Can Memetics be Revived?

By Esque's request, here's an essay had originaly written for a master's course on "The Cultural Mind" and published as pre-print, titled "Can Memetics be Revived".

The vibe of this essay is programmatic, meaning that it:
a) identifies a set of problems that have historically haunted the research programme of Memetics,
b) points to a hitherto unaddressed fundamental cause of the problem and
c) purports to provide a suggestion as what to do next in order to "revive" memetics under a new light.

The main axis according to which the analysis of memetics' failure revolves is the externalism-internalism debate in terms of cultural transmission of memes. The argument is that historically, memeticists have focused on memes as "mind viruses" that are stored in the brain and spread from brain to brain. No experimental study as of yet has been able to "find" memes inside brains and the whole neurological programme of early memetics felt flat.

On the contrary, if memes are seen as behaviours and as something that can be externalized and encoded in various media (text, drawings, social media posts), then an empirical study of them is possible. Theories such as Dual Inheritance Theory (or Gene-Culture Coevolution) have already used Anthropological and Material Studies methodologies to study cultural transmission without the memeticist baggage (without the meme-gene and "mind virus" analogies). But DIT has trouble accounting for phenomena like internet virality and other media where information spreads and is imitated fast in a network, rather than between successive generations.

I argue that the internet is the proper domain for the establishment of a reformed view of memetics that embraces an externalist methodology and leaves the ontological baggage of memes behind. The thesis is very similar to @Seong's The Memeticist's Challenge Remains Open (2018) in that it rejects Dawkinsianism while also opening up a possible path of resolution to the "Memeticists Challenge".

P.S. I only came across Seong's thesis only after I had already written the greatest bulk of the essay. If I did earlier, I would have framed the whole essay as a response to it.

1 Like

Great article! I think we are united in our desire to revive useful aspects of memetics, as well as to synthesise cultural evolutionary theories with the study of Internet memes. A great paragraph summarising this position, from your article (pp. 8-9):

Many have criticized memetics as a failed analogy to genes as replicators but what if we make the analogy on different biological grounds? Biological theory is not homogenous and unified and organism-derived adaptations to the environment (such as in niche construction cases) have been left out of the received view in biology. But what if we take them seriously and liken memes to the environmental modifications that organisms make instead? What if memes are treated as constructed artifacts that have a propensity for rapid propagation between populations? Maybe then we could escape the problems of a selfish view of memes where human individuals are treated as possessed zombies existing as servants to the self-replication of their memes. But this will require narrowing down the scope of memetics to something less ambitious than a general theory of cultural evolution. So, instead of seeing memetics as a competing paradigm for cultural evolution we can rather treat it as a complementary paradigm to theories of social learning, niche construction and shared attention. If the ontological baggage of the meme-gene analogy is left behind we can mix these together, creating a more integral account of cultural evolution where memetics is just part of the solution but not the whole solution. GCCE provides an account of selection criteria and replication success (that memetics was lacking as we saw in Section 2.), as well as an empirical paradigm that can study cultural evolution through behavior. Joint attention provides a cognitive mechanism for how imitation and thus replication from one individual to another happens in a social context (and can compliment mirror neuron accounts) and niche construction provides the theoretical and empirical background for rejecting the selfish meme analogy and a ground for the position that memes don’t just float around in a hypothesized semantic space but are constructed by agents to satisfy certain functions. All of the above are externalist approaches because they do not need to hypothesize mental representations and neural mechanisms behind the replication processes in order to study them empirically. Memetics can itself be part of that picture too if we consider the dynamics of propagation as its most important feature. The rest can account for the origins of cultural traits and cumulative cultural evolution but have difficulty in dealing with cases of rapid propagation and the spread of informational entities like beliefs and ideas, whereas memetics can easily account for them.

I have to emphasise here that criticisms focusing on the "viruses of the mind" rhetoric from Dawkins is precisely incoherent in their characterisation of Dawkins as a strong determinist: in The Selfish Gene, Ch. 11, "Memes: The New Replicators", Dawkins ends by saying that humans aren't automatons controlled by memes (or genes, for that matter), and that we should "rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators" to further enhance our autonomy. Memetics isn't intrinsically deterministic about free will, and never has been.

I think that addressing this pretheoretical concern about the definition of memes (and culture, and personhood, and meaning, etc. for that matter) will be absolutely crucial to a programme that aims to integrate cultural evolutionary theories with cybercultural research. Even when some disciplines have addressed such issues in their own way and have moved on, researchers frequently lag behind in updating their knowledge about other disciplines (of course, this is not at all limited to meme studies or any one field). It would be essential philosophical work to cover this in a way that doesn't confine itself to an "evolutionary biologist" language.

