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A Forty Year Update on Meme Theory
Image: Quinlan Pfiffer, via Flickr.

Forty years ago, the notion that cultural change can be understood as a system of inheritance caught the popular imagination. The concept of “memes” as cultural units analogous to genes was popularized in the writings of Richard Dawkins—creating a great deal of controversy similar to what arose around E.O. Wilson’s book Sociobiology, published in the same year as Dawkin’s influential work on this subject.

Richard Dawkins really stirred things up with his best-selling book in 1976, The Selfish Gene. He did this in two ways: (1) with his story about genetic “selfishness” that gave license to those who wanted to be literal about it and say evolution is all about self-interest, greed, and otherwise selfish behavior; and (2) by introducing the concept of “memes” as cultural units of heredity that play a functional role similar to genes in biological reproduction for the transmission of cultural information.

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There were two main problems with interpretations of selfish genes—one having to do with an over-emphasis on genes as the only hereditary unit worthy of consideration (often called gene-centrism as it was a narrowing of biology to a myopic treatment of all biological traits being reducible to the traits of individual or groups of genes). The other being a misinterpretation of selfishness as an anthropomorphizing of genes as literally being miniature selfish people. This  gave the rugged individualists of the world free reign to claim that science was on their side when they formulated economic and political philosophies to serve themselves and their peers.

Luckily, a great deal of progress has been made on the selfish gene front. We now know that reductionisms of all kinds are inadequate for dealing with the real-world complexities of biology in the flesh. There is not one, but at least four, hereditary systems recognized by biologists today. Eva Jablonka and Marion Lamb lay this out clearly in their 2006 book, Evolution in Four Dimensions, as they walk through the research literature on genetics, epigenetics, behavioral repertoires, and symbolic culture as four distinct pathways where traits are “heritable” in appropriately defined fashion.

Similar progress has been made with the study of altruism and “prosocial” behaviors. It is now widely known that rational self-interest in economics is too narrow a view to encapsulate the richness of real human nature. Books like David Sloan Wilson’s Does Altruism Exist? And E.O. Wilson’s The Social Conquest of Earth are but a sampling among a great diversity of works showing how much the research community has advanced its understandings of social behavior in the last 40 years.

Unfortunately, the controversies around cultural memes have not been as productive. Read the cultural evolution literature today and you will find three largely distinct camps:

  1. Those who dismiss meme theory as wrong-headed and disproven.
  2. Those who embrace meme theory as richly productive and vindicated by evidence across many fields.
  3. Those who don’t have strong opinions one way or the other and are waiting to see how the chips fall.

I personally sit in the second camp, having used meme theory to guide my research on the spread of ideas and behaviors across social systems in both digital (social media) and physical environments. What I find interesting about the Camp 1 people—those who dismiss meme theory outright—is that their reasons seem to be based on the fallacies associated with Dawkins’ first major controversy and have little to do with the progress made in memetics research in the forty years since the term was introduced into the intellectual discourse.

A summary of the main argument against meme theory is this: There is a great deal of evidence showing that human minds do not replicate information perfectly (or even with high fidelity). Thus it is impossible to conceive of a meme that begins in one mind and somehow is replicated in the mind of another with enough informational integrity to be called a hereditary unit.  In other words, the complex process of communication is reduced (that pesky reductionism again) to “thought units” with defined features that must be recreated without noise or error in two or more minds.

Students of cognitive linguistics will recognize a particular metaphor here—the Conduit Metaphor for communication that has been richly explored by scholars like Michael J. Reddy and George Lakoff. In this metaphor, a thought is treated as an “object” that passes through some kind of conduit between one mind and another. It is among the most common conceptual representations for teaching and learning (even though it is empirically incorrect). Linguistic examples include phrases like “Are you getting what I’m saying?” and “The instructor passes on knowledge to students.”

Here’s what I find interesting about this argument… it presumes that a number of advances were never made since the year 1976! Specifically, I am thinking of three areas where significant progress has been made during the last forty years: the birth of complexity science in the early 1980’s, developments in the study of human conceptualization and cognitive linguistics since the mid-70’s, and the explosion of digital media in the age of personal computers and later via the internet.  Let us look at each of these in turn.

