By Sylvain Magne
Memetics is a scientific discipline that aims at building an evolutionary model of culture at large. Although this science is still in progress it offers a new and promising perspective on the cultural phenomenon that could help us better understand ourselves and understand our cultural environment which too often seems to elude us. I will try to show here the interest of the memetic approach and its potential.
We will see that the memetic model is based on two fundamental concepts inherited from the theory of evolution, the concept of meme, a sort of building block of culture, and the universal principle of evolution as discovered by Charles Darwin. In short, the memetic model considers that culture is a phenomenon which is subject to a similar development to biological evolution, and thus can be studied with similar tools.
The concept of meme is at the heart of memetics.
This concept posits that every culture is strictly composed of cultural bricks, replicating elementary codes called memes, which may survive by copying from one medium to another. Every cultural element is considered a meme or is composed of memes. As an example we have the alphabet, the numbers, the musical notes, words, games, sports, arts, religious or political ideas, mathematics, traditions, methods, technology, etc ... All these elements of which culture is made, would therefore be memes or groups of memes also known as complexes of memes or memeplexes.
The media carrying these memes can be of many kinds. For example, sounds, images, objects, electromagnetic waves, and anything that can contain or carry cultural information. There is a debate over whether memes exist inside our brains or not. This is an important question that I will try to answer later on.
So what is a meme really; a word, an image, a dance move?
Where does it start and where does it end ?
What is it made of ?
This question is one of the crucial points of memetics that still need to be clarified. I will try to do so in the next chapters. But, before we do that we need to know about replicators.
The meme is, as defined by its creator Richard Dawkins, a replicator. What is a replicator ? A replicator is in fact a rather simple idea, and we will go into that very soon. Its definition is rather simple, but, by contrast the implications of its existence can be very complex, so complex that they may lead to the emergence of life itself. And this is why the topic of memetics is fascinating. Memetics is fascinating because it shows that the cultural phenomenon which shapes the mind of every human being, is subject to an evolutionary process which can be studied and understood. We can understand better how humans create culture and how culture creates humans.
The replicator idea is not new, and memes are neither the first replicators nor the only ones. The first replicators that we have identified are the genes. So, let's take a closer look at what the replicators are. Follow the link below:
What is a replicator?
Link to the online article:
Link to the blog: What is a replicator?
The second concept stipulates that the elementary codes, those memes that replicate, do not replicate freely. We will see that these limitations, combined with the replicator’s ability to vary, will allow an evolutionary process to take place.
What is evolution? Like everything in the universe, replicators such as genes, are subject to interactions with their environment. These interactions can limit their freedom by, for example, slowing down their replication rate, or limiting their numbers, or simply destroying them. These limitations apply via the vehicle of the genes, plants or animals that carry these genes, because when they have trouble surviving, due to diseases, accidents, conflicts, etc. they are less likely to have offspring and therefore less likely to pass on their genes.
In other words, they are subject to selective pressure from their environment. It's the environment which will then determine their success by playing the role of referee. This is how the theory of evolution explains very simply how certain replicators can be selected and can survive longer. This process is called natural selection.
However, it appears that this is not enough to allow evolution to happen. Imagine, if the replicators never change then, in the best case scenario, a group of unchanging replicators will survive forever (as long as the environment does not change too much to cause their disappearance) but they will never evolve.
The final prerequisite for evolution is that replicators are imperfect, i.e. they leave room for some occasional errors of copies. As a result, if some of these copying errors offer an advantage over other versions, then these new replicators will take over. Thus, paradoxically, the accumulation of errors combined with the selective pressure of the environment can lead replicators to become more efficient at surviving in that environment.
To summarize, a system will be the subject of an evolution if and only if the system is in the presence of replicators, if these replicators do not always replicate perfectly and if the environment provides a selective pressure on the survival of replicators. It's the simple recipe for evolution.
If you want to know more, Richard Dawkins brilliantly explains the logic of the replicator in his book The Selfish Gene.
Memetics is interesting because it sheds a new light on our understanding of life and human nature in particular. This is what we will explore in later chapters. However memetics is not the first to focus on this question. Many sciences such as biology, neuroscience, psychology, computer science, etc. provide rich and useful models for understanding human kind.
Indeed, memetics faces a problem of circumstance, which is making its place among other sciences. One could argue that a new model such as memetics would be redundant, since we have so many models already in place. This would require of memetics to have something to offer that is of enough significance to spark interest.
But one can also argue that current models are far from perfect. For example, we may say that psychology provides many answers but sometimes greatly lack precision, while neuroscience is very descriptive and accurate but still doesn’t explain much about how brains make decisions for example. However, the fact that a current model is not complete does not justify that we should drop it to look at all far-fetched ideas. So keeping a sceptical view on memetics today is entirely justified.
The big advantage of memetics is that it provides a very efficient point of view on a topic that seems to escape any rationality. That's what I hope to show with this work. The rationality of memetics stems directly from its basic concept of replicator. This concept makes of memetics a science potentially testable and verifiable. This is very important for any science worthy of the name. The verifiability of a science through experience is what distinguishes it from a mere hypothesis.
Furthermore, if this model is correct, it has the huge advantage of being simple. Science always favours models that can describe a phenomenon in the most simple way. Why explain in ten lines what can be explained in one?
So I think there is much to gain from the development of memetics and it should deserve our interest. My hunch is that memetics will greatly assist the development of psychology, as neuroscience does more and more, to create together a model of the mind and culture that is more precise and rigorous.
The main weakness of memetics resides in its ability to concretely demonstrate the existence of memes. If memetics fails on this point then its future will be bleak. Comparatively to the meme, the genetic replicator is rather easy to identify. For most people the genes are simply sets of nucleotides in the chromosomes, and many people wish that memetics could do the same and show us what memes are made of.
I will attempt here to answer this fundamental question. But we can observe that the concept of gene is not as well defined as we might think. For example, it is sometimes almost impossible to say precisely where a gene begins and where it ends. What I mean by this is that confusing the genetic code and its medium is a mistake, although it is an efficient approximation. We will see that the problem with memes is similar. Moreover, strictly speaking, it may be that memetics can prove to be true without having to clearly define the unit of selection. Indeed, at the time of Darwin, genetics did not exist but his theory was still powerful enough to be verifiable by other means, such as fossil records for example.
My hope here is to shed light on this issue and show that there is no mystery and that memes are indeed a reality.