Aaron Lukaszewski

Hutson Olsen

Lindsey Stevenson




Blackmore, Susan (1999). The meme machine. Oxford: Oxford University Press.


Gil-White, Francisco (2004). Common misunderstandings of memes (and genes). In S.

Hurley & N. Chater (Eds), Perspectives on imitation: From mirror neurons to memes:

MIT Press.


A Brief Introduction to Memetics

-Cultural Transmission as a Darwinian Selection Process-


            As you may recall from Dawkins (1986), the process of biological evolution is driven by the selfish replication of genes. Dawkins argues for a “gene’s eye view” of the evolutionary process; from the viewpoint of Inclusive Fitness theory, the idea of selfish replicators do the best to help explain the formerly mysterious workings of evolution. Darwin (1871) famously proposed that the ingredients of natural selection are variation, inheritance, and selection in the population. Of course, the evolution of life on this planet shows evidence of all three. Dawkins refines the definition of a successful replicator. According to him, a successful replicator will have three attributes to an adaptive degree: fidelity (the ability to copy oneself accurately), fecundity (the tendency to copy oneself frequently), and longevity (the characteristic of remaining distributed in a population long enough for selection pressures to act upon less adaptive replicators). Remember, fidelity can neither be too good nor too bad in order to be successful; the replicator must copy itself accurately enough to distribute itself among the population, but not so accurately that there is no variation. Genes can copy themselves extremely accurately, but random mutations allow for variety in the population. Such variety allows selection pressures to act differentially and thus produce biological evolution.

Despite the content thus far, the purpose of the present discussion is not to expound the principles of genetic evolution set forth by Darwin and Dawkins; however, the principles of natural selection will be important for understanding the material to be put forth in the following pages. Dawkins (1986), and more recently, Susan Blackmore (1999), have advanced a Darwinian selection process to explain cultural transmission called Memetics. Memetic theory is based on the notion that Darwinian selection acts not only upon genes, but upon any unit of replication which meets the basic prerequisites for the evolutionary algorithm (variation, inheritance, and selection). Memes are the units of cultural transmission analogous to genes, and are thought to meet these prerequisites (some theorists believe this more than others). Where genes are instructions for making proteins, memes are instructions for carrying out behavior. The foregoing discussion will attempt to summarize the basic concepts and criticisms of Memetic theory.

According to Dawkins (1989, p. 192), the meme is a unit of cultural transmission, or imitation. A meme can be a song, a story, an idea, a catch-phrase, or a way of performing a specific task (such as fashioning a hand-axe)—anything that can be learned and replicated by way of observation and imitation. The definition of “imitation” is somewhat controversial. Blackmore (1999) follows Dawkins in defining imitation as the transmission of a meme from one brain to another, even if only the “gist” of the meme is transmitted.

Memes hop from one brain to the next (sometimes via an intermediary such as the written word or cinema), thus replicating their essence. Only the most successful memes (i.e. the ones that are most attractive to imitators) survive. According to Blackmore, millions of memes are created each day, but only a few survive. These new memes come about through variation and combination of old ones—either inside a person’s mind or when memes are passed from person to person. This process of the creation of new memes is the metaphoric equivalent to genetic mutation in the process of cultural evolution. Blackmore thinks that human creativity is a process of the variation and recombination of existing memes. In principle, we may create new memes without using any existing memes at all, but “in practice, because we use memes so much, most of our thinking is coloured by them in one way or another. Memes have become the tools with which we think” (Blackmore, p. 15).

Blackmore offers two reasons why some memes succeed and others fail. The first is the nature of human beings as imitators and selectors. Basically, because humans are the replicating machinery and the selective environment for memes, our tendencies and functional design play a huge role in the imitation and therefore replication of memes. On this point, Blackmore seems to be referring in part to evolved psychological mechanisms, as they play a rather large role in what catches our attention and stays stored in memory. The second factor is the nature of the memes themselves, the tricks they exploit, the ways in which they group together and the general processes of memetic evolution that favor some memes over others. These two groups of factors work together to determine the memetic selection pressures.

 The philosopher Daniel Dennett urges one always to ask “cui bono?” or “who benefits?” when discussing the process of natural selection. One of the most important insights made in biological evolutionary theory thus far is that genes are the ultimate beneficiaries of natural selection. Dawkins and Blackmore argue that memes are the ultimate beneficiaries of the process of cultural evolution. Because memes vary, are inherited, and are selected for, they are replicators which should be thought of by taking the “meme’s eye view”. Blackmore notes that the world is full of hosts for memes (e. g. brains), and that “memes are replicators that will tend to increase in number whenever they have the chance” (p. 37). The enormous selection pressure means that very few memes will survive of all that come to be, so the “best” replicators will be the ones to prevail in the population of hosts. She then posits that the best replicators may be the ones that most often occupy our incessant trains of thought, which we find extremely difficult to quiet, even for a moment (this is why meditation is so hard for most people). Blackmore notes that such constant rumination is energetically wasteful and therefore a waste of resources. Why, then, would such a wasteful trait prevail? Because memes are “trying” to replicate, and their survival is dependent on the frequency of their arising in the minds of the hosts which they inhabit. Memes that more often protrude into empty thought (mental rehearsal) will do better than their less-frequent counterparts. On this point, it seems as if Blackmore is positing something implausible (which it may indeed be) in that the “motivations” of memes have some driving force that dictates the activity of neural tissue, and therefore our minds; however, this view may make more sense if one prescribes to Blackmore’s idea of memetic drive, which she believes led to the evolution of the abnormally large human brain.

