Friday, 5 November 2010

The meme delusion

We have argued for a model of cultural evolution based upon humans’ material engagement with the world. There is another, currently fashionable, theory of cultural transmission we need to consider: the meme.

This theory was introduced by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, and has since won support from other writers including Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore. The concept is simple enough: to explain cultural development, apply the process of natural selection. As it offers an easy mechanism for explaining an formidably complex process, it has met with a certain success, and been described by one supporter as “a major paradigm shift in the science of the mind.”[1]

Does this theory help us to understand cultural evolution?

The theory of memes

The basis of meme theory, or memetics, is that we may extend the process of Darwinian evolution to include cultural processes as well as genetic ones. Dawkins chose the term ‘meme’ for its resemblance to ‘gene’, and its reference to the Greek mimeme or ‘that which is imitated’. A meme is a unit or pattern of information that can be stored in the memory and transferred from one person to another, and is one of the constituent parts from which culture is made. In his book Dawkins gives some examples of memes: “tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.” In fact, it appears that almost any ‘unit’ of culture, on any scale, can be a meme. In a talk in 2002, Dennett refers to ‘justice’ and ‘Catholicism’ as memes.[2]

Because the person who first supplied the meme will continue to host it, the process is one of replication — the meme reproduces itself across a growing number of individuals. As Dawkins explains it:

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.[3]

The meme therefore can be seen as a kind of parasite or ‘mind virus’, capable of spreading from any individual to any other.

Like living organisms, memes are in a struggle for survival. The memes with the strongest adaptive value, i.e. which have the greatest probability of being reproduced, survive for many generations, the outcome being influenced by the biases of human minds and by other competing memes. Some memes prove better at replicating themselves than others. Dawkins lists the main mechanisms for this success as longevity, fecundity and fidelity: the longer a meme lasts, for example when you write it down, the more copies that can be produced of it, the more accurately the meme is copied, the greater the chance that it will be replicated often.


The analogy drawn in memetics between Darwinian evolution and cultural evolution has some profound flaws.

Darwin’s theory of evolution is such a powerful idea that it is not surprising that some have tried to extend it to other processes, much as postmodernists took modernist theories about language and tried to expand them into a general philosophy. Justifying memes, Dawkins writes: “I think Darwinism is too big a theory to be confined to the narrow context of the gene.”[4] Dennett claims, in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: “In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law.” The attempt to extend natural selection beyond the evolution of species has been termed Universal Darwinism.

The problem here is that we are left with a reductionism which attempts to lever a particular biological process, based upon heredity, mutation and selection among living organisms, into fields where it does not belong. Even if one sees the analogy as purely metaphorical, living organisms are not the same as poems, or jingles, or the concept of justice, or the Catholic religion, nor are the same laws applicable. The mechanism is simply not relevant.

Cultural processes can resemble biological ones to an extent. Like organisms, culture has to be replicated across generations. In the process it undergoes changes, perhaps analogous to the mutations which underlie natural selection. However interesting this may be as a metaphor, it is inappropriate to try and use it to construct a serious theory of cultural transmission. Humans ‘make themselves’ through their material engagement with the world: genetics and culture are inter-related parts of this process, but we should not pretend they work in the same way. Merlin Donald commented:

[The meme] is an oversimplifying notion thought up by a geneticist as a way of ‘explaining’ cultural evolution without engaging in any psychology. This is why sociobiologists love memes — they can continue to avoid the complexities of psychology and physiology, as they always have.[5]

By what process does any meme survive for more than an instant, given that a dozen people playing Chinese Whispers can’t make a phrase come out the way it started? There is no mechanism for keeping the meme stable — the fidelity that Dawkins considers important.

It is hard to know if a meme even exists. How, for example, do we define a meme? Is it a poem? A phrase or sentence? A word? Who decides, on what basis, and how do we test the hypothesis? The philosopher Mary Midgley has been particularly damning:

They are not physical objects. But neither are they thoughts or ideas of the kind that normally play any part in our experience. They seem to be occult causes of those thoughts. How then do they manifest themselves? What makes us think they are there?... Invoking such extra stuff is as idle as any earlier talk of phlogiston or animal spirits or occult forces.[6]

It seems a meme can be pretty much anything a memeticist fancies, from wearing a baseball cap backwards to socialism. The archaeologist Timothy Taylor observed, “it is not, in short, a clearly defined concept, nor one that really solves anything.”[7] Catholicism, or communism, or whatever, cannot be reduced to being ‘an idea’ or ‘a meme’. These are huge, complex ideologies with a history, rival intellectual currents, and material bases in society.

Dawkins has himself accepted that memes are not the same as genes and has attempted to add nuance to his invention. Since The Selfish Gene first appeared in 1976 he has added the comment: “whether the milieu of human culture really does have what it takes to get a form of Darwinism going, I am not sure... My purpose was to cut the gene down to size, rather than to sculpt a grand theory of human culture.”[8] But in ironically meme-like fashion, the idea has spread beyond him into even stranger territory.

In his book Virus of the Mind, the computer programmer and poker player Richard Brodie suggests that many of the world’s problems are the result of mind viruses, spreading like a plague to give us “the cycle of unwed mothers on welfare, the Crips and Bloods youth gangs and the Branch Davidian religious cult.” Or, “starting with the inner cities and quickly spreading, the mind viruses infecting many children are pushing them into hopelessness, single motherhood, and gang warfare.”[9] Silly though Brodie’s book is — Dennett himself has described most writing on memetics as “awful” — it illustrates how memetics takes forms of social behaviour and reifies them into agents that cause human behaviour. The reactionary implications are clear. If one wants to address the problems experienced by single “unwed” mothers, a good beginning would be the introduction of universal free childcare; inner city youth could be spared hopelessness by employment programmes and social investment; stress could be reduced by a reduction in working hours. But following Brodie, the response must instead be to disinfect oneself of parasitic units of information, which can’t even be proved to exist! In other words: do nothing.

