Saturday, 18 August 2012


Of course, as I have pointed out, scientists do study memes - they just don't always use the "m" word. My list of references documents many of their efforts.

However, the study of cultural evolution lagged over 100 years behind evolution applied to the rest of the organic realm. Cultural evolution is a slow starter. Additionally, the field is developing slowly. Despite some 40 years of work, the whole field of cultural evolution is still tiny - its small size massively out of proportion to its high significance. How best to explain this imbalance?

Part of the explanation for this involves resistance to Darwinism being applied to human behaviour. Memetics resistance is part of a larger resistance to Darwinism being applied to humans. Early approaches to human cultural evolution were characterised as being "social Darwinism" - which soon became a term of derision. Soon, preaching "Social Darwinism" conjoured up images of racial cleansing, forced sterilization, Nazia, Hitler - and so on. This made it hard for scientists applying Darwinian explanations to human behaviour to get funding.

This hypothesis explains how the one form of Darwinian science that has become popular - namely evolutionary psychology - avoids accusations of racism and promoting inequality - by the bizarre methodology of totally ignoring human differences and only studying human universals. Evolutionary psychology is thus relatively politically correct - compared to the real study of human evolution.

Another - intriguing - explanation for memetics resistance has been offered by Richard Brodie (1997) and Keith Stanovich (2004). According to them certain memeplexes actively resist knowledge of memetics - since a proper understanding of their origins and nature would lead to their ejection from their host brains. Resistance to memetics can this be seen as a cultural adaptation by "bad" memes that don't want their owners to eject them.

This hypothesis probably party explains why religious institutions have long history of being opposed to Darwinism - and, indeed, much of science. The religious memes resist the truth - because the truth spells their own demise.

Another theory is that individual humans are designed by evolution to feel special and valuable - more angel than animal. Darwinism and memetics are percieved as degrading human specialness and dragging humans down to the animal plane - so therefore they must be rejected.

It is curious that humans seem to have such a blind spot when it comes to their own evolution. Human evolution is the type of evolution we need most urgently to understand. Of particular importance is memetic evolution - for much the same reason as the study of parasite evolution is important.


  1. How could scientists use memes? Has there been some agreement as to how to quantify/measure them?

  2. Scientists do study memes - just not in great numbers. The most common means of quantifying them is meme frequency analysis. How you measure them is not critical - provided you are clear and consistent. Compare with inches and centimeteres. Say which you are using and don't mix them up and everything is fine.