Re: what is a meme?

From: Steven Thiele (
Date: Wed 28 Jan 2004 - 23:20:30 GMT

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    It is a good rule of thumb to accept that whenever people start arguing about the definition of a word, then no inquiry of any consequence is going on because there is no shared sense about what is to be inquired into. In other words, a shift has occurred from a focus on a phenomenon to a focus on the meaning of a term.

    The term memes has never referred to any particular phenomenon. This has been the problem right from the time Dawkins proposed the term, because he was arguing analogically and not from evidence of any kind about the existence of memes. He just assumed that there must be something in social life analogous to genes in biological life. Because there is no justification for doing this, memetics was doomed from the start to a Babel about meaning. This is exactly the same problem that bedevils most of the social sciences. It is instructive that scientifically oriented thinkers should end up this way whey they attempt to explain social life.

    The interesting question is why memetics has been so attractive. The answer is that there is an intellectual vacuum in the area of what can simplistically be called ‘the relations between social life and biological life’. Sociologists (and other social scientists) have failed to fill this vacuum, so biologists are constantly tempted to have a go at filling it. First they tried to extend genetics, but, as Dawkins clearly acknowledged when he came up with the term memetics, this couldn’t get anywhere because social life is clearly a different form of life that biological life.

    But instead of going out and studying social life and finding out what it is made up of and how it works, in the same way he studied biological life, Dawkins extended biological explanation, specifically neo-Darwinian explanation, by recourse to analogy. This was never going to work. If social life is qualitatively different from biological life then it needs a qualitatively different explanation.

    It is true that the great bulk of sociology is intellectually empty. It is a combination of such things as ideology, wishful thinking, careerism and professionalism. But sociologists are right about one thing  - that social life must be explained in its own terms (just as biologists say that biological life must be explained in biological terms). Memetics can be understood an attempt to do this, but has too many problems, and this is the case no matter what definition of memes is accepted. The idea that there is something being replicated, in some particulate sense, by jumping from brain to brain has problems enough, but the idea that this something expresses itself in such a way as to generate the basic features of social life, such as complex social organizations (like the state) or social emotions (like shame and practices like shaming), makes little sense. For a start off, if memes operate at the level of individuals, then memetics is immediately burdened with the problem of individualism - it is impossible to get an account of social life by adding up the actions of individuals.

    The issue of ‘the relations between biological and social life’ is one of the biggest intellectual challenges remaining. Memetics cannot assist much in meeting this challenge, except in moving the debate away from genetics. This is the main contribution of memetics. It is time that sociologists and biologists/neo-Darwinians got together to work out a productive strategy for confronting this challenge. The sociologists’ refusal to deal with biology at all (thereby creating the nature/nurture dualism) is an intellectual scandal, but so is the conceit of neo-Darwinians that they have the key to understanding organised life in all its forms. Social life might have evolved out of biological life, but it is a novel from of life.

    Steven Thiele
    University of New England

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