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?

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    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, 2020 at 11:44
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    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. Mar 28, 2020 at 11:48
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    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, 2020 at 19:23
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    Memetics hasn't really caught on... much like an unsuccesful meme, ironically. :)
    – user45266
    Mar 28, 2020 at 23:38
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    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, 2020 at 0:46

2 Answers 2


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.

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    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, 2020 at 19:09
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    whats the definition of 'analytical definition'?
    – X10D
    Mar 29, 2020 at 22:00
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    Perhaps the arch-typical meme is the idea of a meme.
    – puppetsock
    Mar 29, 2020 at 23:51
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    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, 2020 at 17:24
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    @TedWrigley "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." The person who wrote that should be able to answer the question X10D asked. Apr 1, 2020 at 23:10

Because "The Academy" is not very bright, and will only sign up for things that have "lunch paid by the government" printed upon them (i.e. the "Sexy Science"). For whatever reason (perhaps Stephen Kinzer's book about Sydney Gottlieb and the CIA quest for mind control has bearing here?) the government is not very interested in "atomistic" theories of thinking and thought. Additionally, there are built in biases within academia, in sub-cultures and sub-groups, and philosophical biases, trojan horse arguments, etc etc, politics, academic politics, partisan national-party politics, and philosophical, epistemological politics. Its a rats nest and a Gordian knot and a few other over-used metaphors all rolled into one.

If we take Humean or Lockean "Impressions" and "Ideas" (ignoring the slight differences between those two authors) to be roughly equivalent to "meme", there is a plain research program laid out before us, and it has already commenced; it is none other than "The Enlightenment". Take, for instance "Cybernetics" (term coined circa 1947), a passing fad, but an important one on the way to "Artificial Intelligence" (term coined 1955). Kubernetes, the Greek phrase from which cybernetics derives, means "steerer of the ship" and is closely related to the word governor (a discussion of which you will find in Plato's Republic, and in of his accounts of a Socratic dialogue). But at some point the metaphor of governance and feedback mechanisms (things which control the flow of intellect) was deemed less useful than the question of "What is intellect in the first place?".

Similarly, we might find that it matters not what we call the meme, or even its exact definition or physical instantiation. "Genes" are almost equally nebulous. The Human Genome was completed just last year (April 2022: though announced "completed" circa 2001) and we still aren't sure, precisely, how many genes there are in a human being, and are thus, far from knowing what they all do. I believe that reliable estimates put it at about 50,000. But "check yourself" if you think you know the present and future state of the "settled science". There is still much discovery to be made.

There is also fundamental disagreement on the proper "type" of philosophy of science, and even, in my view, the proper "philosophy of philosophy" (see Paul Thompson "Structure of Biological Theories" and Elisabeth Lloyd "Structure and Confirmation of Evolutionary Theory" for an entry-way into the debate over proper epsitemological procedure and symbolic representation of scientific theories. See, also, Gould (Wonderful Life, 1989) regarding the differences between the "hard sciences"--chemistry and physics--and the "historical sciences", like evolution, biology, natural history, geology, politics, cultural evolution, etc. These latter sciences have a heavy component of "one off", historical events, which cannot be replicated. In Gould's metaphor, the tape of life can not be rewound to the beginning and played through again. Chemistry and Physics can return to initial conditions, and rely almost exclusively on statistics and proper experimental methodology. So, for chemists and physicists, there is a built in bias against extending too far into what they see as a speculative realm. For biologists there is extreme guilt over previous extensions of atomistic and corporeal sciences into what they feel is a bit more ephemeral, perhaps even romantic, as the previous abuses of their science for ideological and nationalistic purposes were cause for horrible wars, imperialism and racist exterminations (this is reason enough to put the whole subject aside, except for the fact that the subject cannot be thrust aside: Try to NOT think of an elephant! You just failed!). For the technologist, it is both a promise of a perfect future and a fait accompli (See Brodie's and Lynch's early books on the subject). For the layman, clicking on the youtube click-bait, the meme has grasped and engrossed him/her completely, and he/she LOVES it. The debate is over, in the public's eye, and thus not worthy of research money and legitimization. The head of Harvard's psychology department in the early 2000s (Daniel Schacter) did his thesis work at the U of Toronto--and a book resulted--on Richard Semon whose book title, circa 1910, was, you guessed it "Die Mneme". This was no "flash in the pan", one-off guess of a book, and though it bears mentioning that Semon's "mneme" is NOT the same concept as Dawkin's "meme" it is at least seeking similar goal. Bertrand Russel covered Semon's work in his 1921 book "Analysis of Mind" and if one considers the world of tumult in Russel's philosophical and private and professional life during this time (think Wittgenstein, Tractatus, WWI, protest and imprisonment, etc.) this alone should recommend Semon to the modern academic. Semon was a trained and practicing German biologist and a contemporary of both Cajal and Golgi, both of whom won the Nobel prize in the same year, for their competing nervous system theories: Neuron Theory and Reticular Theory. It is easy to see why Semon's work was shuffled and forgotten, but some American Behaviorists latched on to a different Semonian term and it survives to this day: "The Engram". And here, again, it gets a little bit weird, since the founder of scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, also latched onto that particular phrase for his own various and sundry purposes.

