hofstadter in Scientific American was influential). The study differs from mainstream cultural evolutionary theory in that its practitioners frequently come from outside of the fields of anthropology and sociology, and are often not academics. The massive popular impact of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene has undoubtedly been an important factor in drawing in people of disparate intellectual backgrounds. Another crucial stimulus was the publication in 1992 of Consciousness Explained by Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett, which incorporated the meme concept into an influential theory of the mind. In his 1993 essay Viruses of the Mind, Richard Dawkins used memetics to explain the phenomenon of religious belief and the various characteristics of organised religions.

However, the foundation of memetics in full modern incarnation originates in the publication in 1996, of two books by authors outside of the academic mainstream: Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme by former Microsoft executive turned motivational speaker and professional poker player, Richard Brodie, and Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society by Aaron Lynch, a mathematician and philosopher who worked for many years as an engineer at Fermilab. Lynch conceived his theory totally independently of any contact with academics in the cultural evolutionary sphere, and apparently was not even aware of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene until his book was very close to publication.

Around the same time as the publication of the books by Lynch and Brodie, a new e-journal appeared on the web, hosted by the Centre for Policy Modelling at Manchester Metropolitan University Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission. (There had been a short-lived paper memetics publication starting in 1990, the Journal of Ideas edited by Elan Moritz. [1]) The e-journal soon became the central point for publication and debate within the nascent memetics community. In 1999, Susan Blackmore, a psychologist at the University of the West of England, published The Meme Machine, which more fully worked out the ideas of Dennett, Lynch and Brodie and attempted to compare and contrast them with various approaches from the cultural evolutionary mainstream, as well as providing novel, and controversial, memetic-based theories for the evolution of language and the human sense of individual selfhood.

Internalists and externalists

The memetics movement split almost immediately into those who wanted to stick to Dawkins' definition of a meme as "a unit of information in the brain", and those who wanted to redefine it as observable cultural artefacts and behaviours. These two schools became known as the "internalists" and the "externalists". Prominent internalists included both Lynch and Brodie; the most vocal externalists included Derek Gatherer, a geneticist from Liverpool John Moores University and William Benzon, a writer on cultural evolution and music. The main rationale for externalism was that internal brain entities are not observable, and memetics cannot advance as a science, especially a quantitative science, unless it moves its emphasis onto the directly quantifiable aspects of culture. Internalists countered with various arguments: that brain states will eventually be directly observable with advanced technology, that most cultural anthropologists agree that culture is about beliefs and not artefacts, or that artefacts cannot be replicators in the same sense as mental entities (or DNA) are replicators. The debate became so heated that a 1998 Symposium on Memetics, organised as part of the 15th International Conference on Cybernetics, passed a motion calling for an end to definitional debates.

The most advanced statement of the internalist school came in 2002 with the publication of The Electric Meme, by Robert Aunger, an anthropologist from the University of Cambridge. Aunger also organised a conference in Cambridge in 1999, at which prominent sociologists and anthropologists were able to give their assessment of the progress made in memetics to that date. This resulted in the publication of Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, edited by Aunger and with a foreward by Dennett, in 2000.


In 2005, Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission ceased publication and published a set of 'obituaries' for memetics. This was not intended to suggest that there can be no further work on memetics, but that the exciting childhood of memetics, which began in 1996, is finally drawing to a close, and that memetics will have to survive or become extinct in terms of the results it can generate for the field of cultural evolution. Memetics as a social, Internet-fueled popular scientific movement is now probably over. Many of the original proponents have moved away from it. Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett have both expressed some reservations as to its applicability, Susan Blackmore has left the University of the West of England to become a freelance science writer and now concentrates more on the field of consciousness and cognitive science. Derek Gatherer found the academic world of the north of England to be unsympathetic to his ideas, and gave up to work as a computer programmer in the pharmaceutical industry, although he still publishes the odd memetics article from time to time. Richard Brodie is now climbing the world professional poker rankings. Aaron Lynch disowned the memetics community and the words "meme" and "memetics" (without disowning the ideas in his book).

Susan Blackmore (2002) re-stated the meme definition as whatever is copied from one person to another person, whether habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information. Further she said that memes, like genes, are replicators. That is, they are information that is copied with variation and selection. Because only some of the variants survive, memes (and hence human cultures) evolve. Memes are copied by imitation, teaching and other methods, and they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again. Large groups of memes that are copied and passed on together are called co-adapted meme complexes, or memeplexes. In her definition, thus, the way that a meme replicates is through imitation. This requires brain capacity to generally imitate a model or selectively imitate the model. Since the process of social learning varies from one person to another, the imitation process cannot be said to be completely imitated. The sameness of an idea may be expressed with different memes supporting it. This is to say that the mutation rate in memetic evolution is extremely high, and mutations are even possible within each and every interaction of the imitation process. It becomes very interesting when we see that a social system composed of a complex network of microinteractions exists, but at the macro level an order emerges to create culture.

