Memes

Some consider the building blocks of the cultural evolutionary story to be values, ideas and beliefs. Dawkins’ (1976) initially put forward the meme as a broad concept including tunes, ideas, catchphrases, fashions and even routines. However, he later revised this to include only units of information which ‘reside’ in an individual’s head (Dawkins, 1982). While these memes represented the replicators of culture, their corresponding interactor referred to the ‘consequences’ of the meme to the outside world, such as words, music, visual images, style of clothes, facial or hand gestures, and skills. This distinction parallels that given by Cloak (1975) who distinguished between instructions in people’s heads (i-culture) and the behavior that those instructions produce (m-culture). Hull (1982) agrees with this distinction, viewing the meme in an individual’s head as the replicator, and the outward manifestation of this as the interactor (i.e. non-memetic action). These units of culture are thus viewed as modes of thought (ideas, beliefs, values, schema) which reside in the heads of individuals, and are expressed/enacted as patterns of behavior, language and symbolic artifacts (Weeks and Galunic, 2003). These memes are considered as discrete packages of knowledge, with stand-alone meaning (Shepherd and McKelvey, 2009), which can be "socially exchanged or transmitted, with more or less accurate transfer with or without alteration of meaning". This emerging conceptualization of the meme as a unit of cultural evolution shares many features with the notion of shared ideational phenomena, put forward by Durham (1991). These ideational phenomena include values, ideas and beliefs, which are distinct from the behaviors and human actions they produce, and are transmitted between individuals through social learning. Durham (1991) argues that these coherent, functional ideational phenomena, or memes, evolve as they are varied and differentially transmitted over time. What emerges is a multi-level view of cultural evolution, in which a complex ecology of interacting ideas and values (memes) struggle for survival in the heads of individuals, groups, organizations, institutions and societies (Sperber, 1996; Wimsatt, 1999).

Recommended Reading

Blackmore, S. (1999). The Meme Machine. Oxford University Press: Oxford

Blackmore develops Dawkins' idea of meme and relates this to the evolution of culture, socio-biology and meme-gene coevolution. She uses a number of thought-povoking examples to develop key arguments and address key meme critics.
Dawkins, R. (1976). The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press: New York

While the core ideas presented in this seminal text relate to the notion of the 'selfish gene', Dawkins also coins the term 'Universal Darwinism'. This is the text that many evolutionary scholars point to as the catalyst for their work. While many has since heavily criticized this book, it is undeniably a key milestone in the development of a wider, abstracted theory of evolution, with a number of core concepts being derived directly from this text, such as Generalized Darwinism and memetics.
Hull, D.L. (1988), Science as a process. The University of Chicago Press: Chicago.

Seminal text, which includes a number of key definitions later adopted by Generalized Darwinists, including the idea of the replicator and interactor duality in the conceptualization of the unit of evolution.
Weeks, J. and C. Galunic (2003), ‘A Theory of the Cultural Evolution of the Firm: The Intra-Organizational Ecology of Memes’, Organization Studies, 24(8), 1309-1352

Weeks and Galunic attempt to develop a cultural theory of the firm using the concepts of the meme, and variation-selection-retention. They define the meme as cultural modes of thought. Memes thus spread as they are enacted and the resulting cultural patterns observed and interpreted between individuals.

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