Birth of Complexity Science

Scientific reductionism has declined throughout the mid-to-late 20th Century with the rise of systems thinking across many different fields.  Systems thinking arose with cybernetics, information theory, and early computing that made possible the rapid advances in fields like ecology (with ecosystem modeling of population dynamics), meteorology (with numerical weather forecasting for studying emergent patterns in the atmospere), and economics (with systems modeling of ecological throughputs like the famous Limits to Growth study by the Club of Rome).

In the early 1980’s an interdisciplinary research center called the Santa Fe Institute was founded to convene the rag-tag cadre of scholars working across fields like these around what has come to be known as complexity science. The focus of this new science is the emergent patterns and systemic behaviors for phenomena where a large number of interacting parts give rise to often paradoxical and unpredictable behaviors. It is the anti-thesis of reductionism—a research program that has given rise to sweeping advances in theoretical biology, the study of social organization, self-organizing processes, and more.

When Dawkins introduced the concept of memes in 1976 there were few who thought in terms of emergent complexity. A language has gradually developed around concepts like self-organized criticality, emergence, pattern formation, and diffusion-limited aggregation to model, simulate, and visualize the interactions within a complex system that give rise to emergent outcomes. Without such a language, it is difficult to conceive of memes as dynamic, emergent patterns of social information arising from many interacting parts.

Developments in Human Conceptualization

The mid-1970’s were a time of great progress for many fields. Around the time that meme theory was capturing the public imagination there were several researchers giving name to recognizable patterns of human thought and behavior that emerge over and over again.

In sociology and linguistics, it was frame semantics that explored the conceptual structure of social settings and thought processes. Social psychologists and anthropologists talked about script theory as a way to make sense of routine behaviors that people “act out” in common social interactions. Computer scientists and information theorists grappled with image schemas as a way to represent modular logical structures in algorithms as they created software for machine learning.

What all of these approaches shared in common was an emphasis on distinct conceptual structures that can be discerned and analyzed for their inherent logic, roles and relationships, and heuristic uses by people as they navigated the complexities of real-world social environments. They led to the development of research methodologies that are now routinely used to study political discourse, conduct ethnographic research, engage in branding and marketing exercises, and more.

An example of a “recurring thought structure” in politics is the concept of tax relief—which uses the metaphor that a tax is a burden to introduce an inferential logic about fairness, suffering, and relief. This concept is used over and over again in politics. It has been translated into slogans, political speeches, editorial commentaries, and dinner table debates more times than can be counted.

Applied to meme theory, this body of tools and techniques demonstrates that researchers across many fields have found value in the perspective that culture can be studied as information patterns that arise in a variety of social settings routinely and with modular elements that are readily discernible in each new instance. The claim that information patterns do not replicate is contradicted by the evidence for image-schematic structures (like the metaphor for taxes above with its distinctive inferential logic and recognizable use cases).

Explosion of Digital Media

Add to these developments the explosion of digital media since the advent of personal computers in the 1980’s and ascension of the Internet for public use in the 90’s up to the present. There are now so many technological tools for digital reproduction of content (where replication is done with such high fidelity that it cannot be questioned) that the theory of memes is vindicated on technical grounds alone.

Consider the digital storage of 1’s and 0’s to generate an image for our profile picture on Facebook (which is created in an identical manner for each user who views it). Or the spread of “internet memes” where distinct lineages of descent-with-modification have been studied for the spreading patterns of ideas as they hybridize, mutate, and quite literally evolve leaving a data trail that can be analyzed with unprecedented methodological rigor. An example is this study of information diffusion on Facebook.

Digital media represents a phase transition in cultural research—sometimes called the Big Data Explosion or the “dataclysm” by social scientists who analyze patterns in the massive datasets now used to study emotional sentiments on Twitter, track themes with keyword searches of text on Lexus-Nexus, or deconstruct narrative tropes in the media.

The theory of memes is highly valued by researchers who take an epidemiological approach to the spread of information. Some ideas are more “contagious” than others for psychological reasons that are becoming known with greater clarity and insight with each passing year. For example, this study looking at campaign donations as a kind of social contagion. Network scientists are mapping out the spread of ideas and behaviors in real time with tracking algorithms that monitor the World Wide Web. Discourse analysts are characterizing the composition of themes and frame semantic structures that shape how various publics think and feel about important topics.

