Sunday, 8 May 2016


I have long had an entry for "semes" on my meme synonyms page. However, I only recently read up about them. Barry Hewlett, a colleague of Cavalli-Sforza seems to have been one of the main proponents. Here's how one of Barry's papers introduces them:

Following Cavalli-Sforza, we call these units “semes” rather than “memes” (Dawkins 1976, Durham 1991, Boyd and Richerson 1985) because “seme” comes from “sign” and emphasizes the symbolic nature of culture.

Semes were apparently first mentioned in a 1970 book by Roland Barthes called "S/Z" - a three hundred page dissection of a short story written in French.

However, they were subsequently adopted by Cavalli-Sforza, Marc Feldman and others. Feldman explains the term in a 2007 presentation here. He presents "semes" as the cultural equivalent of "genes".

Marcus Feldman said in 2014 (16 minutes in):

I call them semes because I don't like memes, memes gives some impression of biology which I do not want to do and semes comes from semiotics.

Of course, culture is part of biology, so biologically-inspired terminology is completely appropriate.

I think "semes" are more-or-less dead terminology now. Not all culture is symbolic, so the death of "semes" seems to be no great loss. However, IMO, it is fascinating historical tit-bit that Cavalli-Sforza and Marc Feldman join all the other students of cultural evolution that publicly toyed around with "-eme" words.

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