JoM-EMIT LogoBlute, M.(2005). Memetics and evolutionary social science.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission

Memetics and evolutionary social science

Marion Blute
Department of Sociology
University of Toronto at Mississauga

Memetics is the scientific study of memes.  The term “meme” was coined by Richard Dawkins (1976), suggestive of “m” for memory or imitation and “eme” for gene, for the basic unit of hereditary information or replication involved in cultural as opposed to biological evolution.  Memetics became the subject of an academic journal (Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission) as well as of more than half a dozen books (Aunger 2000, 2002; Blackmore 1999; Brodie 1996; Cullen 2000; Cziko 1995; Lynch 1996). According to some critics, memetics has joined extraterrestrial, exo or zenobiology as a science devoted to a subject matter whose very existence remains in dispute!  However, those who view the meme concept as more amorphous or ambiguous than that of the gene have insufficient knowledge of biology.  In those long molecules of DNA, the fact that none of the units of structure, function, replication and recombination coincide means that the gene concept is similarly ambiguous (for a useful review see Griffiths 2002).  Of course one might then endorse abandoning the gene concept rather than adding a meme concept but in the age of genomics there is little chance of the former at least.

In one sense, only the term “meme” was new with Dawkins.  For some time some social scientists studying a wide variety of phenomena including languages, science and technology, and economic organizations and institutions for example as well as theory in general had been applying a Darwinian-style evolutionary theory of “descent with modification” involving cultural transmission, variation and selection to their respective subject matters.  Among memeticists, some difference of opinion exists over whether memes should be thought of as gene-like or virus-like but both points of view have made useful contributions to evolutionary social science.

The gene-like view. Social scientists tend to wonder whether they need a common term like meme across their various subject matters.  It may or may not turn out to be useful in the long run but if nothing else, the gene-like concept of a meme has reminded us that cumulative evolution of complex entities requires digitally-encoded information.  Social learning by ‘observation’ in a variety of sensory modalities can support a primitive form of cultural evolution as it does among chimpanzees (Whiten et. al. 1999) and Cetaceans (Rendell & Whitehead 2001) for example.  However, only social learning by ‘instruction’, employing information encoded digitally in a string of symbols, among humans normally strings of phonemes or letters in sentences in a natural language, can a) support the inheritance of a large number of possible states (Maynard Smith and Szathmary’s “unlimited inheritance” 1995) and b) avoid the cumulative degradation characteristic of analogue systems (Dawkins 1995) and hence is required to support the cumulative evolution of complex sociocultural entities.

The virus-like view. The virus-like view of memes has usefully reminded us that much, even most cultural transmission in modern societies takes place horizontally rather than vertically relative to genes.  Social scientists have always been aware of this but have not paid sufficient attention to the implication that culture therefore evolves in a fashion that may be indifferent to its ‘host’s’ biological fitness.  Many memeticists emphasize that our culture, in fact, commonly parasitizes our biology.  The “memplexes” that characterize membership in sects or cults, to cite an extreme example, often ruthlessly exploit the biology of their members, convincing them with mythical appeals to “family” to isolate themselves from their real families and dedicate their all to the survival and spread of the social identity of cult membership.  This virus-like view suggests the application of basic principles of the epidemiology of infectious diseases (e.g. Ewald 2000) to culture to predict the conditions under which it will evolve to be benign or virulent relative to genes.  According to those principles culture (like infectious diseases) with vertical transmission, a low multiplicity of infection, and infection by means of direct contact will tend to evolve to be more benign.  By contrast, culture which is transmitted horizontally, with a high multiplicity of infection, and infection by means of vectors will tend to be more virulent.  Assuming you care more about your biology than your culture (which is not necessarily the case - ‘you’ after all are a combination of both), practical lessons, particularly for teenagers, emerge from memetics.  Listen more to mommy and daddy and less to your friends!  Beware more of fads and fashions which can infect you multiply than of whole social identities like ethnic, religious and occupational identities.  One of these latter normally precludes another and hence may be willing to leave something of your biology for itself to live on tomorrow!  And finally, trust information conveyed personally rather than via mass media which, like insect-borne diseases, can get to you even when you are down and unable to circulate!

The future. According to evolutionary epistemology (Campbell 1970), universal Darwinism (Cziko 1995, Dennett 1995), or multi-process selection theory, selection processes are selection processes and the same general principles should apply whether realized biologically (gene-based evolution by natural selection), socioculturally (meme or social learning-based sociocultural evolution by sociocultural selection), or psychologically (neural-based learning by reinforcement and punishment) for example (Hull Langman and Glenn, 2001).  Hence there is no point reinventing the wheel.  For principles applicable to selection processes, memetics can benefit from a close study of evolutionary biology and related disciplines like taxonomy and evolutionary ecology.  Taxonomy dealing with history, and evolutionary ecology dealing with selection are the two most important research programmes in biological evolution.  Duthie (2003) in his pithy essay on the fork and the paperclip got it exactly right - the key questions are where did something come from and why did it evolve. Those who hope to make a contribution to memetics in the future require knowledge of one or more topics or fields in biological as well as in a social science discipline or disciplines.  It has become well known whether by philosophers (Bunge 2003) or by granting agencies like the U.S. National Science Foundation that multi, inter and transdisciplinary research (“MIT” in science studies jargon) is where the breakthroughs are made.

This should not be taken to imply that the study of selection in other realms need be wholly derivative of the biological.  There is much extant research but still much to be done in understanding the mechanisms of inheritance in sociocultural/memetic evolution (for an overview of social learning in animals see Heyes and Galef, 1996). There is much to be done in understanding how genes and culture coevolve in interaction with each other (Durham 1991 remains the most extensive treatment to date).  There are many unsolved problems in biological evolutionary theory and solutions to their analogues in the sociocultural realm could conceivably, in the future, feed back in the other direction.  For example two important problems in the forefront of evolutionary biology today are the three-cornered relationship between evolution, development and ecology ‘evo-devo-eco’ and the problem of ‘origins’.  Everything which evolves under ecological control also develops under ecological influence and that includes the sociocultural.  Artifacts and social identities for example not only evolve but also have a life course.  Should the story and theory of life or culture in the context of origins therefore begin with a single ‘juvenile’ developing (implying that evolution developed) or with many ‘adults’ replicating (implying that development evolved) or somewhere else entirely?

Moving from recommendations to forecasting I think there is every reason to believe that the future of memetics/sociocultural evolution (understood broadly as the same enterprise) is bright.  Many others think likewise (e.g. Mesoudi, Whiten and Laland 2004) although for reasons that I find difficult to understand, some still sometimes look with disfavour on the ‘meme’ word while freely using the similarly ambiguous ‘gene’ word.


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© JoM-EMIT 2005

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