The term ‘meme’ was coined in Richard Dawkin’s 1976 book ‘The Selfish Gene’. Analogous to biological genes, memes are a “unit of culture” (an idea, belief, pattern of behavior, etc.) which replicate through imitation. A field of study called ‘Memetics’ arose in the 1990s to explore this concept further. Advances in Memetics would have massive implications for the marketing, defence, and technology industries, and may even help us understand the nature of consciousness.
Proponents of Memetics
- Richard Semon, Die mnemischen Empfindungen (The Mneme), 1904
- Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976
- René Girard, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, 1978
- Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas, 1983
- Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained, 1991
- Douglas Rushkoff, Media Virus: Hidden Agendas in Popular Culture, 1995
- Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme, 1996
- Aaron Lynch, Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society, 1996
- Susan Blackmore, The Meme Machine, 1999
- Robert Aunger, The Electric Meme, 2002
- Robert Finkelstein, Military Memetics, 2011
- Jeff Giesa, It’s time to embrace Memetic warfare, 2015
- Adam McNamara, Can we Measure Memes?, 2011
Comparison to Genetics
Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’, published in 1859, provided the first plausible mechanism for evolution. That’s what Memetics has been gifted with Dawkins’ coining of the term meme.
Just 7 years after Darwin, Mendel published his work on trait inheritance, based on his meticulously cross-breeding of 29,000 pea plants. He exposed the gene as the unit of heredity – a crucial gap in Darwin’s work. Memetics hasn’t yet had its Mendel.
Fisher and others formalized the maths of evolution in the 1930s, of how multiple genes interacted through time in a large population. Thus was proven that many small changes over long time spans were capable of yielding large evolutionary effects.
Watson and Crick’s 1953 discovery of the structure of DNA revealed the source code. DNA was what governed the behavior revealed by the maths. Crucially it gave us something to edit, leading to many great advancements in the 20th Century.
The discrete meme must be defined, identified, and distinguished in the near-continuum of information. Just as the discrete gene can be identified (more or less) in long string of DNA nucleotides. If Memetics can follow a similar trajectory, the potential impact could be far greater.
Criticisms of Memetics
Memetics has failed to become a mainstream approach to cultural evolution as the research community favors gene-culture co-evolution instead. The primary criticism is with the identification and measurement of memes, as well as how they reproduce, spread, and develop. There’s no commonly accepted, scientific definition of a meme, so they can’t easily be examined empirically.
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. Information doesn’t spread in the same way as genetic material – it doesn’t have the same physical limitations.
Externalists vs Internalists
The memetics movement is split into two. The first group stuck to Dawkins' definition of a meme as "a unit of cultural transmission". The second defines a meme more precisely, as "a unit of cultural information that can be copied, located in the brain".
These two schools became known as the ‘externalists’ and the ‘internalists’. The main rationale for externalism was that internal brain entities are not observable, and memetics cannot advance as a quantitative science unless it focuses on directly quantifiable units of culture. Internalists countered that brain states will eventually be directly observable with advanced technology, and that the unit of replication is the mental entity itself, not artifacts of that belief.
The most vocal externalists included Gathere and Benzon; prominent internalists included Lynch and Brodie. In contrast, Blackmore does not reject either concept of external or internal memes. McNamara split the definition to “i-memes” (internal) and “e-memes” (external), and demonstrated with neural imaging that internal memes are processed in response to external memes.
Memetics needs a general theory – a theoretical foundation for development of a scientific discipline, not pseudo-science. For this we need to be able to measure memes. Only then can we make testable predictions & falsifiable hypotheses. It must lead to testable predictions that turn out to be correct. Ideally insights that nobody would have looked for had they not been starting from a theory of Memetics.
As brain imaging devices continue to develop, we get better resolution on how memes are physically represented in the brain. Neuroscientists from UCLA found that pictures of Halle Berry activated a single neuron in the right anterior hippocampus, as did a caricature of the actress, images of her in the lead role of the film Catwoman, and a letter sequence spelling her name. These multi-modal neurons respond to clusters of abstract concepts centered around a common high-level theme: a near definition of a meme.
As computing power increases exponentially in line with Moore’s law, the fast-developing field of artificial intelligence promises to teach us more about how our own brain works. There is evidence of similar multi-modal neurons to the ‘Halle Berry’ neuron forming in neural networks like OpenAI’s ‘CLIP’. For example the ‘Spider Man’ neuron, which responds to photos, drawings, and text related to Spider Man.