- Burman, Jeremy Trevelyan (2012) The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976–1999.
When the “meme” was introduced in 1976, it was as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind.The author seems to think that Dennett and Hofstadter "activated" the concept of a meme, by performing a cut-and-paste job on Dawkins' original article in their own 1981 publication (The Mind's Eye). He gives the example:
Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.However, that text appears in The Selfish Gene. Memes were pretty "active" from the beginning. To me, the author seems rather hung up on the issue of who first said that memes are "active". He says:
Yet we should be clear: a meme, if it does exist, cannot seek out prey. And it certainly cannot leap from one brain to another. The conceit of thinking in this way is just useful sometimes.The "active" meme is classified by the author as a mistake that the author blames on Dennett and Hofstadter. I am sceptical. I don't see much of a problem here if the first place - memes are about as "active" as genes are - and I consider it to be "acceptable usage" to say that they propagate by "leaping from brain to brain". So: I don't think that was how things went down.
Aside from its technical problems, the article is a bit of a subtle "hatchet job" on memes. While some of the author's historical digging is welcome,the article's title calls memes "unscientific", it implicitly suggests that the meme may have died in 1999 - and the main thesis is that parts of memetics arose from misunderstandings propagated by Dennett and Hofstadter's editing of Richard Dawkins' original article - this thesis just seems to be mistaken to me.
It is also worth noting that Richard Dawkins didn't permanently abandon the meme - as the article seems to suggest. He returned many years later to actively defend the concept in his 2005 book "The God Delusion" - citing Richerson, Boyd, Shennan, Brodie, Distin, Aunger and Blackmore - and skewering meme critics.