The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientiªc object, 1976–1999
Jeremy Trevelyan Burman
When the “meme” was introduced in 1976, it was as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind. (In the UK, this occurred slightly later.) It is also now clear that this becoming involved complex sustained interactions between scholars, journalists, and the letter-writing public. We must therefore read the “meme” through lenses provided by its popularization. The results are in turn suggestive of the processes of meaningconstruction in scholarly communication more generally. “Greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right. Greed works. Greed clariªes, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit.”
—Gordon Gekko, as portrayed by Michael Douglas in the 1987 ªlm Wall Street
“From the outset [in 1976] the reviews were gratifyingly favorable and it [The Selªsh Gene] was not seen, initially, as a controversial book. Its reputation for contentiousness took years to grow until, by now, it is widely
An earlier version of this paper was pre-circulated and presented at the History & Theory of Psychology Evening Colloquium Series in the Fall of 2010. The author wishes to thank Jacy Young (the series coordinator) for the invitation to speak, as well as all those who attended and provided feedback—especially Laura Ball, Ron Sheese, Kelli Vaughn, and Fred Weizmann. It was originally written following the publication of Alexandra Rutherford’s (2009) Beyond the Box, which—among other things—used popular press coverage to examine how the ideas of B. F. Skinner became integrated with American thinking in the 1950s–1970s. Finally, it should also be noted that the resulting manuscript would not have taken the shape it did were it not for the contributions of a handful of correspondents—most notably Michael Schrage. Responsibility for all remaining errors and omissions rests with the author.
Perspectives on Science 2012, vol. 20, no. 1 ©2012 by The Massachusetts Institute of Technology 75
Misunderstanding of Memes
regarded as a work of radical extremism. But over the very same years as the book’s reputation for extremism has escalated, its actual content has seemed less and less extreme, more and more the common currency.”
—Richard Dawkins, in the preface to the 1989 edition of The Selªsh Gene
How could it be that Dawkins’ most famous book became controversial, but not as a result of what it said? How could its ideas have become the basis of textbooks, yet its arguments be labeled increasingly as revolutionary? The answers to these questions are tied to the reception of its claims: in particular, that genes are selªsh—purposefully greedy in the pursuit of their own survival. This interpretation of the book’s argument, as it became increasingly well-known, seemed to justify the self-centeredness of the 1980s: greed is good, because that’s just how evolution works (see e.g., James 1998, 2008). Yet Dawkins anticipated this reading, and defended against it, even reaching out to the public in a collaboration with the BBC: an episode of Horizon, “Nice guys ªnish ªrst” (Taylor 1986), laid out his position in clear terms. In this early documentary, Dawkins discussed the importance of individual choice in producing optimal outcomes through cooperation (cf. Dawkins 1989, pp. 202–233). Indeed, the ªlm echoed his book’s closing line: “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selªsh” (Dawkins 1976, p. 215). I suggest, therefore, that the continuing reception of his ideas as controversial—in the 1980s and through the 1990s— can be understood more deeply if we examine what has been understood as The Selªsh Gene’s secondary claim, as well as how the two claims came to have the meaning they now have. If individual choice can lead to more optimal results than blind selªshness, as Dawkins argued in his documentary, then that which shapes choice itself becomes evolutionarily important. Indeed, in The Selªsh Gene, Dawkins even seemed to suggest a way to think about this: that that which shapes choice in humans—culture—is like a large shared genetic pool, in which the most virulent ideas compete to infect your mind. The popular understanding of this second claim will be the focus of this essay: that ideas are selªsh, even if the individuals who think them (i.e., those who are infected by an idea) don’t themselves intend to be greedy. However, to say that this second claim was “received” is to misrepresent its history. The notion of a meme didn’t hit the newspapers in the US until the late-1980s, and later still in the UK. A disciplinary critical mass was only achieved in the late-1990s, when a peer-reviewed journal—the Journal of Memetics—was founded and several popularizing books pub-