Weaving It All Together

Combine these three major domains of progress—complexity science enters the scene, human conceptualization is now studied with great rigor, and so much of human culture has gone digital—and it is clear that meme theory has been highly generative and productive in the study of human culture.

It is time to update our debates about cultural transmission to include developments like these. The old debates that reduce all of biological evolution to genes have fallen into disuse. We can now do the same for their analogues in the study of culture.  I am not suggesting that memes are THE way to make sense of social learning and cultural evolution (as there are other very important frameworks like gene-culture coevolution and dual-inheritance theory that provide additional bridges between culture and biology). But we can now recover the baby from the thrown-out bathwater and see how a dynamic systems point-of-view melded with advances in other social sciences is highly productive and generative for shaping the research practices of the future.

Looking at meme theory forty years later, we can see that much more is now known and there are things we collectively have figured out how to do that would seem like magic to the 1976 mind of a social scientist.

I hope this article stimulates a healthy dialogue and debate so we can move toward the goal of consilience across fields and get away from the narrowing binaries of “true/false” and “right/wrong” in future conversations. It is not that meme theory is right or wrong, but rather that it has been (and will continue to be) highly valuable for cultural research across the social and biological sciences.


Join the discussion


  1. Dustin Eirdosh says:

    When I discovered Dawkin’s meme concept in my undergraduate days it completely changed how I saw culture and information transmission around me… Then as I’ve further engaged evolutionary human sciences I became convinced of its lack of formal utility (Camp 1). But I think Joe’s re-framing here is a very workable argument to separate the baby from the bathwater. We can see how meme theory fairs as a driver of research. However, I think we can be more certain the that history and discussions of meme theory will be continue to be immensely important in the human science training of all students, basic foundation for developing cultural literacy. Thank you Joe Brewer for this handy reflective review!

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Thanks, Dustin!

      You bring up another important point — how meme theory provides a valuable entry point into the larger body of cultural evolution research. I have also noticed this pattern and know quite a few social scientists who either (a) like yourself were initially attracted to the concept of memes and later moved on to other frameworks; or (b) continued to deepen their skills with some combination of meme analysis or social epidemiology tools that continue to be informed by this body of work.

      My hope in writing this article is to deepen the dialogue and help us explore how concepts like emergence and network analysis inform the study of cultural transmission. The Cultural Evolution Society we are forming has members in all three of the camps I mentioned — let the learning and debate continue!



    • JT Velikovsky says:

      Hi Dustin,
      Great comment! See what you think of this post – I mentioned your comment:
      link to

  2. Henry Story says:

    One philosopher who very much influenced me is Ruth Garrett Millikan and her book “Thought and other biological categories” which showed how semantics ties into evolution. Have you followed that debate too? I think there is a lot to say on that and the evolution of the semantic web.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Dear Henry,

      I am not familiar with her work or the particulars of that debate. Can you elaborate more? Perhaps share links to commentaries if you have them on hand?

      As I’ve been reading the literature on cultural evolution in the last five to ten years, I am seeing a tremendous ‘bridging potential’ between the study of language (and semantics in particular) and how it relates to the evolution of social organization and technology in different cultures. This struck me while reading the overview book (which I HIGHLY recommend) that was edited by Pete Richerson and Morten Christiansen called Cultural Evolution: Society, Technology, Language and Religion.

      There were several essays exploring the historic developments of language systems, religions, the cultural transmission of technologies and how to make them, and the institutions of science. Where I felt more is ripe to be done is in the intersections between psychological research on human conceptualization, social learning and knowledge acquisition in children and adults, the spread of misinformation and urban legends, and other related domains.

      So much great research being done these days… time to weave the threads.


      • Henry Story says:

        Thanks for the pointer to “Cultural Evolution” book, that looks very interesting.
        (I seem to have answered the question about Millikan without threading correctly, so it is below).

