JOM-EMITJournal of Memetics -
Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission

The memetics community is coming of age

It seems that the Journal of Memetics, and the small but growing community of memetics researchers that surrounds it, is entering the first stages of maturity. When I compare the on-going activities during the preparation of this fourth issue of the journal to the activities that accompanied the first issue, the contrast is striking.

First, the number of submitted and published papers and commentaries has grown significantly. In the beginning, our worry was whether we would receive enough high quality papers on the specific topic of memetics to sustain the journal. At present, our worry is rather whether we will find enough volunteers to referee and manage the publication process for the many papers that are submitted.

A second trend is that at first the papers where disparate and fragmented, with different authors discussing very different approaches while making very few cross-references. Presently, although there are still clear disagreements about how to define the field of memetics and its fundamental concepts, the fact is that these matters are actively debated, with different JoM-EMIT authors referring to and replying to each other's papers. This clearly indicates the emergence of a community of memeticists, who at least agree in rough outline what memetics is about, and who their colleagues in this endeavour are.

This beginning of the formation of a memetics community was particularly clear during the first Symposium on Memetics in Namur, Belgium, which was organized by the journal, and chaired by Mario Vaneechoutte and myself. For a somewhat hastily prepared meeting, with quite some improvisation, it was very successful, attracting a diverse group of contributors, and an audience ranging from 15 to 40 people during its two and a half days. The discussions after each talk were particularly animated, showing that memetics has developed into a topic that receives a lot of interest, especially among young researchers. Practically all presented papers are now available on the web. They will be published by the end of this year as part of the proceedings of the 15th International Congress on Cybernetics, during which the symposium took place. We expect that the most important of them will be further elaborated and submitted to JoM-EMIT.

The symposium was concluded by a lively panel discussion, chaired by Gary Boyd, and a short brain storming session with all remaining participants to generate a list of suggestions for us to advance the field of memetics. David Hales managed to condense the barrage of questions and statements into a short and coherent report on the panel discussion. One of the concrete decisions was to steer the Journal of Memetics more in the direction of the system of commentary used by "Behavioral and Brain Sciences". A first example of this commentary process can be seen in this issue in the replies to the paper of Derek Gatherer.

Let me try to make a first analysis of how this emerging memetics community is constituted. First, we can note that most memeticists are quite young. Few researchers have any kind of a tenured position, and most have not yet received their PhD. This is not really surprising for such a young field, which in many respects breaks with some powerful traditions. When we look at the disciplinary backgrounds, we find many people from biology and computer science, the disciplines where the "meme" idea seemed in many respects the most natural. In this issue, the biological angle is represented by the microbiologist Mario Vaneechoutte and the neurophysiologist John Skoyles, with an unusual view of the origin of language.

However, it seems that memetics is now also attracting people from the social sciences (psychology, management, education) and humanities (philosophy, history), which are after all the disciplines where the memetics paradigm is likely to have the biggest impact. As discussed by Derek Gatherer and Paul Marsden in this issue, this social science approach leads to a greater emphasis on observation and empirical validation, instead of the purely theoretical speculations and computer simulations which dominated JoM-EMIT until now. However, as I have argued in my reply to Gatherer, the need for operationalization in memetics does not invalidate the need to develop theoretical foundations in parallel. This point is also developed by Bruce Edmonds' paper in this issue.

Still conspicuously absent from the memetics community are disciplines like sociology, communication science and cultural studies, whose subject domains are otherwise very close to memetics. As Paul Marsden suggested during the symposium, it is likely that the stumbling block is the traditional social science paradigm, which sees individuals as free, autonomous decision-makers, and which therefore rejects the notion that individuals could be mere passive vehicles for the transmission of memes.

If we look at the geographical spread of the different JoM-EMITauthors and editorial board members, and the contributors to the symposium, we can note some striking trends. First, by far the largest contingent of memeticists comes from the United Kingdom. This is perhaps not surprising if we note that Richard Dawkins, who first proposed the "meme" concept, is British. In particular the people associated with the informal group called the "Meme Lab", including Nick Rose, Susan Blackmore, Paul Marsden and Derek Gatherer, are presently very active contributors to the journal and associated forums. Susan Blackmore, who is also a member of the JoM-EMIT board, has just finished her book on "The Meme Machine". As a book that will be published by Oxford University Press (which also published Dawkins' "The Selfish Gene"), it is likely to further enhance the standing of memetics.

The British interest in memetics seems to extend to its former colonies, with an unexpectedly large group of memeticists originating from Canada and Australia. Just across the North Sea from Britain, the low countries, Belgium and Holland, also show an unusually high interest in memetics. Other memeticists are scattered across different countries and continents, with such diverse origins as Brazil, Hungary, Italy, Scandinavia and Japan. Still absent are countries like France and Russia, where memetics ideas have perhaps not been sufficiently well-publicized.

The number of memeticists from the USA seems relatively small compared to the size of the country (if the number of memeticists in the US were proportional to the number in Britain, Australia or Belgium, we should expect to find some forty Americans in our little memetics community, rather than the ten or so that I have counted now). This is surprising if we note that the two authors who, in addition to Dawkins, contributed most to popularizing the meme idea, Daniel Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, are American. One reason may be that young researchers, unlike established authorities such as Hofstadter and Dennett, find it difficult to get academic support for investigating such a speculative theory like memetics. Another possible explanation is similar to the one suggested earlier for the dearth of social scientists: the emphasis on individual responsibility and freedom in American culture may make it more difficult for Americans to accept the "memetic stance".

Ironically, such devotion to the belief in personal autonomy may make it more difficult to become aware of one's unconscious prejudices and transmitted behavior patterns. This also makes it more difficult to, according to Dawkins's expression, "rebel against the tyranny of the meme". Let us hope that the further development of memetic theory can help us to spread this emancipatory message (a "meme-eating meme", in Blackmore's expression) and thus help people to become really more free.

Francis Heylighen

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Bruce Edmonds, Centre for Policy Modelling © JoM-EMIT 1998