That being said, I can't help but find it highly appropriate to contemporary cyberculture when I read Keith Henson's 1985 article about memes (sometimes) taking over minds (2003):

In inducing their own replication, memes are conceptually related to genes that influence the bodies in which they reside, directly or indirectly, to replicate the genes. "Your" genes, incidentally, are not the only ones that influence your behavior. Consider the fact that a lowly cold virus turns you into an atomizer for propagating itself by activating the sneeze reflex. An even more impressive example of one organism's behavior being influenced by another's genes is the case of an ant brainworm that cycles between ants and sheep. It causes the ants it infects to climb up a grass stem and wait there for a sheep to eat them.

Sometimes "your" memes can have this much influence. We need a name for victims that have been taken over by a meme to the extent that their own survival becomes inconsequential. "Memeoids" is my suggestion. You see lots of these people on the evening news from such places as Belfast or Beirut. Less extreme cases haunt the airports with signs about feeding Jane Fonda to the whales.

Saying people get "brainworms" and become "memeoids" sounds exactly like how people talk to each other on Twitter. Powerful stuff.

Your approach to developing a unified and empirical theory of memes is powerful because it implies a modular design of the theory. I wonder if we could combinatorially develop alternative theoretical frameworks using this modular way of thinking. If we determine that a theory of memes must answer such and such questions, and then provide some way to collate research and theories that each answer one question or another, and finally filter these combinations by whether they contradict one another or not... that would allow researchers to collaborate even across otherwise insurmountable disciplinary boundaries, since most of the research could be done independently first, for instance.

I think that Richerson and Boyd are quite right in their appraisal of memes as a "better mousetrap" (2000):

We do not understand in detail how culture is stored and transmitted, so we do not know whether memes are replicators or not. If the application of Darwinian thinking to understanding cultural change depended on the existence of replicators, we would be in trouble. Fortunately, memes need not be close analogs to genes. They must be gene-like to the extent that they are somehow capable of carrying the cultural information necessary to give rise to the cumulative evolution of complex cultural patterns that differentiate human groups. They exhibit the essential Darwinian properties of fidelity, fecundity, and longevity, but, as the example of phonemes shows, this can be accomplished by a most ungene like, replicatorless process of error prone phenotypic imitation. All that is really required is that culture constitutes a system maintaining heritable variation.
Memes are not a universal acid, but they are a better mouse trap. Population modeling of culture offers social science useful conceptual tools, and handy mathematical machinery that will help solve important, longstanding problems. It is not a substitute for rational actor models, or careful historical analysis. But it can be an invaluable complement to these forms of analysis that will enrich the social sciences.

Looking back, it kind of feels like classical memeticists were "too early" to a fundamentally correct idea, and that ideas that didn't work back then might just work now, under drastically different circumstances. I think the timing is right for a reassessment.

1 Like

Oooff.. I just realized that I had left a draft unposted for maybe half a year now and realized I it was still there while browsing the forum :rofl: Good reminder to not hesitate to press reply! Anyway here it goes!

First of all, couldn't agree more about this. It is a case of bad timing and bad framing. The fact that classical memetics makes much more intuitive sense to all of us who have been chronically online and have ventured into the fringes of memecultures provides the cultural ground for this reassesment, but most academic cultural evolution scholars, not having the experience of participation into the space of internet irony, will be a significant barrier to this.

This is true, although Dawkins himself seems to portay certain behaviours as "possesions" with the characteristics being that of religious extremism (which is due his personal agenda). My concern is that the whole "mind viruses" analogy might not be the most fitting. I would argue that it is better to use the bacterium as the primary exemplar of memetic replication rather than the virus. Bacteria are known to express Horizontal Gene Transfer, which makes genetic replication an agile process that happens in a network rather than in an inter-generational tree. This is what makes bacterial colonies so resistant to anti-biotic medication so fast and we could say the same thing about cyber-culture. The internet has flattened the replication buffer of cultural units and facilitated the move toward a "bacterialization" of cultural replication. This is a point that I ended up leaving out of the paper for reasons of parsimony and because I couldn't argue for it in depth.

