The closest competitor to Memetics in scientific theory started around the same time in the 1970s, with Dawkins coining the term “meme” and Boyd and Richerson’s work on “Dual Inheritence Theory”. They both understand culture as being subject to evolutionary mechanisms, reducible to units of cultural inheritance: memes (Dawkins) or cultural variants (Richerson and Boyd). The goal of both was to determine whether culture affects behavior in a way that is irreducible to biology. Where they differ is in their focus. Memetics as a field was pre-occupied with the evolution of memes, the individual units of selection themselves, primarily with the view that memes often spread at the expense of human fitness. For example Dawkins was a famously outspoken atheist, and labelled religions as “viruses of the mind”. However the work of Duel Inheritance Theory, later called Gene-Culture Co-Evolution Theory (GCCE), framed culture as a form of adaptation from an evolutionary point of view, a largely positive benefit to the species, and looked for cases where genes and culture worked together for our survival. For example early domestication of animals (a cultural trait) was proven to decrease incidence of lactose intolerance (a biological trait). In ignoring maladaptive memes, they avoided the thorny issue of measuring discrete units of memes (something that has yet to be accomplished formally by Memetics), and instead focused on the outcomes of memes: namely these cultural traits.
Fast forward to today, Memetics is largely treated as a useful analogy, but not a ‘proper’ science, whereas GCCE is generally accepted amongst evolutionary biologists. There are only two well known scholars formally identified as active Memeticists (Blackmore and Dennett), and between 1986 and 2004, only 41 articles used the word “memetics” indexed in the database Web of Science. There was also a Journal of Memetics that ran until 2005, and was discontinued due to a lack of submissions. The word “meme” itself is mainstream, and though it is used primarily to refer to internet memes, the broader original usage of the term is in common usage amongst internet commentators and hobbyists with an interest in how culture evolves. To understand why memetics failed to take off relative to GCCE, we have to understand that science itself is a process of memetic evolution: as Karl Popper says, the mechanism of the scientific method is “to select the one [theory] which is by comparison the fittest, by exposing them all to the fiercest struggle for survival”. There was something the field of memetics adopted that harmed its potential for replication amongst scientists, letting GCCE become the dominant species. What was it?
Looking back over the evidence, progress, and disagreements amongst proponents of each field, there does appear to be a single major structural weakness. The crucial mistake early Memeticists made was to attempt to decouple memes from genes: they pushed aggressively the notion that memes were “selfish-replicators” that could get themselves transmitted without needing to be beneficial (or in fact being quite harmful) to their human hosts. Though this notion may in fact be true, it was counter-productive to the survival of the discipline. Pushing for the separation of memes from genes meant abandoning all of the scientific infrastructure surrounding genetics. You had to develop a new clear ontology of memes that would rival all the work that had been done with regards to genes. While many Memeticists did commit to defining exactly what a meme was, and endeavoured to find standardised ways to measure them, that dream was never achieved. One way scientists decide to enter a field is in the logical coherence and theoretical correctness of the field’s axioms: without this crucial work having been completed, memetics work was disparate and unconnected, with no standard agreement on terms. Finding a structure that carries memetic information would legitimize the discipline in the same sense that finding a physical gene legitimized evolutionary biology, but no such structure has been found.
In the meantime dual scientists working on GCCE had no such issues: they did not argue with each other over tricky ontological or empirical topics, they simply adopted the existing framework handed to them from biology by treating cultural inheritance as a form of evolutionary adaptation. There was nothing new or conceptual that had to be grasped in the theory, simply a robust set of pre-existing models that allowed them to get right to work testing hypotheses. In the scientific world it’s a case of “publish or perish”, and GCCE gave scientists the tools to immediately add value, without requiring any intellectual leaps of faith, or the hard work to establish an entirely new framework. There’s nothing in Memetics that dictated the focus on “mind viruses” – in fact it’s flexible enough to treat memes as positive evolutionary adaptations like GCCE does – so it seems to be the anti-religious and anti-group selection biases of Dawkins and his initial followers poisoned the discipline, taking it down a harder path.
Science is itself a culture, and as we have come to learn, you don’t get adoption of your theories by burning bridges. Biology is a far more established and reputable discipline, so if you wish to throw that away and say that memes are the new replicators, that they don’t evolve in service to genes anymore, you’re breaking several social taboos. This makes your path harder, because you attract less talent and resources, and have to do far more work to prove your work. Studying GCCE you can see a clear line of inheritance between first (Boyd and Richerson), second (Henrich), and third (Muthukrishna) generation researchers. Whereas in Memetics has been a “partially connected network of lonely thinkers”. You can be absolutely right about your assertions, but science has a long history of people who were proven posthumously correct, after being executed for being insensitive to the prevailing wisdom of the time. Ultimately it’s rather tragic that Memeticists themselves failed to understand the importance of strategically crafting their message to maximize its chances of propagation: a further indictment of the discipline. If you can’t make the meme of memetics grow, are you really an expert in memetics?
Looking at the field through more modern eyes, it has become obvious that memes can be maladaptive: much of our current discourse is around misinformation on social media, the motivations of suicide bombers, and the weaponization of memes in marketing, finance, and war. We know that despite a 3.7 billion year head start, memes are now evolving exponentially faster than genes. We were using tools since before we were genetically human, and now it’s our tool use that defines our productivity, more than our genetics. Anyone watching the evolution of AI fears that not only are memes the new replicators, but we may even be replaced as hosts. Memes no longer even need human hosts to evolve and survive, as they have been found happily existing in the artificial brains made from neural networks. As the evolution of culture reaches escape velocity, and evolution continues along at a snails pace over millions of years, the interplay between the two becomes irrelevant. The memeticists were right, but they were early: which from a innovation perspective is functionally the same as being wrong.
Boyd and Richerson's cultural evolution vs memetics
Cultural evolution vs memetics
Differences remain exaggerated
Dual Inheritance Theory
Why Did Memetics Fail? Comparative Case Study