Saturday, 18 May 2013

Memetics: ahead of its time

Evolutionary theory was developed in the 1800s, starting with the publications of Wallace and Darwin in the 1850s.

However, it wasn't until the 1970s that people started to understand cultural evolution. It wasn't until the 1980s that books were published on the topic. It wasn't until the 21st century that the idea became widely-accepted. Now we have conferences, journals, books, papers - and a fair amount of activity. Understanding of organic evolution preceded understanding of cultural evolution by over a hundred years. I've written before about this scientific lag.

Genetics came later. The rediscovery of Mendel's ideas didn't happen until around 1900. Population genetics and the modern evolutionary synthesis didn't happen until the 1930s. Molecular genetics had to wait until the 1950s before the basics of the field were understood.

That brings us to memetics. Memetics stands to cultural evolution as genetics stands to organic evolution. It looks as though there are some parallels with the organic realm regarding the chronology of its development. Understanding of memetics shows signs of lagging behind an understanding of cultural evolution. Also, population memetics was developed before neuromemetics.

There are some areas where memetics is more advanced than genetics. Memetic engineering is probably more advanced than genetic engineering. However, that is probably not down to a more advanced scientific understanding of the topic. Rather memes, by nature, are easier to read, write, understand and engineer than genes are.

Looking at the memetics timeline and the field's publication record, in terms of a widespread understanding of memetics, we are fairly clearly still before the cultural equivalent of the modern synthesis of the 1940s, and before the cultural equivalent of the molecular genetics revolution of the 1950s. So: it seems fairly clear that the memetics pioneers are ahead of their time.

On one hand, that makes these exciting times for the field. On the other hand, it means that we have to wait for the rest of the scientific community to catch up.

1 comment:

  1. Ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny - this may also be true of patterns of descent between fields.