On a meta-commentary on this, there is another very important point I was attempting to make but I think I didn't succeed. After I finished writing this paper I've felt that there was a conceptual piece in the end that is missing that makes the last section a bit arbitrary and incomplete. It was very subtle and I was trying to approach it but I think that after reading it again and having a better grasp of UI/UX design, I have a better proxy for this. It has to do with how the internet has reshaped the whole mechanism of immitation and cultural replication and this is because it has generated an "attentional attractor", a point of convergence of the (mostly) visual phenomenology of the different users into a single cultural unit. Essentially the assemblage of networked devices, screens, and the UI of social media sets the scaffolding conditions to scale-up joint attention to an almost unlimited extent. The anatomy of the human eye and the micro-kinesiology of the gaze, which Tomasello thought was behind the human specie's profound ability for immitattion, need not be necessary anymore for joint attention to occur. In looking at the screens of networked devices, the gaze is now implied as a background condition. Tomasello's hypothesis is a neat explanation for early human evolution, but how do we speak about a contemporary society of spectacle, of cameras and televised media, of streaming, of uploaded videos, of chat and of digital footprints? Attention has been decoupled from the gaze and has become cyber. Artifical perceptual consensus would be another way to put it as all users can testify to the validity of a singular object of perception which is similar despite individual difference in bodily and mental constitution, geographical location and cultural context.

Attention has transformed from being synchronous and precarious, to being asynchronous and persistent. Stigmergy seems much more fitting for explaining the interaction patterns in cyberspace rather than Tomasello's anatomically based theory. If we are to talk about this huge issue of the "attention economy" in a more nuanced way and find a way out of it, we will have to update our whole theoretical baggage when it comes to these cognitive notions.

I'd like to know your thoughts, especially on this latest point. Was it clear?

1 Like

I really agree with you on your points. If you look for the latest memes and meme related research, a noticeable portion of it takes classical memetics as a given, effectively skipping the "who's the boss?" question which memeologists have traditionally held to be a roadblock on the way to "wide uptake of the [meme] concept in studying digital culture" (Shifman, 2013).

These tend to be from more hard-minded researchers doing quantitative work, namely in economics and machine learning (in particular, much ML research on memes focuses on the detection of so-called "hateful memes"). The economists (e.g. Schlaile et al., 2021) also seem to be actively working on rescuing classical memetics as a theoretical foundation (and not merely an etymological touchstone for working definitions). It seems to me that memeologists have always been the successor to classical, Dawkinsian, memetics and the heirs to the ontological debate, in spite of their call to jettison the "biological analogies". I think this was due to the great extent to which Dawkinsian evolutionary theory was taken for granted. Even in the picking and choosing of which biological analogies to retain, they operated within the bounds of Dawkinsianism (for better or for worse).

So, the continuing subcultural popularity of the Dawkinsian metaphors of genes and viruses speaks at least to their generalised appeal and convenience. The loaded implications of the term "virus" in meme studies is certainly attributable to Dawkins in no small part, given that he was prone to insisting on shockingly naive value judgments (namely, that religions are mind-viruses but science is not; Dawkins, 1991). But Dawkins also maintains his anti-deterministic stance, quite firmly and comfortably, because he is a good Darwinian in the end. Dennett presents a more sophisticated version of Dawkins which doesn't permit such infections of logic by rhetoric so often. Dennett's exchange with Sperber at the end of this talk, regarding Sperber's "cultural attractors" concept, is terrific (and also relevant to your "attentional attractor" concept):

As for bacterial horizontal gene transfer, I agree:

On a similar note, I think that the "meme magicians" (on the other end of the subcultural, folk-memetics spectrum, such as Meme Analysis) have the right feel. Although the hodgepodge of psychoanalysis and occultism leave much to be desired, the vibes resonate for the viewers much better than do talk of "mind viruses". The attractors at work don't seem to be individual ideas ("memes" in the classical sense), but also individual users or a group of users, instances of memetic imagery, a social media post, a game, a chat, and so on. Here, I think a wholehearted revival of the unresolved debates in classical memetics is the correct approach (namely, the Unit of Evolution debate; e.g. Dupre, 2017), and that philosophers of biology have already constructed the means to deal with this tension (between the various perspectives on what a meme is). For instance, defining memes as the unit of selection within cultural evolution, and additionally allowing for evolution at multiple levels of culture, would more easily free researchers and subculturalists alike from the intuitive hooks of "the unit of culture" (which would often have us looking for something like "culturgenes").

Lastly, I think your call to move away from the anatomical conceptualisation to something like swarm intelligence parallels both the movement towards systems biology within biology and the movement away from clumsy attempts at naturalising meaning along the lines of "stimulus meaning" (Quine, 1960) within the popular understanding of meaning and language. It's very good, and an attempt to give "attention" a clear meaning through a new framework sounds promising indeed.