    • JT Velikovsky says:

      Hi Henry,
      Great comment! See what you think of this post – I mentioned Joe’s comment on your comment:
      link to

  3. Henry Story says:

    Ruth Garett Millikan [1] book is called “Language, Truth and other biological categories” [2]. This is part of a work in the philosophy of language and thought which continues in the line of work started by David Lewis in 1969 in his book Convention, where he gives a game theoretical analysis of convention on which he then bases a philosophy of language based on modal logic. Millikan close to 20 years later tried to biologise this analysis. She starts off distinguishing the biological category from the physical one, in that the biological objects require a notion of reproduction which does not appear in the physical category. She then goes on to analyse what a reproduction is from a functional point of view by starting with a photocopier as an example and then showing how it makes copies of patterns on paper, whilst having changes at other levels (eg. the atoms of the paper). She then considers how function could be determined in organisms, and considers a statistical explanation. But she shows quite well that this would never allow us to account for the function of sperm. So instead she considers a historical/evolutionary view of how to determine the evolution of function. (Note that she never mentions anything about selfishness in all that work). If something reproduces then language does, from human to human through language. Words within perhaps partly hardwired grammatical structures (I can’t remember if she takes position on this) combine to form sentences which are transmitted. They often fail in their transmission just as sperm often (indeed mostly in that case) fail to fertilise an egg. But words that refer have to succeed in key cases if they are to reproduce. Eg when someone shouts “What out for the bus!” it had better have the right effect, where bus refers to bus and is understood by the recipient to do so, as he turns his head to leap out of the way. This account in my view made it possible to understand the importance of etymology in language, as older functions can keep persisting in newer uses of a term….
    [1] link to [2] link to

  4. David Sloan Wilson says:

    Thanks, Joe, for this important post. In addition to the three developments that you highlight (Complexity science, human conceptualization, and Digital Media), I think it is important to expand upon gene-culture coevolution (aka dual inheritance theory), which you only touch upon. As you know (but for the benefit of our readers), authors such as Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson started to think about cultural evolution at about the same time as Dawkins, but with much less fanfare. Nevertheless, it is their framework that provides the foundation for modern meme theory (if we want to use that label). A good recent article (again as you know but for the benefit of our readers) is:
    Henrich, J., Boyd, R., & Richerson, P. J. (2008). Five Misunderstandings about Cultural Evolution. Human Nature, 19, 119–137.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Thanks for bringing this up, David.

      So much progress has been made on the study of cultural evolution in the last 40 years — and there’s been a “phase transition” from slow development to rapid takeoff in the last 5-10 years. People are going to be amazed at how much is now known about cultural transmission, social learning, the selection criteria (like prestige bias) for individual and group selection, and the rich history of human and non-human social evolution across the spans of history.

      The dual inheritance framework is one of a handful of key unifying theories to help us bridge the historic divides across disciplines in the years to come. 😉

      • Ethan Cochrane says:

        Archaeologists as well have an over 100-year history of using memes, first under the name “culturlal traits”. This use has increased with the phase transition you describe. A good history of this, with lessons for contemporary theory-building is:
        Lyman, R. L. and M. J. O’Brien (2003). “Cultural Traits: Units of Analysis in Early Twentieth-Century Anthropology.” Journal of Anthropological Research 59(2): 225-250.

        • Joe Brewer says:

          Thanks, Ethan!

          Weaving the threads of continuity across research domains is very helpful indeed. 😉

          You are absolutely right that archeologists (and anthropologists) have been studying cultural traits for quite some time now.

          • Marcel Harmon says:

            Joe, I’m not exactly sure which of the three camps you describe in your article that I fall within – somewhere between all three I would suppose. It’s not that I think memetics is wrong-headed. A lot of excellent research on cultural transmission has been done, particularly under the dual inheritance theory umbrella. But to me it’s always seemed unnecessary to describe the propagation of memes, cultural traits, ideas (whatever we call them) and their manifestation via behaviors, technologies, artifacts, etc., in terms of their fitness relative to their own survival. MLS seems capable of describing such propagations by limiting interactors to biological entities, whether they be genes, individuals, or groups of individuals (but with replicators also potentially including memes and meme complexes).

            Granted this comes out of one of the archaeological intellectual traditions mentioned by Ethan above, and it’s also where I was at intellectually over 10 years ago when I finished my dissertation (which involved inferring cultural transmission from the archaeological record). I haven’t delved into the research surrounding memetics since then so I’m likely missing some subsequent key developments.

            If you’re interested, I could forward you the chapter of my dissertation that covers my discussion of this in detail. It would be good to know your take on where you think my holes might be with respect to memetics.

