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date: 26 May 2022


Encyclopedia of Semiotics

Michael Ruse


Coined by the British evolutionist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976), a meme is a unit of culture—such as “tunes, ideas, catch‐phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches.” In humans, memes have supposedly taken over much of the evolutionary burden of the traditional units of heredity, the genes. Dawkins introduces them because in his opinion the rate of human cultural evolution is far too rapid to be simply a function of gene‐centered evolution.

Memes arise quite possibly by chance, but once they exist, they propagate themselves by copying or imitation, jumping from one meme user (generally a conscious human but possibly also another vertebrate such as a bird) to another. There, they settle in, as it were. This process should be understood fairly literally; quoting the psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, Dawkins writes that “memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking—the meme for, say, ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over” (1976, p. 207).

Dawkins's does not regard meme evolution as exactly analogous to gene evolution, nor does he claim that the two always work together harmoniously. A belief, for instance, might be of physical reproductive benefit to the believer, but in Dawkins's opinion it could as easily be of no benefit whatsoever or even be counterproductive reproductively. A meme is transmitted because of its own “selfish” properties rather than because its human possessors consciously will its future success.

Dawkins's thinking about memes resonates strongly with the claims of “evolutionary epistemologists,” a group of naturalist thinkers who have tried to model their thinking about human knowledge and culture on evolutionary—more specifically, Darwinian—lines. There are two main branches of this kind of thought: those who see units of culture as analogous to units of biology, (where, for instance, rival theories struggle for supremacy in scientists' minds); and those who argue that the human brain is shaped by selection and that culture must be seen as an adaptation designed to help its possessors in life's struggles. Obviously, Dawkins falls most naturally into the former branch, which raises the traditional problem about intentionality—namely, that cultural evolution must be necessarily different from biological evolution because the raw units of culture are introduced with a purpose in a way quite different from the random appearance through mutation of genes. However, in some respects Dawkins inclines to the latter branch, if only because he insists (following Humphrey) that his is a literal theory rather than an analogical one. But he then runs afoul of the literalist insistence that in some sense these units of culture must be tied to biological adaptive advantage.

Obviously, Dawkins can retort that these are problems for evolutionary epistemology and not for him. He can pick and choose as he pleases, as does Karl Popper (1972) (to whose work Dawkins makes passing reference). However, even the sympathetic reader might point out that, stimulating though Dawkins's ideas might be, they are no substitute for an articulated body of theory, like the one we have for the genes in population genetics. Nor does it provide the great amount of empirical work that has been performed to support such theory as population genetics. At the moment, even twenty years after it was first proposed, what Dawkins offers us is a prolegomenon to a theory of culture rather than one that is, in the language of Thomas Kuhn, a functioning mature paradigm. We must therefore await further developments.


Dawkins, R. The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976.Find this resource:

Dawkins, R. The Extended Phenotype: The Gene as the Unit of Selection. Oxford: W. H. Freeman, 1982.Find this resource:

Dawkins, R. The Blind Watchmaker. New York: Norton, 1986.Find this resource:

Dennett, D. Darwin's Dangerous Idea. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1995.Find this resource:

Hull, D. “The Naked Meme.” In Learning, Development, and Culture: Essays in Evolutionary Epistemology, edited by H. C. Plotkin, pp. 273–327. Chichester: Wiley, 1982.Find this resource:

Popper, K. R. Objective Knowledge: An Evolutionary Approach. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1972.Find this resource:

Richards, R. J. Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987.Find this resource:

Ruse, M. Taking Darwin Seriously. Oxford: Blackwell, 1986.Find this resource:

—Michael Ruse