Blackmore notes that “we seem to have a brain surplus to requirements, surplus to adaptive needs” (p. 67). Lucy, the famous Australopithecine, had a brain slightly larger than a chimpanzee. The brain size expansion eventually responsible for our own large brains began about the same time as the appearance of the Homo line of primates (2.5 mya). What selection pressure explains this brain size explosion? According to Blackmore, “the turning point in our evolutionary history was when we began to imitate each other” (p. 74). With imitation, there came the birth of a second replicator: the meme. The coming about of imitation initially led to an increase in brain size because it required three skills: 1) Making decisions about what to imitate 2) Complex transformations from one point of view to another and 3) Production of matching bodily actions. So memes, once in existence, drove brain size because they created their own selection pressures. Initially, the pressure was biological—the best imitators would be able to learn useful skills from others such as tool making or spear throwing (who had learned them from others), and therefore survive more often. Eventually, there may have been sexual selection pressures based on imitation ability. The rule for mating may have become “mate with the best imitators.” Thus, those with the biggest and most inhabitable brains (for memes) may have been selected for by survival selection as well as sexual selection pressures. If memes did play such an integral role in driving the selection pressures responsible for the big human brain, it is easier to see why brains may be designed in a way that facilitates their survival and competition. In this view, we are essentially designed in our modern form to be the hosts for memes to inhabit and replicate (indeed, Susan Blackmore’s book is entitled “The Meme Machine”). This view is radical, controversial, and empirically under-supported. In the next section we will hear a few arguments from a critic of Blackmore, who feels, as do we, that Blackmore overextends the idea of memetic drive, giving memes too much power in the explanation of human evolution.

Gil-White (2004) is also a proponent of the view that Darwinian selection operates in cultural transmission; however, Gil-White is of the opinion that thinking of memes as selfish replicators “does much more to distort than enlighten our understanding of cultural processes” (p.1). Essentially, he feels that the gene analogy is “fetishized” by those who insist that memes are indeed true replicators. It is pointed out that Blackmore (1999) defines replication as a social exchange where “some kind of information is passed on.” This, in his view, is an incorrect definition. He argues that replication “takes place when perfect copies are produced”—memetic transmission lacks the copying fidelity to be considered as selfish replication. Memes mutate in every act of transmission, and therefore are almost never perfectly replicated. Gil-White’s main point is that replication is not necessary for cumulative adaptations through selective processes.

According to Gil-White (2004), in reference to his notion that memes cannot be true replicators, but can nonetheless be involved in Darwinian selection processes, “copying always involves mistakes, but around an average of perfect accuracy” (p. 9). This means that each time a behavior is copied (the memetic transmission process) some individuals will copy it in such a way that produces a more effective replica, while some will copy it in such a way that produces a less effective replica. The important point made here is that as long as the mean replica is close to the originally copied meme, we can consider the possibility that Darwinian processes are operating. What cumulative adaptation requires (other than variation, inheritance, and selection) is (1) sufficient inaccuracy in the production of descendents such that superior variants can occasionally emerge; and (2) sufficient accuracy that, at the population level (the mean), we can speak of meaningful, directional change (p. 10).

Gil-White also argues against Blackmore’s idea of memetic drive, specifically that memes drove the evolution of the human brain: “A meme cannot select for a gene unless it is widespread (meta-populationally) and stable (inter-generationally)……But for Blackmore, this is a catch-22 because what puts the meme in the position to select for the gene is the fact that this same gene evolved first.” While genes may be selected for that are biased for some culturally relevant behavior (e.g. altruism), the biological evolution that has taken place is only influenced by cultural factors, and such that biological evolution is subserved by the content processing bias (we call these “evolved psychological mechanisms”). According to this view, putting memes in the “driver’s seat” is ultimately incorrect.

Lastly, Gil-White urges all memetic theorists to stop all the theorizing and begin conducting research to garner empirical support for their claims. He lightly notes that psychologists and anthropologists may be under-qualified to discuss evolutionary genetics at such length, but are “eminently qualified” to conduct research at the cultural and psychological level. Cultural histories and proximate cognitive biases should be studied to shed more empirical light on this particular theoretical pursuit.