Topic: Cultural Evolution

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🔗 Memetics

🔗 Computer science 🔗 Philosophy 🔗 Psychology 🔗 Philosophy/Social and political philosophy 🔗 Philosophy/Philosophy of science 🔗 Philosophy/Contemporary philosophy 🔗 Philosophy/Philosophy of mind 🔗 Sociology 🔗 Cultural Evolution

Memetics is a theory of the evolution of culture based on Darwinian principles with the meme as the unit of culture. The term "meme" was coined by biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene, to illustrate the principle that he later called "Universal Darwinism". All evolutionary processes depend on information being copied, varied, and selected, a process also known as variation with selective retention. The information that is copied is called the replicator, and genes are the replicator for biological evolution. Dawkins proposed that the same process drives cultural evolution, and he called this second replicator the "meme". He gave as examples, tunes, catchphrases, fashions, and technologies. Like genes, memes are selfish replicators and have causal efficacy; in other words, their properties influence their chances of being copied and passed on. Some succeed because they are valuable or useful to their human hosts while others are more like viruses.

Just as genes can work together to form co-adapted gene complexes, so groups of memes acting together form co-adapted meme complexes or memeplexes. Memeplexes include (among many other things) languages, traditions, scientific theories, financial institutions, and religions. Dawkins famously referred to religions as "viruses of the mind".

Among proponents of memetics are psychologist Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine, who argues that when our ancestors began imitating behaviours, they let loose a second replicator and co-evolved to become the "meme machines" that copy, vary, and select memes in culture. Philosopher Daniel Dennett develops memetics extensively, notably in his books Darwin's Dangerous Idea, and From Bacteria to Bach and Back. He describes the units of memes as "the smallest elements that replicate themselves with reliability and fecundity." and claims that "Human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes." In The Beginning of Infinity, physicist David Deutsch contrasts static societies that depend on anti-rational memes suppressing innovation and creativity, with dynamic societies based on rational memes that encourage enlightenment values, scientific curiosity, and progress.

Criticisms of memetics include claims that memes do not exist, that the analogy with genes is false, that the units cannot be specified, that culture does not evolve through imitation, and that the sources of variation are intelligently designed rather than random. Critics of memetics include biologist Stephen Jay Gould who calls memetics a "meaningless metaphor". Philosopher Dan Sperber argues against memetics as a viable approach to cultural evolution because cultural items are not directly copied or imitated but are reproduced. Anthropologist Robert Boyd and biologist Peter Richerson work within the alternative, and more mainstream, field of cultural evolution theory and gene-culture coevolution. Dual inheritance theory has much in common with memetics but rejects the idea that memes are replicators. From this perspective, memetics is seen as just one of several approaches to cultural evolution and one that is generally considered less useful than the alternatives of gene-culture coevolution or dual inheritance theory. The main difference is that dual inheritance theory ultimately depends on biological advantage to genes, whereas memetics treats memes as a second replicator in its own right. Memetics also extends to the analysis of Internet culture and Internet memes.