JoM-EMIT Logo Edmonds, B. (2002). Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
, 6.

A Letter on:

Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics

Bruce Edmonds
Centre for Policy Modelling

In my opinion, memetics has reached a crunch point. If, in the near future, it does not demonstrate that it can be more than merely a conceptual framework, it will be selected out. While it is true that many successful paradigms started out as such a framework and later moved on to become pivotal theories, it also true that many more have simply faded away. A framework for thinking about phenomena can be useful if it delivers new insights but, ultimately, if there are no usable results academics will look elsewhere.

Such frameworks have considerable power over those that hold them for these people will see the world through these `theoretical spectacles' (Kuhn 1969) - to the converted the framework appears necessary. The converted are ambitious to demonstrate the universality of their way of seeing things; more mundane but demonstrable examples seem to them as simply obvious. However such frameworks will not continue to persuade new academics if it does not provide them with any substantial explanatory or predictive `leverage'. Memetics is no exception to this pattern.

For this reason I am challenging the memetic community of academics to achieve the following three tasks of different types:

These are not designed to cover all the cases where a memetic analysis might hold or to in any way indicate the scope of memetics. Thus, for example, although the style of Challenge 1reflects what Gatherer was arguing for in (Gatherer 1998), I am not claiming that only such sorts of cases are memetic, only that to convince people it is in these sorts of cases that we must first establish the field. Great theories are seldom proved in general or for complex cases but the battle ground for establishing scientific credibility is often fought over some pretty mundane territory.

If these challenges are met, memetics will almost certainly survive [note 1], if not then it will not die immediately, just be increasingly ignored until it becomes merely a minor footnote in the history of science. As memeticists you have to decide! Will you stop the over-ambitious theoretical discussion and do some of the mundane foot-work that will actually advance knowledge of memetics processes? As David Hull said at the Cambridge meme conference [note 2]:

"Stop talking about Memetics and start doing it."

Challenge 1: A conclusive case study

The purpose of this is to clearly demonstrate that there is at least one cultural process that is of an evolutionary nature, where `evolutionary' is taken in a narrow sense. This needs to be robust against serious criticism. In my opinion this needs to achieve the following as a minimum. Such a case study is not likely to be of a highly ambitious nature (e.g. explaining complex human institutions), but of a limited nature about which good quality data is available. There may well be many other memetic processes in the world but the point of this one is that it is inarguably demonstrable. Once one such case study has been established more ambitious cases can be attempted, but more ambitious cases will not be believed until some more straightforward cases are established first.

Possible cases might include some of the following.

Challenge 2: A theoretical model for when it is more appropriate to use a memetic model

One of the chief explanatory claims of memetics is that, in some sense, the memes evolve for their own sake more than as simply as a result of a self-interested choice by the `host' individuals. At the extreme some memeticists (e.g. Rose 1998, Blackmore 1999) have claimed that human brains are essentially `nothing but' hosts for such memes - they have no meaningful mental existence without these self-interested memes. However the extent of these claims and the `added-value' over more conventional (i.e. biologically grounded) explanations is unclear. It seems to me almost certainly the case that if hosting memes in general conferred no biological advantage to the individuals that `host' them, then they would not have evolved in this way. The brain is a costly organisation in biological terms and would not have evolved if it was merely for the sake of other individuals (i.e. memes).

It seems clear to me (a memetic agnostic) that some human beliefs are more sensibly considered to be of a non-memetic character. For example, I may gain the information that the number 192 bus leaving Stockport goes to central Manchester, and I may even tell someone else this fact. However, the chains of referral are likely to be very short - that is to say, it is likely that individuals will not rely on obtaining this type of information from long chains of communication due to the likelihood of errors being introduced. Rather they will tend to go back to the original source - the centrally originated timetable. The `fitness' of this information lies not in any intrinsic propensity for being communicated but rather due to its utility in utilising the bus system for personal transport, i.e. its truth.

For other information it may be more appropriate to model a pattern of information as if it had an evolutionary life of its own, separable from the advantage it confers on its `hosts'. For example it may be that the success of nursery rhymes is more strongly correlated with its memorability rather than any utility - that almost any monotonous rhythmic words might be as good as any other for the purposes of getting children to sleep or teaching them language, so that the reason why particular rhymes spread is due to their replicability. In such a case a memetic model might explain the variety and dynamics of rhyme spread in a way that is not possible with models based on individual advantage.

What is needed is some (falsifiable) theory that (under some specified conditions) tells us when a memetic analysis is more helpful than a more traditional one. Such a theory would have to meet the following criteria.

The possible shape of such a theory is not clear to me, but I could imagine a theory that somehow compares the fitness contribution of a meme w.r.t. the meme and its fitness contribution of it w.r.t. the individuals who `hosted' it.

Challenge 3: A simulation model showing the true emergence of a memetic process

The purpose of this is to show that patterns of information could have come about in a believable way. If the key imitation processes are `programmed in' by the simulation designer then it would be unconvincing. Instead the simulation needs to be designed so that others would judge it to be a credible model of a situation that is likely to occur in the real world, but so that an evolutionary process composed of information messages emerges as a result of the interactions between and within individuals.

The criteria that such a simulation model should meet are the following.

Such a simulation demonstrates the possibility that a memetic process could emerge in a population of credible individuals. The more abstract or less realistic the design of such a simulation, the less convincing it will be. It is unlikely that such a simulation will be over-baroque or very general, but of a more mundane nature.

Such a simulation could be composed of a population of interacting and self-interested individuals that are evolving in a reasonably complex environment. It would need to be shown that a secondary process of, first, imitation and, later, evolution, arose out of their interactions, so that, eventually, the secondary evolutionary process would become substantially self-driven rather than in the direct interest of the individuals (in the sense of Challenge 2). The emergence of a memetic process goes beyond just comparing whether pre-determined genetic or cultural operators won out (or were more effective) - it is the equivalent of exhibiting a simulation of the emergence of life from the interaction of chemicals.


  1. That is unless subsumed within a new theory that is more general and powerful.

  2. Reported by Andrew Lord, and confirmed in a personal communication with David Hull. For a more prosaic version see Hull's contribution (Hull 2000) to the resulting book.

  3. By "third parties", I mean academics outside the field who have no particular interest in promoting (or, indeed, denigrating) memetics, for example biologists.


Blackmore, S. (1999) The Meme Machine. Oxford; New York : Oxford University Press.

Edmonds, B. (1998). On Modelling in Memetics. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2.

Gatherer, D. (1998) Why the Thought Contagion Metaphor is Retarding the Progress of Memetics. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2.

Hull, D. (2000) Taking Memetics Seriously: Memetics will be what we make it. In Aunger, R. (ed.), Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, Oxford: Oxford university Press, 43-67.

Kuhn, T. (1969) The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Price, G. R. 1970. Selection and covariance. Nature 227: 520-521.

Price, G. R. 1972. Extension of covariance selection mathematics. Annals of Human Genetics 35:485-489.

Rose, N., 1998; Controversies in Meme Theory.Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,2.

Opie, I. and Opie, P. (eds.) (1997) The Oxford Dictionary of Nursery Rhymes. Oxford; New York : Oxford University Press.

© JoM-EMIT 2002

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