JOM-EMITJournal of Memetics -
Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission

A Brief Overview and History of Memetics

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The History of the Memetic Approach

At least since the early seventies several authors have tried to adopt the principle of evolution by selection to understand the continuous change in cultural behaviors (Boyd [1], Calvin [2], Campbel [6], Cloak [7]). Richard Dawkins popularized the memetic approach. He coined the term 'meme' as an analog to the biological unit of inheritance, the gene or the genetic replicator (Dawkins [11], [12]). The rather simple distinction between genetic replicators as 'genes' on the one hand, opposed to all non-genetic replicators as 'memes' has been firmly imprinted in the evolutionary thinking about cultural information (Dennett [14, 15, 16], Hays & Plotkin [18], Hofstadter [21], Hull [23, 24, 25], Lynch [28, 29], Westoby [35]). Since its initial conception, the term 'meme' has been used under very different meanings and in very different contexts, infecting a wide variety of disciplines. Among the most known are Dennett [14, 15, 16], who sees the human mind as being built up with memes comparable to the programming of a computer. Hull [23, 24, 25] defines the meme as replicator, and adds interaction to account for evolution by natural or artificial selection. He thus describes selection processes in science and biology using exactly similar definitions. Perhaps the most popular informal use of the term describes memes as 'viruses of the mind.' Parallels to both biological and computer virus varieties have been drawn (Dawkins [11, 13]).

Memetics and Related Evolutionary Approaches

We see the memetic approach as an evolutionary one. The principle of evolution by selection is best known from the natural selection theory developed by Darwin to explain evolution of biological organisms [10]. Dennett [15] calls this natural selection principle a universal acid: it is such a powerful concept that it bites through everything. Indeed, in this sense Darwin described only a special case of selection when he was dealing with biological evolution.

Evolutionary theories are applied in a wide variety of disciplines. As mentioned above, evolutionary theories are applied to culture, like in the work of Boyd and Richerson [1], Cavalli-Sforza [6] and Csanyi [9]. The evolution of language can be seen in analogy to biological evolution, as described by Hoenigswald and Wiener [20]. In computer sciences, genetic programming and genetic algorithms are descendants of the evolutionary view as well, for example in the work of several people at the Santa-Fe Institute (Holland [22], Kauffman [26]). Learning theories of humans, applied to individuals, groups and society can be tied to evolutionary theory, as shown in the work of Campbell [4, 5]. The work of several philosophers of science shows evolutionary views, as in Popper's [34] and Kuhn's [27] work. In addition, these views have impact on evolutionary epistemology, and are analogical to biological evolution. Evolutionary theories have been described to account for brain development by Gerald Edelman [17], and extended to the msec-to-minutes time scale of thought and action by William Calvin [2, 3].Evolutionary theory is present in the field of economy, often tied to the development of technology, as in the work of Nelson and Winter [30, 31] or to the evolution of institutions as in the work of Hodgson [19] and North [32].

We feel that this plethora of approaches proves the potential of evolutionary thought in all fields of human sciences. At the same time this means that there is ample opportunity to compare models of evolution, and their applications, which is one of the aims of our journal.

Key References (for more see the Bibliography of Memetics)

  1. Boyd R. and Richerson PJ. 1985. Culture and the evolutionary process. University of Chicago Press.
  2. Calvin W. 1996. The Cerebral code: thinking a thought in the mosaics of the mind, MIT Press.
  3. Calvin W. 1996. How brains think: evolving intelligence, then and now. Basic Books.
  4. Campbell DT. 1965. Variation and selective retention in socio-cultural evolution. In: Barringer HR, Blanksten GI and Mack RW (eds). Social change in developing areas, a reinterpretation of evolutionary theory. Schenkman Publishing Co.
  5. Campbell DT. 1974. Evolutionary epistemology. In: Schlipp PA (ed). The Library of Living Philosophers, Vol. XIV: The philosophy of Karl Popper. LaSalle: Open Court.
  6. Cavalli-Sforza L. and Feldman M. 1973. Cultural versus biological inheritance: phenotypic transmission from parents to children. Human Genetics 25: 618-637.
  7. Cloak FT. 1975. Is a cultural ethology possible? Human Ecology 3: 161-182.
  8. Costall A. 1991. The meme meme. Cultural Dynamics 4: 321-335.
  9. Csanyi V. 1989. Evolutionary systems and society. A general theory of life, mind and culture. Duke University Press.
  10. Darwin C. R. 1859. The origin of species. By means of natural selection. John Murray.
  11. Dawkins R. 1976, 1982. The selfish gene. Oxford University Press.
  12. Dawkins R. 1982. Organisms, groups and memes: replicators or vehicles? P. 97-117, in: The extended phenotype. Oxford University Press.
  13. Dawkins R. 1993. Viruses of the Mind. P. 13-27, in: Dennett and his Critics, Blackwell Publishers.
  14. Dennett D. 1990. Memes and the exploitation of imagination. J Aesthetics Art Criticism 48: 127-135.
  15. Dennett D. 1996. Darwins dangerous idea. The Sciences 35: 34-40.
  16. Dennett D. 1991. Consciousness explained. Penguin Books
  17. Edelman G. 1992. Bright air, brilliant fire. On the matter of the mind. Basic Books.
  18. Heyes CM and Plotkin HC. 1989. Replicators and interactors in cultural evolution. In: Ruse M (ed). What the philosophy of biology is; essays dedicated to David Hull. Kluwer Academic Publishers.
  19. Hodgson G. 1993. Economics and evolution. Bringing life back into economics. Polity Press.
  20. Hoenigswald HM and Wiener LS. 1987. Biological metaphor and cladistics classification. Francis Pinter Publishers.
  21. Hofstadter DR. 1985. Metamagical themes: Questions for the essence of mind and pattern. Basic Books.
  22. Holland JH. 1975. Adaptation in natural and artificial systems. Univ. Michigan Press. Reprinted in 1992 by Bradford Books/MIT press.
  23. Hull DL. 1982. The naked meme. In: Plotkin HC (ed). Learning development and culture, essays in evolutionary epistemology. John Wiley and Sons.
  24. Hull DL. 1988. Interactors versus vehicles. In: Plotkin HC (ed). The role of behavior in evolution. MIT Press.
  25. Hull DL. 1988. Science as a process: An evolutionary account of the social and conceptual development of science. University of Chicago Press.
  26. Kauffman SA. 1993. The origins of order, self-organization and selection in evolution. Oxford University Press.
  27. Kuhn TS. 1970. The structure of scientific revolutions. University of Chicago Press.
  28. Lynch A. 1991. Thought contagion as abstract evolution. Journal of Ideas 2: 3-10.
  29. Lynch A. 1996. Thought contagion. How Belief Spreads Through Society. The New Science of Memes. Basic Books.
  30. Nelson RR. 1987. Understanding technical change as an evolutionary process. North-Holland.
  31. Nelson RR and Winter SG Jr. 1982. An evolutionary theory of economic change. Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
  32. North DC. 1990. Institutions, institutional change and economic performance. Cambridge University Press.
  33. Plotkin HC. 1982. Learning, development, and culture. Essays in evolutionary epistemology. John Wiley and Sons.
  34. Popper KR. 1979. Objective knowledge: An evolutionary approach. Clarendon press.
  35. Westoby A. 1994. The Ecology of intentions: How to make memes and influence people: Culturology.

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Bruce Edmonds, Centre for Policy Modelling, 12-Nov-96.
© JoM-EMIT 1997