You might be wondering why you haven’t heard of Memetic Theory before. Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ in 1976, and aside from the use of internet memes (a hijacking of the term), it’s barely discussed in marketing today. Dawkins’ status as an outspoken Atheist probably didn’t help matters, but Memetics says nothing about morality: it’s simply a tool for understanding how ideas – good or bad – spread through the population. The prevailing consensus is that the ‘meme’ is a nice metaphor, but one we shouldn’t stretch too far. Many consider Memetics is a fascinating and promising pseudoscience, but further research and experimentation is needed.
Memes are hard to define, quantify, and measure – they’re not scientifically verifiable, at least until we have better neuroimaging tools. Without a robust and replicable definition, it can be hard to make predictions: the hallmark of good scientific practice. Genes spread through reproduction, mutating randomly, whereas memes are deliberately altered by human creativity. Therefore copying fidelity – how faithfully the copy matches the replica – is lower than in genes. Some argue this high mutation rate means adaptations can’t accumulate over time, ignoring examples such as the Holy Bible that has passed down faithfully over centuries. Old tricks from genetic evolution like sexual recombination – make lots of copies, throw out the bad ones, recombine the best ones – improve copying fidelity, as do new technologies like computer storage and the internet. There’s work to be done to integrate Mimesis – Rene Girard’s theory of how we model behavior from others – and Memetics. Memes don’t get transmitted in a vacuum: it matters a great deal whether the person spreading a meme is a celebrity you admire, a neighbor you’re jealous of, or someone you don’t relate to at all. We’re also at risk of oversimplifying the relationship between the meme and the human carrying them.
Of course, many of the criticisms of Memetics are also unfinished topics in Genetics. What we think of as a Gene is actually a relatively arbitrary distinction. Initially, the term “gene” was coined to denote an abstract “unit of inheritance,” to which no specific material attributes were assigned. The definition evolved and formalized to what we have today: a linear segment in the DNA molecule that encodes a polypeptide chain. However the generality of that statement is called into question because many genes don’t do anything on their own, they only lead to heritable traits in combination. Memes and Genes aren’t really ‘selfish’ – they don’t make choices to maximize their survival – but on evolutionary timescales it’s helpful to think of them that way. In addition both exhibit different behaviors depending on changes in the environment. The study of Epigenetics has shown for example that Grasshoppers and Locusts are actually the exact same species, with the latter expressing different genes due to conditions in the environment, leading to physical and behavioral mutations. We don’t know how Memes are stored in the brain, however that wasn’t necessary for the discovery of genetic evolution by Darwin either: which predated the discovery of DNA by over a century.
Potentially Memetics is just too easy to understand. You hardly need to consult an academic to grasp the key principles and benefit from its use, so where’s the payoff for an academic who would consider studying it? This view seems to encompass most of the objections from the field of Semiotics, which insist on more sophisticated sounding terminology for a lot of the same concepts covered in Memetics. The field of study generally accepted by academia in place of Memetics is Cultural Evolution, and its proponents have predictably criticised Memetics for oversimplification. They have invented whole new models to explain the same phenomena rather than using analogies from Biology as Memetics has done. Perhaps it makes sense that much of the progress has been made by Biologists not Sociologists, given that application of Biology outside of its domain is a high-status activity, whereas admitting your discipline can be solved by the tools of another is not. I’m not a Scientist, though I hope that one reads this book and formalizes some of these ideas to make them even more useful. I’m simply a Marketer who put these ideas to practical use, which compelled me to pass them on. If you also find them useful, you’ll remember them and share them with others. If not, they’ll die out. You see, Memetics works even if you don’t believe in it.
Criticism Of Memetic Theory
Critics of Memetics
In Defense of Advertising
Lasting evolutionary change takes about one million years
Meme Theory Oversimplifies Cultural Change
Memetics: too easy to understand
Phylogeny of locusts and grasshoppers reveals complex evolution of density-dependent phenotypic plasticity
Richard Dawkins on the internet's hijacking of the word 'meme’
The Evolving Definition of the Term “Gene”
What is Epigenetics?