New developments

Dawkins responds in A Devil's Chaplain that there are actually two different types of memetic processes. The first is a type of cultural idea, action, or expression, which does have high variance; for instance, a student of his who had inherited some of the mannerisms of Wittgenstein. However, he also describes a self-correcting meme, highly resistant to mutation. As an example of this, he gives origami patterns in elementary schools—except in rare cases, the meme is either passed on in the exact sequence of instructions, or (in the case of a forgetful child) terminates. This type of meme tends not to evolve, and to experience profound mutations in the rare event that it does. Some memeticists, however, see this as more of a continuum of meme strength, rather than two types of memes.

Another definition, given by Hokky Situngkir, tried to offer a more rigorous formalism for the meme, memeplexes, and the deme, seeing the meme as a cultural unit in a cultural complex system. It is based on the Darwinian genetic algorithm with some modifications to account for the different patterns of evolution seen in genes and memes. In the method of memetics as the way to see culture as a complex adaptive system, he describes a way to see memetics as an alternative methodology of cultural evolution. However, there are as many possible definitions that are credited to the word "meme". For example, in the sense of computer simulation the term memetic programming is used to define a particular computational viewpoint.

Memetics can be simply understood as a method for scientific analysis of cultural evolution. However, proponents of memetics as described in the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission believe that 'memetics' has the potential to be an important and promising analysis of culture using the framework of evolutionary concepts. Keith Henson who wrote Memetics and the Modular-Mind (Analog Aug. 1987) [2] makes the case that memetics needs to incorporate Evolutionary psychology to understand the psychological traits of a meme's host. [3] This is especially true of time varying host traits, such as those leading to wars.

The application of memetics to a difficult complex social system problem, environmental sustainability, has recently been attempted at Using meme types and memetic infection in several stock and flow simulation models, Jack Harich has demonstrated several interesting phenomenon that are best, and perhaps only, explained by memes. One model, The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace, argues that the fundamental reason corruption is the norm in politics is due to an inherent structural advantage of one feedback loop pitted against another. Another model, The Memetic Evolution of Solutions to Difficult Problems, uses memes, the evolutionary algorithm, and the scientific method to show how complex solutions evolve over time and how that process can be improved. The insights gained from these models are being used to engineer memetic solution elements to the sustainability problem.

In Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution (2004, Cambridge University Press), Austrian linguist Nikolaus Ritt has attempted to operationalise memetic concepts and use them for the explanation of long term sound changes and change conspiracies in early English. It is argued that a generalised Darwinian framework for handling cultural change can provide explanations where established, speaker centered approaches fail to do so. The book makes comparatively concrete suggestions about the possible material structure of memes, and provides two empirically rather rich case studies.

Open questions

  • How can we measure the meme as a cultural unit in cultural evolution?
    • Measurement implies some sort of notational description able to usefully label a meme's content
    • Measurement implies a notation of meme propagation, both historically (a memeology, so to speak) and in the present
    • Measurement implies a way to provide tools for describing likely futures for a meme
  • How different are biological and cultural evolution?
  • What is the interplay between the memetic approach and the recent advancements of computer science, including computational sociology?
  • As memetics is concerned with cultural evolution, and much of culture is transmitted through language, why are the fields of historical and evolutionary linguistics ignored in discussions of memetics?
  • Will memetics live up to the definition of science (i.e. be able to be proven valid) through induction, falsifiability, coherentism and respect for Occam's Razor?



Memeoid is a neologism for people who have been taken over by a meme to the extent that that their own survival becomes inconsequential. Examples include kamikazes, suicide bombers and cult members who commit mass suicide. Compare with Zombie

The term was apparently coined by H. Keith Henson in "Memes, L5 and the Religion of the Space Colonies," L5 News, 1985 pp 5-8, [4] and referenced in Richard Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene, 2nd ed., page 330. ISBN 0-19-286092-5.


Memotype is the actual information-content of a meme.


A meme-complex (sometimes abbreviated memeplex, sometimes miss-pronounced/spelled Memoplex) is a collection or grouping of memes that have evolved into a mutually supportive or symbiotic relationship. Simply put, a meme-complex is a set of ideas that reinforce each other. Meme-complexes are roughly analogous to the symbiotic collection of individual genes that make up the genetic codes of biological organisms. An example of a Memeplex would be a religion.

See also


External links

cs:Memetika da:Memetik de:Memetik es:Memética hu:Memetika nl:Meme pt:Memética sv:Mem

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