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lished (e.g., Blackmore 1999; Brodie 1996; Lynch 1996). Clearly, though, this was not the result of an immediate infection: the meme’s “virulence” took twenty years to engineer. The ’90s-era exuberance diminished somewhat in the new millennium. The idea’s merit as a scientiªc claim came into question (e.g., Atran 2001; Aunger 2000; Distin 2005). Doubts were expressed about whether and how the advances suggested by the claim were supposed to be meaningful (e.g., Jahoda 2002ab) or even novel (e.g., Kilpinen 2008). And the journal failed. But few critics have chosen to focus on the processes by which the idea itself came to have the meaning it now has. Such is the goal here: to lay out the story of that which became controversial in the 1980s, and insightful in the 1990s, by tracing the actions of the individuals involved in the construction of its meaning. The fact is, perhaps surprisingly to some readers, Dawkins did not make the claim that has since been attributed to him. The meme was not introduced purposefully as an “idea virus.” It was a metaphor. Dawkins’ intent, in The Selªsh Gene (1976), was not to put the meme forward as the true cultural counterpart to the gene. Rather, he used it as part of a larger goal: redeªning the fundamental unit of selection in evolutionary biology. In short, he hoped to catalyze a shift in understanding; he hoped to redirect the focus of biology away from genes and toward a more general engine for evolution. There weren’t two claims in the ªrst edition of The Selªsh Gene; there was only one, albeit a different one from what many readers have understood. Dawkins’ intent—contrary to the popular understanding—was never to inaugurate the new science of memetics. That was accidental. He explained this in an essay published in Time magazine in 1999: I am occasionally accused of having backtracked on memes, of having lost heart, pulled in my horns, had second thoughts. The truth is that my ªrst thoughts were more modest than some memeticists might wish. For me the original mission was negative. The word was introduced at the end of a book that otherwise must have seemed entirely devoted to extolling the “selªsh” gene as the be-all and end-all of evolution, the fundamental unit of selection. There was a risk that my readers would misunderstand the message as being necessarily about DNA molecules. . . . This was where the meme came in. (Dawkins 1999a, p. 46; see also Dawkins 1999b, p. xvi) The original meme, in other words, was a rhetorical ºourish intended to clarify a larger argument. That Dawkins’ intended clariªcation has since gotten so confused is an
Cassidy 2005. Jeffreys 2000). it is broadly related to the recent examinations of sociobiology (e. In this sense. Skinner became integrated with American thinking in the 1950s–1970s. having their own interests. social Darwinism (e. These problems situate this essay at the boundary between the usual scholarly silos: it presents a history of a biological (and psychological) idea. Jumonville 2002. That the resulting misunderstanding shares an obvious overlap with psychology suggests it also affords a problem for the history of that discipline as well. But it is not intended to unmix the mixed metaphor (instead.. the essay begins simply by situating the original proposal (§I). it also takes a very different approach.78 Misunderstanding of Memes interesting problem. how an understanding is shared among minds that are forever situated in their own contexts. in Douglas Hofstadter and Daniel Dennett’s collection The Mind’s I (§II). Weikart 2003). 2006). and Richerson 2008. My purpose here is simply to lay out how the meme’s interminglings came to be: how The Selªsh Gene came to imply a selªsh meme. F. however. and evolutionary psychology (e..g. What was Dawkins doing when he introduced the meme? I then examine the ªrst major popularization of the meme proposal. but not of Biology (or Psychology) per se.g. I then move to a similar examination of the 1. Li and Hong 2003). the approach here must also be contrasted with Geoffrey Hodgson’s (2004) examination of the changing meaning of “social Darwinism” in English-language academic journals. The result is something rather more like a biography of a scientiªc object. It was originally written following the publication of Alexandra Rutherford’s (2009) Beyond the Box.1 In short. see Henrich. That said.. Boyd. both of the history of biology and more generally of the public understanding of science. That said. The notion of a biography of a scientiªc object is due to Lorraine Daston (2000). It is not a story about the spread of a social infection. and working toward their own ends. This essay is therefore not the tracing of a deªnition. . This leads to an examination of that book’s success in the US and a twopart discussion of the introduction of memes into the American popular understanding (§§III–IV). but a targeted enquiry examining how the deªnition came to be constructed by individual people acting in social contexts constructed by other individual people. however. except of course that the meme was never scientiªc to begin with. therefore. what follows is a story about the construction of meaning through social interaction. To achieve all of this. in the style of the Oxford English Dictionary.g. which—among other things—used popular press coverage to examine how the ideas of B. what follows is intended to contribute to a larger discourse regarding the emergence of meaningful inter-disciplines at the boundary between hard science and human science. Rather. Nor does it attempt to present a history of the idea itself (see Costall 1991).