So, in summary, there is good reason to study the meme (the concept of it, and the attempted application of it, as a concept-that-contains-all-concepts, to actual, empirically verifiable events), dispassionately, rigorously, and to follow the thread of its study, in its various forms, back to the beginning--as with most things scientific--probably to Aritstotle and his "Peri Mnemes Kai Anamneseos", "On Memory and Recollection". There are things in that work, that, upon my reading, could just as easily be discussing Ferrite Core Memories or the DRAM of your computer, as the neurons of your brain.

At the very least a sort of "Population Memetics", discussing and modelling distribution of ideas within and throughout and between and amongst various populations can easily be attempted. A further leap, I have made my life's work and purpose, is establishment of "Meyer's law" as the rule of thumb describing the construction of intelligent sentences in human languages. VN^2=S,which says that, for any natural or artificial intelligence possessing some N number of nouns, and V number of verbs, and a simple 3 element syntax of NVN (actually the order being arbitrary, so long as one of the six possible are consistently adhered to in actual practice and utilization: SVO, SOV, VSO, VOS, OVS, OSV), the number of Simple Semantic Sentences that can be constructed is equal to S. I derived this equation from the permutation and combination equations while I was studying for my GRE test, back in 2003. They STILL haven't allowed me into graduate school so that I may publish on an equal footing with "The Academy". I even fled to Canada and sought political asylum. No dice. They will NOT debate an intelligent person on the subject!

In short, there are too many romantic ideas about the freedom of the human mind to allow the scientists and materialists and mechanists to grab this final thing away from them. Never mind all the good (and bad) we mechanists have brought them before, the human mind is a bridge too far. The public and the government want it to be a secret, but probably for different, and possibly opposing, reasons.

One final note, is the back-biting and back-stabbing, only briefly alluded to above, that goes on in certain sectors of academia. I would suggest that this maybe occurs, mostly, where there are still "singular intellect" academicians, as the massively parallel efforts of the large research groups these days probably favors collaboration over the petty bickering and interminable debates that routinely characterize the "memetics controversy". And that's when the controversy is even acknowledged. More often than not the best refutation is to ignore the assertions entirely and pretend like they don't exist. A social death, for a social idea. But that's where the technologists, and their ethically-challenged, unscrupled economic backers come in. They will push the "idea" idea--the "meme" meme--and often with their own priorities in clear view.

(Do, also, note that Russell abandoned his "atomistic philosophy" around the time he met Wittgenstein. Wittgenstein published his "Tractatus" after WWI, around the time Rusell wrote "Analysis of Mind", and abandoned it not long after, embarking on other philosophical adventures. Turing Attended Wittgenstein's lectures in 1939 and after the war worked with Mike Woodger ion the Pilot ACE computer. Mike Woodger's father, as late as in the mid 1930s, was axiomatizing biological theory in a manner similar to the method that Russel had abandoned, upon Wittgenstein's now recounted recommendations. Paul McCartney knocked on Russel's door one day, and was invited in for tea. Vietnam was discussed. He went home and "told the lads", but "John was the one who really pushed" for peace. "All the World is All that is the Case"? "All You Need is Love"? A fitting (and unwitting?) tribute to David Hume Pinsent? Perhaps? There are more than a few striking similarities in the texts. I was born 24 years after, and 45 miles North of, the place where the phrase "Artificial Intelligence" was coined. I am from history--and for the future! You are too. We have MUCH to say on the subject, still .... )

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