Understanding Memes:

Arriving at a Better Definition

In Terms of

Cultural Evolution


Tony Castillo


Principles of Evolution

Spring 2003

Dr. K. Garbutt


















I. Defining Memes

         Genes, the unit of heredity, play an important role in the process of evolution.  In the process of natural selection, the best, most fit genes are passed on to successive generations of organisms.  They code for physical characteristics such as height, weight, and speed.  Richard Dawkins suggests that there is a unit of culture that can be passed on in the same selection pattern as genes.  Dawkins calls these cultural units memes.  Similar to how the most fit genes drive biological evolution, it is believed that the most fit memes drive cultural evolution.

         Daniel Dennet (2001) compares the synthesis of memes and humans to the synthesis that occurred between prokaryotes and bacteria nearly one billion years ago.  The endosymbiotic team of prokaryote and bacterium proved to be more fit in certain ways than prokaryotes alone and as a result they prospered.  These teams known as eukaryotes became increasingly more complex than prokaryotes leading to multicellularity and organisms.  Similarly, culture has infected human and animal minds leading to benefits over those organisms not influenced by culture such as spreading of the use of tools, bird songs, and other behaviors that lead to reproductive success.

II. Comparing Meme Acquisition To Evolutionary Processes

         It would be beneficial to see how well memes fit into the system of processes familiar to biological evolution such as natural selection.  From this, new perspectives on culture can be obtained.  Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown (2002) point out three ways of detecting natural selection that can apply to memes cultural icons such as Mickey Mouse, the Michelin Man, and teddy bears to take on increasingly juvenile characteristics.  Laland and Brown claim that the purpose of this is for the businesses they represent to gain attention and appeal to a wider range of people since most people find baby-like faces pleasing.  They also point out that convergence in society due to similar pressures may have led things such as money, writing, and the use of weapons to arise independently in several different areas.

         The third way of looking at memes in terms of evolution involves observing a sudden disturbance such as a population crash.  After a major disturbance in a population, large changes in gene frequencies suggest that selection forces are occurring and the population is moving towards a new equilibrium.  A cultural shift in the aftermath of a disturbance would be evidence for cultural evolution.  Laland and Brown suggest studies that focus on these occurrences such as how tourism rejuvenates after a foot-and-mouth outbreak or which products come back into fashion after a period of recession. 

         Studies in these three models of selection--character displacement, convergence, and frequency changes after sudden disturbance could reveal parallels between genes and memes.  However, this might not be enough evidence to convince those who reject memes as explaining the scientific aspect of culture.

III. Meme/ Gene Interaction

         Laland and Brown also try to take into account the process behind the human mind and the selection of memes.  They call to attention the various ways memeticists are comparing memes to viruses.  They note that some memeticists focus solely on the infectious aspect of the meme as a mind virus.  Laland and Brown suggest an interaction between memes and genes in that susceptibility of the mind to memes is a major factor that depends on an individual s genetic make-up.

         The interaction between memes and genes can be further illustrated in a theory by Larry Bull, Owen Holland, and Susan Blackmore (2000).  They suggest that human brain size expanded rapidly over time mainly for memetic reasons.  Meme competition results in some memes becoming successful in terms of being widely imitated and spread (such as new skills) whereas others fail.  Those that can best copy successful memes gain advantages--status, survival, and being selected as preferred mates.  Therefore, genes that facilitate imitation of memes would become favored.  Bull et al. reason that having a larger brain would make meme imitation easier, thus memetic drive would favor genes coding for larger brains. 

IV. Transmission

         Henry Plotkin (2000), however, suggest that memes are not spread by mere imitation of behavior.  He claims that memes are spread through schemas which arise from shared values and beliefs.  Schemas are central to the workings of a culture--unwritten scripts or expectations that an individual learns about their role in society. 

         Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson state that unlike genes, ideas are not passed intact from person to person.  Breakdown in the transmission of ideas can occur because of the differences in people s backgrounds, in genes, and in cultures.  These differences can cause one person to make incorrect assumptions as to the motivation of another s behavior.  Information in one person s brain generates behavior, and the other person would have to infer the information required to do the same action since they do not have a direct connection to the original information. 

         Therefore, Boyd and Richerson claim that the passing on of memes is not a product of natural selection since most memes are transformed during transmission.  This transformation would cause a person of one generation to acquire a completely different meme than the meme belonging to a person of the previous generation from where it originated. 

         It can be argued that genes are not always passed intact either.  The processes of mutation and genetic drift cause random shifts in the frequencies of alleles so that they are slightly different from their gene predecessor.  As a counter-argument, Boyd and Richerson state that genetic mutations are rare, occur once per million replications, and their effect can usually be ignored.  They believe that if mutations were more common, perhaps one in ten, then they would have a major effect on which genes were most prevalent.  Ideas spread and change rapidly from one person to the next, therefore transformation effects and natural selection both must be considered in understanding cultural change.

V. Problems and Potential       

         Joseph Poulshock (2001) of Tokyo Christian University points out that there are three problem areas (and one area of potential) in memetics--the study of memes.  He claims that there are aspects of memetics that are (1.) ill-defined, (2.) misguided and misinformed, and (3.) unhelpful and unscientific.  However, he identifies memetics as potentially helpful in the understanding of language, mind and culture.

         Poulshock says there is a definitional problem with memes in that there is confusion over whether memes are an actuality or an allegory.  The Journal of Memetics defines memes as the  analog to the biological unit of inheritance, the gene or the genetic replicator.   Yet Poulshock claims that some memeticists refer to the  meme analogy  while others refer to them as actual replicators. 

         Next, regarding the misinformed aspect of memetics, Poulshock makes the following statement:  Memetics is a Darwinian dysteleogical theory of culture and mind that is often forced to use teleological language to describe what it claims to be non-teleological processes and events.  He says that  teleologicalization  (looking toward a doctrine of final causes) of natural events is not inherently wrong or misleading in certain contexts.  However, he claims it is a fallacy when memeticists make the claim that culture and mind are fully non-teleological entities.

         Finally, Poulshock critiques Bull, Holland, and Blackmore s proposal concerning memes driving the evolution of the human brain.  Poulshock finds such a claim to be unscientific.  He wants memeticists to clearly admit that there are claims that exist without empirical support, and he says that statements about how memetics explain mind and culture should be reserved until after empirical confirmation and not before.

         By acquiring empirical data about memes through experimentation and utilizing the data with prior knowledge of evolutionary processes, a greater understanding of how culture evolves can be realized.





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Bull, Larry, Owen Holland and Susan Blackmore.   On Meme-Gene

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         2000):  227-236

Dawkins, Richard.   The Selfish Meme.   Time.  Vol. 153,

         Issue 15 (4/19/99):  52-54. 

Dennet, Daniel C.   The Evolution of Culture.   Monist.  Vol.


         84, Issue 3 (July 2001): 305-325.


Laland, Kevin and Gillian Brown.   The Golden Meme.

         New Scientist.  Vol. 175, Issue 2354 (8/3/2002): 40-44.

Plotkin, Henry.   People Do More Than Imitate.   Scientific

         American.  Vol. 283, Issue 4 (October 2000):  72.

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         Journal of Psychology and Theology.  Vol. 30, No. 1 (2001):