Do memes have the same explanatory power in the social world that genes have in the physical world?by John Maynard-Smith / May 20, 1999 / Leave a comment
Published in May 1999 issue of Prospect Magazine
Imagine that i invent a limerick, and tell it to several of my friends. If it is a good limerick, they will pass it on to their friends; if it is very good, it will spread around the English-speaking world. But if, like the Old Man of Japan, it does not scan, my friends will rightly forget it. Limericks, in other words, like many other ideas, resemble genes in being “replicators”: they can reproduce their kind, and different limericks will differ in their success in doing so. Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, noted this similarity with genes, and coined the term “meme” to emphasise it. The word meme is itself a meme, and a very successful one, to judge by the frequency of its use.
I used to regard the meme as a fun idea-helpful in explaining to students that there can be more than one kind of replicator, and that all replicators evolve by natural selection-but not as an idea which could be used to do much serious work. Genes have clear rules of transmission (in sexual organisms, Mendel’s laws) whereas you can learn memes not only from parents, but from friends, books, films and so on. Consequently population genetics can generate precise, testable predictions, whereas it seemed to me difficult to make such predictions about memes. Susan Blackmore’s book, The Meme Machine, has gone some way to changing my mind. Perhaps we can make the meme idea do some work.