A quick note I need to write anyway for a student, but there seems to be some general confusion:
- Dawkins invented the word "meme" not as a part of a study, but rather as a thought experiment to better illustrate the theoretical biology of a "gene". Both are hypothetical entities that actually get replicated as part of the process of evolution. You may have noticed that you are not exactly either your mother or your father, and couldn't possibly be both. You are not a gene or a replicator, you carry many replicators. "Selfish" genes want to propagate themselves, but always do this cooperatively with other genes. Cooperation is incidentally just as natural as competition, that was what the book "The Selfish Gene" was about. Anyway, his point was that it didn't have to be DNA that was actually replicated, or only biology that evolved. Maybe ideas evolve. But if they do evolve, they probably have a lot more than two "parents" and may be constructed not in a single event. Susan Blackmore wrote a terrific book about this kind of meme, if you overlook the last third that got kind of weird and religious (she thought consciousness was a virus damaging the host organism, constructed of memes.)
- There was then a weird study of memetics that looked mostly for strings repeated in email for a while in the 1990s. I was there when Bruce Blumberg, editor of the journal "Memetics" announced that the field was a failure & he was shutting it down – or trying to, by killing the journal. I forget what academic meeting that was, but I remember I watched him do that, then I walked over to another symposium where there were three awesome memetics paper (one was mine :-) so it must have been around 2005-8). But that symposium was termed "cultural evolution" or somesuch, not "memetics."
- Now there are those "memes" you can use tools to build, which are a particular stereotyped form of communication and culture. Again, each of these memes contains a bunch of memes by the definition of Dawkins, and often they do share some strings of characters in common too, but the whole package is now called a meme and I'd say it's more of an artform than a theorised
None of these usages is wrong, they are just three totally different things that have the same name and probably share a few memes besides just the name, just like you share a few genes with your siblings, and fruit flies. That the name is one of those things they share doesn't mean they are the same thing though.
I don't write about memetics much (though I am for my book) but here's two other links:
- Bryson, J.J. Embodiment versus memetics. Mind & Society 7, 77–94 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11299-007-0044-4
- Which needs to get updated in light of my 2017 semantics article.
- But did get slightly updated in a 2015 blogpost on human uniqueness.
- I did "debate" Does memetics make sense with Massimo Pigliucci and Hilary Lawson in 2021.
|Not my meme, click for attribution|