          • Joe Brewer says:


            I would very much enjoy reading your dissertation chapter on this subject. 😉

            One way I think about the selection dynamics of ideas, cultural traits, practices, and behaviors is that they influence the cultural niches where they spread — a kind of “social” feedback where the fitness landscape at a future time is altered by what was spread before. There are several memes (if we want to call them that) which alter the selection environment in a manner that increases their own fitness.

            An example from the world of corporate business practices is the philosophy around short-term profit maximization (for quarterly returns to shareholders). As this practice took hold in the 1970’s it altered the investment and management landscapes such that the companies engaging in this practice were better suited to receive early-stage investments (increasing their cultural fitness relative to companies that did not engage in this practice).

            Over time, the economic landscape became distorted enough that even when large amounts of empirical data showed that companies operating in a “short-termist” mindset underperformed financially and were a bad investment, the practice continued to flourish and spread. The perceptions around these practices had (during the interim) been significantly shaped by an educational focus on profit maximization in business schools and Milton Friedman, the promoter of this philosophy, getting high prestige status by being awarded the Nobel Prize in economics.

            Over time, the practice and mindset spread to the detriment of business education, management practices worldwide, the environment, and communities impacted by corporate behavior becoming more sociopathic and destructive.

            In this example, we can see how the meme spread in a self-serving manner while altering its environment to enhance future spreading.

          • JT Velikovsky says:

            Hi Marcel,
            Great comment. See what you make of this post, I mention your comment in it:
            link to

        • JT Velikovsky says:

          Hi Ethan
          Great comment. See what you think of this post, I mention your comment in it:
          link to

    • JT Velikovsky says:

      Hi David,
      I am a longtime admirer of your work, and have posted on it previously (and also cite your work in my 2016 Ph.D). If you have time, I would very much welcome your thoughts on this post – in it I mention your comment here, and the (great!) Henrich, Boyd & Richerson (2008) paper you mentioned:
      link to

  5. Alberto Acerbi says:

    Hi Joe,
    Thank you for this stimulating contribution. I see the three “advances” you mention very important, and, as you know, I am at the moment particularly interested in the “Explosion of Digital Media” one.
    About the concept of meme, I would put myself in the skeptical camp. My main concern relates to the fact that, to use the concept in an “interesting” way, one needs to defend a quite strong analogy between genes and memes. A “softer” version of the concept is currently used in cultural evolution (generally as “cultural trait”), and it does not imply strong commitment on fidelity of transmission and on a distinction between a cultural genotype/phenotype. If you are interested, I explored a little these topics in this open access article (link to with Alex Mesoudi, especially in the second part.
    Of course the fact that digital media allows for widespread hi-fi transmission of cultural traits is a very important cultural development, and it is, in my opinion, even more interesting when compared with cultural domains where transmission is per se lo-fi (think about oral transmission), so not particularly meme-like.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      I look forward to this conversation expanding, Alberto. Drawing distinctions between genes and cultural traits (whatever the term we use for them) will be a major effort for the research community to grapple with in the next decade. We are already seeing it play out in the work on social learning as a pathway to cultural acquisition — where the Camp 1 community is doing great work with a set of tools developed in part by critiquing meme theory (a demonstration of its value to help further the science overall).

      At the same time, the Camp 2 community is developing a different yet largely complementary set of tools and frameworks that will be essential for study of social diffusion processes and the accumulation of cultural traits that have meme-like qualities to them.

      Which is my way of saying that I don’t think it has to be either/or on this subject. There will be those who think in terms of memes (whether considered as dynamic attractors in the language of complexity science or through analogues with genes in the parlance of biology). And there will be those who uncover similar patterns without specifically referring to the parlance of memes.

      The consilience will be found through efforts to achieve equivalence across methods, tools, and frameworks. My hope is that the diversity of knowledge, disciplines, cultures, and practices we are inviting under the Cultural Evolution Society tent will be able to achieve this consilience over time. Right now there is still a fair amount of tribalism between these camps with plenty of learning to be had in both directions.

