The idea of a meme, as an idea which self-replicates subject to Darwinian evolution, was conceived by biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. Psychologist Susan Blackmore developed the idea further in her popular book The Meme Machine. Daniel Dennett went on to apply it to various philosophical issues.

But the idea has not seen widespread academic support. I am wondering why - please not to discuss those reasons here, just to say what they are. Some have criticised it as mere pseudoscience. Are there other reasons?

  • 1
    Welcome to SE Philosophy! Please be aware that questions are subject to editing and closure, and that reflects the site's policies on acceptable questions and NOT a personal attack. What to avoid in questions. Questions, including those that are closed, can be edited to bring them within guidelines. Keeping questions on-topic. Additional clarification at the meta site.. – J D Mar 28 at 11:44
  • 1
    The question as edited no longer means what I asked. The fact that it may be regarded as pseudoscientific is part of the answer, not part of my question. In particular, the edited version does not leave open the possibility of other reasons for its unpopularity. Please can this be sorted out. – Guy Inchbald Mar 28 at 11:48
  • The question you asked is likely to be closed because it is highly opinionated and runs afoul of the nature of this site which is not to have wide-ranging debates on philosophy (though it happens), but to answer technical questions in a Q&A format. If you ask 'why is mimetics unpopular in the academy' you'll get a lot of speculation and little citation. Your questions should be reasonably scoped. If you can imagine an entire book that answers your question, you’re asking too much." – J D Mar 28 at 11:52
  • 2
    A survey of criticisms by Blackmore, one of the leading proponents of memetics, gives a good idea of what the main objections are. That even she has to conclude that "whether its novel hypotheses and predictions can be tested... it is still too early to say" after 30+ years of research answers your title question in a nutshell. Synergetics and catastrophe theory displayed similar pattern, they all weren't fruitful enough to last. You can always rollback any edit on your post, btw. – Conifold Mar 28 at 19:23
  • 2
    It may be of interest that the idea of applying biological and genetic analogies to cultural transmission more broadly remains academically popular under the name of "cultural evolution theory". As SEP puts it, "the most serious and most respected efforts to apply evolutionary thinking to culture begin from a different starting point to memetics". Even the more sympathetic Henrich sought to distance himself from "informal theorizing of some memeticists". – Conifold Mar 29 at 0:46

There is a simple, straightforward reason that memetics has not 'caught on' and become more widely accepted: the concept underlying it — depending on how one interprets the term 'meme' — are either philosophically derivative or nonsensical pseudoscience. The mere fact that I have to qualify that statement by pointing out that the term 'meme' is in dire need of an empirical or rational definition should point to the troubles here. If the core concept is that intellectually squishy, what can we do with it?

If we take the term 'meme' to be an abstract pointer to certain kinds of basic understanding that can be transmitted from person to person, then this topic has been deeply covered by anthropology, sociology, psychology, European social theory, and modern language theory. The entire concept of 'culture' (which has its roots in the 19th century) is based on the idea that worldviews are passed down across generations, changing and resisting change across time. Memetics would only seem novel to someone who has limited their reading to the Anglophone analytic philosophy tradition, carefully excluding the later Wittgenstein and some of APs more critical voices. Granted that I understand why this is. Empiricist philosophy has tried gamely to eliminate subjectivity from its worldview, and thus has avoided any proper study of the human mind; Dawkins is introducing 'mentalist' concepts by framing them in a 'physicalist' analogy to evolution, but Dawkins is not presenting a new concept by any means.

On the other hand if we take the term 'meme' to refer to some actual object — be it cognitive, mental, neurobiological, or whatnot — then Dawkins has left anything resembling science behind and stepped into the realm of speculative fiction. What and where are these 'meme' objects? Can we point at one? Can we slice it out and put it under a microscope? I can reasonably say "I ate six incredible memes before breakfast" and there is not a single thing you can do to tell me I didn't. That's pseudoscience to the core.

I know that the term 'meme' has taken on a life of its own in the popular literature. It's now something like what used to be called an 'ear-worm' (a little bit of music you can't get out of your head), except done in visual media. That's perfectly adequate as popular slang, but is neither a scientific nor philosophical proposition. The main theory hasn't caught on because it's not really saying anything new that isn't better discussed elsewhere (except, as I noted, for Anglophone analytic philosophers, who still don't really want to embrace mentalism in any form and push back against ideas of this sort). Maybe if it develops further it will catch on, but as a theory it is currently too weak to survive the 'evolutionary' competition it presupposes.

| improve this answer | |
  • On the basis of this well-composed answer, I'll withdraw my objection. Well met! – J D Mar 28 at 18:24
  • 1
    I do not think the dichotomy you make applies here. Physicists have phonons, for example, which are something more distinctive than "pointers to basic understanding", but not "actual objects" either. They are fictional theoretical entities useful in describing condensed matter. Memes are meant to be that for cultural evolution. Correspondingly, I do not think that the problem with memetics is of a structural sort, as you suggest. It is rather empirical, conceptualization of cultural transmission in terms of memes is distinctive, but did not prove to be as fruitful as phonons (so far). – Conifold Mar 28 at 19:09
  • "this topic has been deeply covered by anthropology, sociology, psychology, European social theory, and modern language theory." which concepts from the above fields are closest to the idea of a meme? – X10D Mar 29 at 10:44
  • 1
    whats the definition of 'analytical definition'? – X10D Mar 29 at 22:00
  • 1
    The common link is transmission, local adaptation and persistence of behaviors, skills and technologies via replication and mutation. Dawkins's original hypothesis of discrete replicators (memes) as the mechanism turned out to be wrong, but the more sophisticated models that came out of researching it reproduce some meme-like effects. Indeed, the demise of memetics in the early 2000-s was due to it producing definitive enough models that could be refuted and amended. I found Henrich's discussion, p. 131-2 illuminating – Conifold Mar 30 at 17:24

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.