A long time ago, in High School, I was interested in meaning of symbols. Recently when I read "The Selfish Gene" I starting reading up on memetics and I encountered semiotics criticism of memetics that it is in fact rediscovered and simplified semiotics.

I read that "The Hero with a Thousand Faces" is a good introduction in memetics. However from this it looked like the semiotics was rooted within psychoanalysis while memetics was rooted within evolution theory (I agree with Popper's criticism of former). What am I missing?

  • Semiotics can be traced back as far as St. Augustine's "On ChristianDoctrine", though there is some scholarly dispute about whether he had a developed system. In the 20th century things can probably be anchored on F. Saussure, and things proceeded to get very complicated.
    – Gordon
    Aug 27, 2017 at 21:00

2 Answers 2


A semiotics is a way of studying symbols, in the same way that an epistemology is a way of looking at knowledge. So there are many, largely distinct, systems of semiotics.

Dawkins' 'memetics' could be one of those eventually, but it is as of yet relatively underdeveloped, since it springs from a rather shallow analogy and not from data or a strong psychological or philosophical base. No one knows exactly what kind of unit we should look at as a candidate for 'meme-hood' and the range of options quickly undermines attempts to get started with any realistic argument.

And yes, others include Jungian archetype theory, the Lacanian notion of the symbolic realm, and other psychoanalytic attempts to ground interpretation in common experience or literary history. But I do not think those predominate.


Where semiotics is essentially the study of symbols and their manipulation for their own sake, memetics is a "neo-Darwinian" evolutionary theory of the ideas communicated via those symbols.

Besides Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and psychologist Susan Blackmore have contributed most strongly to the theory of memetics. Whether it will end up as a branch of semiotics or of behavioural psychology, or just an Internet meme (sic), remains unclear.

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