    • JT Velikovsky says:

      Hi Alberto
      Great comment. See what you think of this post, in it I cite your comment (and article):
      link to

  6. Joe Rebholz says:

    I have thought that Meme Theory was long dead. I don’t see much of anything now about memes, and much less about meme theory. And what I do see casts memes very negatively. Most recently just a few days ago I read about memes as something the “alt-right” — racists etc. — use.
    I agree with you regarding the three areas where developments since 1976 have actually used meme theory. But did the developers know they were using meme theory? There was once (around 2000) a journal for meme theory, but it only lasted for about six months. Then in 2000 the book “Darwinizing Culture”, edited by Robert Aunger, came out. The contributors were: Susan Blackmore, David Hull, Henry Plotkin, Rosaria Conte, Kevin Laland and John Odling-Smee, Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson, Dan Sperber, Adam Kuper, Maurice Bloch. Daniel Dennett contributed a Foreward and Robert Aunger wrote an Introduction and a conclusion. The contributors’ attitudes towards memes or meme theory ranged from positive to never. Dan Sperber’s comment at the end of his chapter, for me, summarizes the book:
    “The idea of a meme is a theoretically interesting one. It may have, or suggest, some empirical applications. The Darwinian model of selection is illuminating, and in several ways, for thinking about culture. Imitation, even if not ubiquitous, is of course well worth investigating. The grand project of memetics, on the other hand, is misguided.”
    I think the word “meme” has been irreparably damaged. As far as I know, and I could be wrong, the word “meme” is not used anymore in scientific writing.
    But the concept when properly formulated and developed is truly a grand project. It is and will continue to be very valuable for unifying all the sciences and all the humanities. It’s the key to consilience. It is and will continue to be a very useful concept and will become more useful as it is developed further. It already subsumes biological (genetic, epigenetic, etc.) and cultural evolution. It subsumes frame theory, script theory, metaphors and may explain complexity. The concept is that memes are chunks of information. What people were trying to say with memes makes complete sense if we define memes as chunks of information and use a clear, consistent, careful definition of information that includes all the everyday meanings as well as the information technology meanings of information, and without any mathematics. David Hull in his chapter in “Darwinizing Culture” said we don’t know what information is. Well, now we do.
    By defining memes as chunks of information we have that genes are a subset of memes, ideas are memes, thoughts are memes, individuals’ behaviors are influenced by the memes in their heads, words are memes, sentences are memes, Data is memes, books are memes and on and on.
    I have written two books using a definition of memes as chunks of information. If culture is information, and memes are “units” of culture, then memes must be information, chunks of information. And taking this idea seriously allows us to answer many criticisms of the meme concept. I have shown in part 1 of my book “Information, Communication, Cooperation” that almost all the criticism of the meme concept in the book “Darwinizing Culture” can be answered quite well by conceiving memes as chunks of information. We might want to say that memes are restricted to chunks of information used by humans but it turns out this is too limiting. It seems that most of the information we want to talk about does have something to do with humans anyway.
    Seeing memes as chunks of information immediately eliminates all criticisms that say the fidelity of communication is too low in some situations since communication theory says that the fidelity of communications can be increased arbitrarily. So just as we can increase the fidelity of Internet communications with redundancy in the data packets, so human communication has enough redundancy built in by biological and cultural evolution so that we can communicate with one another as well as we do. Nature has evolved communication abilities to be good enough. Perfection is never required. Good enough is — good enough. Indeed the evolution algorithm requires mistakes, variation.
    Susan Blackmore talked about some really nasty memes which, I think, turned off the meme concept for many people. Her memes were kind of evil, a takeoff from Dawkin’s selfish genes. There are some nasty memes out there but there is something wrong with a totally “meme’s eye view.” Memes cannot have “interests” totally independent of human interests. And, of course, as others have noted, Dawkins selfish gene concept in nonsense. In particular if you look closely at his definitions of selfish gene and altruistic gene, you see that they are tautological. He even admitted this in his later edition. He gave the lame excuse that he did it to be “more vivid”. I also show that his concept of a “unit of evolution” is problematic or worse.
    The anthropologists in “Darwinizing Culture” generally hated the meme idea. They repeatedly said “But culture is not particulate” and they are right. A chunk of information implies a certain continuity, at least an association with other information that the chunk comes from. Information is associated with other information in our brains/bodies. An isolated chunk of information by itself is meaningless. Everything is related to, associated with, something else [Frame Theory, Script Theory]. Memes are somewhat arbitrary. We chunk information into memes as we see fit, doing it different ways for different purposes.
    Consider the “short term profit maximization” meme that you mentioned. What exactly is it? Different people formulated it in different ways. Up to some point all these different formulations are instances of the same meme. We can define that meme to be the collection of all its instances. There is a certain fuzziness here but that’s OK. Actually it’s essential, it’s the way information is. Where is the edge of the forest? Where is the edge of the ocean? How much and exactly which information is in the “short term profit maximization” meme. In practice we will be as precise or as loose as our purposes in talking about short term profit maximization require and we will talk about other memes, other chunks of information associated with the “short term maximization” meme as our purposes require. So memes are not particulate, culture is not particulate.
    David Sloan Wilson in his comment mentioned “gene-culture coevolution (aka dual inheritance theory).” This is not enough. LaLand and Odling-Smee in “Darwinizing Culture” talk about niches, whereby life forms modify their environments which then alter their descendants’ evolution. But there is not just two evolutions. There are at least three: Biological, cultural, and environmental. The structure of the earth allowed life to evolve which caused the earth’s atmosphere to have much oxygen which affected how plants and animals evolve and allows humans to burn fossil fuels to put much carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. These three evolutions are intertwined, inseparable in theory and practice. So maybe it would be best to just say there is one evolution. And that is the evolution of information.
    Let me say a little about myself since I have had nothing in peer reviewed journals since an article in the Journal of Mathematical Logic in the 1970’s. I now call myself an independent researcher or writer. I have a Ph. D. in mathematics from UCLA specializing in logic, set theory, model theory, and combinatorics. I worked for many years in engineering, software development, and computer modelling of complex real world systems. For many years I read the journal Science weekly for diversion. I learned a lot about biology. I was and still am totally enthralled by how cells, viruses, and all the rest of life works.
    I don’t know when I first read about memes. But probably in the eighties I read Dawkins book “The Selfish Gene”. I was probably more impressed by Daniel C. Dennett’s book “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea”. I finished my book “No More War Memes” in 2009 with the naive idea of identifying war memes so that people could remove them from their minds and thus eliminate war. It was not a totally useless exercise, but it was pretty naïve. After that I came across “Darwinizing Culture” which led me to try fixing the meme concept, which I think I did in my book “Information, Communication, Cooperation” which I self published in June 2015. Both books have extensive bibliographies whose memes I have built upon. Neither book has sold more than a handful of copies.
    I’m really excited about CES. I hope my background doesn’t scare people off because maybe with The Cultural Evolution Society I have found an audience who might find many useful ideas in my work. At least I’m not the only member with a weird combination of background experience. (Actually there are memetic reasons why that is good.)
    Please tell me what you think.

