Wednesday, 12 October 2011

Memes in "Not by genes alone"

Boyd and Richerson have led the adademic bashing of memetics by cultural evolution researchers, arguing the term "meme" too-strongly implies discreteness and high-fidelity copying. Scientific meme enthusiasts mostly disagree - saying that discreteness and high-fidelity copying are not too-strongly implied by the term - and they cite the dictionary definition of "meme"- which makes no mention of "discreteness" or "high-fidelity copying".

However Boyd and Richerson do use the term "meme" in their 2005 book "Not by genes alone" - in a context apparently divorced from criticism - on page 244:

Modern societies, by vastly enlarging the scope for nonparental transmission have also increased the chance of choosing maladaptive memes.
According to Runciman (2009, p.53), the explanation for this is that Boyd and Richerson initially drafted the book using the term "meme" throughout - and then replaced it with their own term ("cultural variant"). However their "meme sweep" did not catch all the occurrences of the term "meme".

Peter Richerson once had this to say about the similarity:
Our project has involved borrowing models from population genetics and applying them to cultural evolution - much like the meme idea.
I think Boyd and Richerson's "cultural variants" are the same thing as memes, despite their protesations to the contrary.

The history of memetics might have been rather different if "Not by Genes Alone" had endorsed the "meme" terminology. For one thing, there would have been less need for me to write my own (2011) book on memetics.

Having said that, I've also looked at "The Origin and Evolution of Cultures" - and it is pretty saturated with the "m" word - much of it apparently uncritical.


  • Richerson, Peter J. and Boyd, Robert (2005) Not by Genes Alone: How Culture Transformed Human Evolution.
  • Richerson, Peter J. and Boyd, Robert (2005) The Origin and Evolution of Cultures.
  • Runciman, W.G. (2009) The Theory of Cultural and Social Selection.
  • Tim Tyler (2011) Memes in The Origin and Evolution of Cultures.

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