Virtual Symposia

Imitation, Memory and Cultural Changes: Probing the Meme Hypothesis

The Role of Memes in Cultural Evolution: memes if necessary, but not necessarily memes

Marion Blute


Click on the arrow to start the video. Video by Enam Huque

The concept of cultural evolution is central to any discussion of “memes”. It was because of the possible existence of Darwinian evolutionary processes beyond the gene-based biological that Dawkins introduced the concept in the first place as a possible substrate. Strangely enough he, of all people, did not initially distinguish the gene and genome-like from the phene and phenome-like aspects of cultural evolution, a confusion which he corrected thereafter. The meme concept was generally not very well received in academic circles, albeit the reception among those interested in Darwinian-style theories of cultural evolution was more mixed. Publications on memetics were interdisciplinary (which can itself be a problem); they often ignored many of the conventions of academic discourse; they were sometimes written by non-professionals for a popular audience; and they were commonly viewed by social scientists, when they paid any attention at all, as yet another (post-sociobiology) incursion by biologists into their subject matter. At least as important as these obvious reasons for the less than enthusiastic reception was the fact that the concept was introduced at a time when there were rising “discontents” within the biological community itself with neo-Darwinism (as it was known in Britain), or the synthetic theory of evolution (as it was known in America), i.e. with population genetics or the genetical theory of evolution. Moreover, it was introduced by the very person around whose work many of those discontents crystallized. I think it is fair to suggest however that by linkage in peoples’ minds, the wide diffusion of the meme concept gave Darwinian-style cultural evolution a lift, helping drag the latter some distance out of the small, scattered academic niches in which it dwelt at the time.

Beyond the sociology of its invention and reception, objections to the meme concept that there are discrete units of biological information, - genes, but not of cultural information - memes, are not persuasive as will be discussed. For example, the concept of a “gene” has historically varied, changed and continues to do so, which, of course, is exactly what a cultural evolutionist should expect of a concept, including in science. Moreover, memes, defined by analogy with Williams evolutionary gene concept, can be isolated in some cases e.g. in generations of internet posts as Best for example has shown. So the concept cannot be banished on a priori grounds and it can do a job of useful scientific work. On the other hand, many other terms have been used in a variety of social scientific disciplines for informational units in cultural transmission and evolution. Moreover, in some cases, social learning can occur by observation i.e. in the absence of instructions encoded symbolically and transmitted at all. If the meme concept can be useful on the one hand but is not always required to talk about cultural evolution, is it ever necessary? I tentatively conclude that there is no readily available substitute when the conversation is inter-disciplinary and when the social learning mechanism involved in the cultural evolutionary process under discussion is the transmission of symbolic, digitally- encoded information as in oral or written language.

Marion Blute is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, where she teaches social and cultural theory. Her research on evolutionary topics has been published in a variety of life and social science journals, such as Behavioural Science, Sociological Theory, The Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, and The Canadian Journal of Sociology.