    • Joe Brewer says:

      Dear Joe,

      Thank you for this long and thoughtful comment. Let me begin by assuring you that memetics continues to be an active domain of research — though paradoxically most of it is done outside the field of “cultural evolution” in its formal parlance.

      What I mean by this is that I have seen quite a few excellent studies done using meme concepts in social media analysis, the study of propaganda and misinformation in public health, media studies, marketing, and other fields that are not traditionally thought of as “cultural evolution” yet are very much relevant to it.

      My hope in writing this article is that we can critically assess two levels of scholarly work at the same time. The first being the use of terminology where terms like “meme” often create unnecessary divisions for important historical reasons. The second is so that we can seek consilience by looking at the progress made across many different fields that provide convergent evidence for theoretical synthesis — by taking a step back and looking for broader patterns.

      We are already seeing a strong signal from the new leadership that has just been elected for the Cultural Evolution Society that they want to actively encourage a diversity of frameworks and perspectives so that synthesis of knowledge can be achieved.

      Which is to say, I think we’ll see a lot more intellectually misfits like ourselves finding a common home in this inclusive environment.

      Very best,


    • JT Velikovsky says:

      Hi Joe (Rebholz) – as opposed to Joe Brewer 🙂
      Great comment. See what you think of this post, in it I cite your comment:
      link to

  7. Joe Rebholz says:

    Thanks Joe for your review. I’ll look for the studies you mentioned. There is a lot of work to do for this grand project.
    Joe Rebholz

  8. Yasha Hartberg says:

    I’m not sure which camp you’d throw me into, Joe. I think the concept of memes is useful for addressing certain kinds of questions operating at relatively large scales. Nonetheless, there remain problems with memetics that I feel must be overcome if it is ever to coalesce into a workable scientific discipline.