Memetics is no less bizarre in the work of Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine. For Blackmore, a meme is not ‘an idea’ but strictly ‘that which is replicated’, units of information which will get copied if they can. Living symbiotically with these parasites, humans are meme ‘machines’ with no free will or consciousness, hosts used by memes so they can replicate themselves. Our big brains were created by memes to this end.

Dennett too has claimed this:

A human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better habitat for memes.[10]

Memes are conceived as independent replicators: cultural transmission in this conception is external to what people do, a product of quasi-organisms that have their own drives and reproductive interests. This is again a reification of our consciousness. Mind and body are inseparable, both from each other and from their wider natural and social environment: ideas cannot be set free to roam around pursuing their own interests. In reality, no idea is independent. Ideas originate in human engagement with the material world.

To return to Blackmore: if the first sort of replicator is genes, and the second is memes, she argues that a third one has appeared, ‘technomemes’ or ‘temes’. Temes are forcing us to make more computers and technology: our belief that the internet, etc, are created by ourselves is an illusion.

Yet humans are not machines or passive hosts. The only reason Blackmore can conceive of ‘temes’ is because human praxis has created technologies and ideologies that make such conceptions possible.

Memetics therefore fails to provide a model for cultural change. Ideas survive because they have a material basis, which is often simply to say they have power on their side. Marx pointed out long ago:

The ideas of the ruling class are in every epoch the ruling ideas, i.e., the class which is the ruling material force of society, is at the same time its ruling intellectual force.[11]

To try and say that Paleolithic egalitarianism (‘primitive communism’) was overthrown because its memes lost out in competition with the thrusting new memes of class society would be gibberish. To understand culture we need to understand its background in biological evolution, but we also need to understand the processes of history and of class-structured power. When Marx commented “the hand-mill gives you society with the feudal lord; the steam-mill society with the industrial capitalist”[12], his formulation was crude, but his point is important — the major transformations of human society are brought about by the development of forces of production, from which an ideological superstructure arises. Ideas spread because we are social animals who grow up in an ideological context, i.e. we pick up social conventions, language, etc from our culture. It is true that people sometimes accept ideology passively. But people also actively challenge social conventions, mould new language, select and reject based upon their concrete experience.

This is a materialist, scientific way of understanding the transmission of culture and of ideas, and there is a vast body of evidence to support it. Memetics adds nothing to our understanding of how this works.

Remove psychology, history, class and economics from cultural theory and we are left with a theory open to all sorts of reactionary nonsense. In the talk already referred to (see video below), Dennett wastes little time turning his attention to “toxic ideas”, such as “fanatical Islam”, at the same time complacently suggesting that in the US “bad” memes exist only on the fringes. He compares dangerous memes to the diseases that killed millions of people when European imperialism arrived in the New World. Yet moments after describing some memes as toxic, he claims that memetics is “morally neutral”. This is completely incoherent.

Theorists like Dawkins and Dennett enthusiastically promote science at the expense of religion, yet the meme, based upon units that cannot be defined or tested, is ironically no more scientific than ‘intelligent design’. Memetics is a pseudo-science that actively obstructs the serious discussion of the inter-relationships of biology, production, class, ideology and culture.


Fans of memetics take pleasure in supposedly exposing ‘uncomfortable truths’ about human nature and consciousness. Their dehumanising approach to people can be seen as another expression of the general anti-humanism and pessimism in bourgeois thought in the era of US decline and capitalist crisis. Real humans are not passive machines hosting abstract memes but active beings who constantly grapple with the ideas that surround them, including culture.

Rejecting memetics does not mean, as Dennett contends with characteristic pretension, that one is uncomfortable with the implications of Darwinism. It is rather a question of asserting good science over bad. Furthermore science always has political implications, and memes tend to the reactionary side because they obscure the real dynamics of society and culture. It is the truth that is progressive.

Dawkins has made a genuine if rather hardline contribution to genetics, but the meme, unproven yet still the beneficiary of a great deal of hot air, is one of his least useful ideas. Blackmore has identified the great problem of the age, not as imperialist warmongering, famine, increasing inequality, racism, shortage of clean drinking water, or the global warming that will kill and displace millions if not resolved — no, our real problem is memes that threaten to merge us with technology and turn us into ‘teme machines’. The fantasies spun in the ivory tower of memetics would be merely comical, if they were not such a bizarre distraction from the questions facing us in real life.

Further investigation

Read Dawkins’ chapter on memes at
Daniel Dennett’s presentation to TED2002 (despite the strapline, not an idea worth spreading):

[1] Richard Brodie, Virus of the Mind (1996).
[2] See online video of Dennett’s talk on memes at the 2002 TED event. I have embedded the video at the end of the article.
[3] Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976).
[4] ibid.
[5] Merlin Donald, ‘Material Culture and Cognition’ from ed. Renfrew & Scarre, Cognition and Material Culture: the Archaeology of Symbolic Storage (1998).
[6] Mary Midgley, The Myths We Live By (1993).
[7] Timothy Taylor, The Artificial Ape (2010). See also his discussion of defining memes for chair design on pp159-160.
[8] Footnote to chapter 11 in the 30th anniversary edition of The Selfish Gene.
[9] Apparently Brodie has “deliberately disinfected” himself of the memes he caught as he grew up, blessing him with the splendidly clear thinking he shares with us today.
[10] Daniel Dennett, Consciousness Explained (1991).
[11] Marx, from Part 1B of The German Ideology (1846).
[12] Marx, Chapter 2 of The Poverty of Philosophy (1847).

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