Monday, 10 February 2014

Mark Jordan: What's in a Meme?

Mark Jordan has a new article out on the RDFRS site titled: What's in a Meme?.

It's basically an introduction to memes 38 years on. The article says:

To say that the memes are controversial in academia is akin to suggesting that, after the Big Bang, the universe got rather warm, and the enthusiasm with which memes have been embraced by popular culture has, if anything, worsened the regard in which serious scholars hold them.
I think part of the explanation for this is a kind of tribalism. Academics like to distinguish themselves from the hoi-polloi. If they use the same language as South Park, their credibility suffers by association. Alas, the search for truth can sometimes get lost when this kind of status-seeking takes place.

The article goes on to say:

It is dangerous to simplify complex phenomena, subject to numerous and often unknown variables, into simple models, without attaching very strong caveats, and Dawkins has always been aware of this.

This seems like a feeble excuse for rejecting memes. AKAIK, nobody rejects genes by saying that "it is dangerous to simplify complex phenomena". For one thing, simplifying complex phenomena is the only sensible way to understand them: all useful models are simplifications.

A major omission from the article is all mention of the academics who have studied cultural evolution from a Darwinian perspective. As Peter Richerson recently put it:

"Memetics" is robustly alive and well in academia, mostly under rubrics such as "cultural evolution," "gene-culture coevolution," and "dual inheritance theory."
If you say that memetics is struggling in academia, you have got to to on to say that the same topic is still being vigorously pursued there - under other names and using meme synonyms.


  1. Many thanks for taking an interest in my meme article and for your thoughtful review. I'm slightly puzzled though, as you seem to think that the import of my article was to reject the meme as a useful concept. I'm actually pretty enthusiastic about it! Some are very suspicious of it of course and I I think to say it's controversial is fair enough. It's quite new on the scene really and I would have been surprised if it found itself embraced by all of academia just yet. That may well come. Meanwhile there's been loads of interesting work inspired by memes and, I'm sure, more to come!

  2. Your article was generally positive about memes. I shared it with my subscribers - and my criticisms of it seem fairly mild to me. Thanks for writing an article on the topic.