    One of the biggest of these is that memetics is still very much focused on replication. This is understandable given its roots as a genetic metaphor. However, it is only part of the story. What I feel we need is a bridge between replication (or information transfer if you prefer) and how that information is used in the creation of behavioral phenotypes. Put slightly differently, memetics needs the equivalent of the epigenetics revolution that transformed so much of our understanding of genetics since Dawkin’s publication of “The Selfish Gene.” In my own work on sacred texts I started calling this system “cultural epigenetics,” a “fifth dimension” added to Jablonka and Lamb’s scheme. However, I’ve since found out that Eva Jablonka is using that term in a very different way so perhaps we need to coin a new term. “Epimemetics” suggests itself, though its utility ultimately depends on whether we can salvage “memetics” in the first place.

  9. Bill Benzon says:

    Hi Joe,

    I’ve been thinking and publishing about “memes” for awhile, two decades, and I’m ambivalent at best.

    You say: “Combine these three major domains of progress—complexity science enters the scene, human conceptualization is now studied with great rigor, and so much of human culture has gone digital—and it is clear that meme theory has been highly generative and productive in the study of human culture.” I’m not at all sure about “great rigor”–and I say this as someone who was studying computational semantics in the 1970s–but it seems to me that the conceptual progress you recount has been mostly in those other areas, not meme theory. “Meme” is just a word people like to use, but it’s not a word that itself carries much sophisticated conceptualization with it.

    You might want to look at a recent article of mine, “Rhythm Changes” – Notes on Some Genetic Elements in Musical Culture. In this paper I adopt the term “coordinator” rather than meme. Here’s the abstract: “An entity known as Rhythm Changes is analyzed as a genetic entity in musical culture. Because it functions to coordinate the activities of musicians who are playing together it can be called a coordinator. It is a complex coordinator in that it is organized on five or six levels, each of which contains coordinators that function in other musical contexts. Musicians do not acquire (that is, learn) such a coordinator through ‘transfer’ from one brain to another. Rather, they learn to construct it from publically available performance materials. This particular entity is derived from George Gershwin’s tune ‘I Got Rhythm’ and is the harmonic trajectory of that tune. But it only attained independent musical status after about two decades of performances. Being a coordinator is thus not intrinsic to the entity itself, but is rather a function of how it comes to be used in the musical system. Recent argument suggests that biological genes are like this as well.”

    As for how and why I came to drop the term “meme” in favor of “coordinator” the basic reason, as you might imagine, is the “meme” carries too much baggage. But there is more, some of which you can find in this working paper, Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett. As you no doubt know, Dennett has written a number of papers where he argues that words are memes and has a number of videos where he flat-out asserts it without any argumentation. The problem with this is simply that it’s empty. It tells us nothing about words that we don’t already know.

    Here’s the abstract for that paper: “Philosopher Dan Dennett’s conception of the active meme, moving about from brain to brain, is physically impossible and conceptually empty. It amounts to cultural preformationism. As the cultural analogue to genes, memes are best characterized as the culturally active properties of things, events, and processes in the external world. Memes are physically embodied in a substrate. The cultural analogue to the phenotype can be called an ideotype; ideotypes are mental entities existing in the minds of individual humans. Memes serve as targets for designing and fabricating artifacts, as couplers to synchronize and coordinate human interaction, and as designators (Saussaurian signifiers). Cultural change is driven by the movement of memes between populations with significantly different cultural practices understood through different populations of ideotypes.” I end up arguing that memes are data of three types: targets, couplers, and designators.

    Finally, some digital humanists are doing work that’s relevant to cultural evolution, though most of them are reluctant to use or get anywhere near the term “evolution.” I’ve written some working papers about this: On the Direction of 19th Century Poetic Style, Underwood and Sellers 2015, and On the Direction of Cultural Evolution: Lessons from the 19th Century Anglophone Novel. You might also want to look at the newly-formed Journal of Cultural Analytics.

  10. JT Velikovsky says:

    Great post, Joe! For some comments and thoughts from me, see my post: link to
    Best, JT