3. in the early 1970s. the “gene” became the engine of evolution: natural change was conceived as resulting from inheritance and mutation. p. Dawkins situates the work in the preface to the 1989 edition: he began writing The Selªsh Gene during a blackout caused by the miners’ strike in 1972. Thus. the fundamental assumption of population genetics acquired a material basis. These parallel stories are put in a larger social context. the gene took on its current meaning: Just as a sentence represents a segment of text. it wasn’t immediately successful: only in the 1980s did it become a hybrid in the way Ridley now means to celebrate. so a gene corresponds to a segment of nucleic acid. was a mathematical abstraction. (Jacob  1973. in 1970. begins and ends with special “punctuation” marks. as we will see. For Ridley. but rarely for both” (p. 265). in which the stories of Mendel’s “rediscovery” and of the construction of a “master molecule” are told on pages 117–129 and 187–200. “Before The Selªsh Gene. The primary source for this introductory paragraph is Jan Sapp’s (2003) Genesis. only a combination of symbols has any “sense. in a four-part analysis of why and how the meme was popularized (§VI). when François Jacob published La logique du vivant. but then stopped after . Origins Dawkins’ book merits special attention because it straddles two traditions. the book represents a new species of scientiªc communication. As science writer Matt Ridley (2006) recently explained. the essay concludes with a discussion of what these four steps imply for the role of scientiªc communication in constructing the public understanding of science (§VII).” In both cases. 275)2 When Dawkins wrote his book. In both cases. Then. although brieºy. to 1976 Following the synthesis. in approaching it here. une histoire de l’hérédité (translated in 1973 as The Logic of Life). scientists wrote books for each other. But.3 this was the background against which he worked: evolution was understood to be driven by natural selection and the inheritance of essentially meaningful strings 2.Perspectives on Science 79 idea’s reception in the UK (§V). or for laymen. sentence or gene. And. of Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection with Gregor Mendel’s theory of particulate inheritance. we must ªrst treat it as a particularly well-written book for scientists. initially. ªnally. This perspective was then solidiªed—as the “central dogma” of molecular biology—through work conducted in the 1950s and 1960s. Background. a given sequence. I. When DNA was discovered in the early 1950s. in other words. respectively. an isolated symbol means nothing. a prediction of theory. But this. in the 1930s and 1940s. and nothing more.
not genes (as individual units). see Segerstråle 2000]. in the ªrst edition of The Selªsh Gene. Genes.80 Misunderstanding of Memes of particulate genes. This is because only stability allows for differential selection following replication: if heritable traits are to vary (as a result of accidents in duplication) and if the material causes underlying these traits are ultimately to be represented in the larger population of replicators (due to competition two chapters. He later resumed work. Dawkins argued.) Dawkins’ original argument. (Sociobiology responded to the same background. The building blocks that attach themselves in this way will automatically be arranged in a sequence that mimics that of the replicator itself. (Dawkins  1989.” A replicator is something. it will tend to stick there. by virtue of their chemical afªnity for other similar molecules. Now suppose that each building block has an afªnity for its own kind. anything. But his intended contribution was more speciªc: it was replicators that did this (as a class). Think of the replicator as a mould or template. The small building blocks were abundantly available in the soup surrounding the replicator. From Dawkins’ perspective. Genes are rather a single example of a larger set of evolutionary engines. during a sabbatical in 1975 (p. was that the gene—and the DNA from which each gene is composed—is ultimately not what’s important for evolution. that enabled the process we recognize today as evolution by means of natural selection. Imagine it as a large molecule consisting of a complex chain of various sorts of building block molecules. argued Dawkins. Dawkins imagined this was the case with the origins of life: a string of molecules came together by accident in the early soup of the Earth’s tidal pools and. 15) As a result of the invention of this chemically-chaperoned form of patterncopying. are a kind of “replicator. p. Then whenever a building block from out in the soup lands up next to a part of the replicator for which it has an afªnity. a new kind of stability was introduced into the world. It is easy then to think of them joining up to form a stable chain just as in the formation of the original replicator. but then became intertwined with Dawkins’ program in ways that are too complex to go into here [instead. that either (1) can make copies of itself or (2) is easily and automatically copied by virtue of its relationship to the medium in which it is found. and ªnished the book. evolution is impossible without stability. ultimately served as the basis for subsequent duplication. xii). . And it was this stability.
But. was a thought experiment: a rhetorical device intended to illuminate Dawkins’ argument that the replicator ought to replace the gene in the scientiªc understanding of what it is that drives evolutionary change. To construct it. memes. In The Mind’s I. And I would recommend it highly except for one minor detail: it cannot be read except as a thing to think with. was celebrated by its publisher as having been “composed and arranged” by recent Pulitzer Prize-winner Douglas Hofstadter and his philosopher friend Daniel Dennett. at base. Who cares about impact? These are works of substance. he suggested. This criticism applies to all of its chapters. stripped it of its oratorical context. The Mind’s I is a wonderful book. And. ix). But the meaning isn’t. then there must be a shared stable core with respect to which inter-generational change can occur.Perspectives on Science 81 for building blocks). Although a footnote at the start of the piece indicates that the text had been . to this end. this is how his book was received in the popular press (Lehmann-Haupt. which is admittedly saccharine. Pfeiffer. Bach. in the case of the meme. Constructing Memes. If you read past the marketing material. But Dawkins argued that this was just one kind of replicator. The Mind’s I was more popular—and had a greater impact—than The Selªsh Gene. it provided a gentler way for readers to engage the ideas presented by Hofstadter (1979) in his hugely successful Gödel. 1977). Simply put: impact is important because the contribution from Dawkins in The Mind’s I wasn’t really Dawkins’ writing. they selected harmonious themes from across The Selªsh Gene and presented them as a coherent single work. not a popularity contest. And. which although hypothetical could be used to clarify his point. This collection. It brought together. as the subtitle indicates. might provide an example of another: a second example of apparent stability drawn from life as we know it. this role is played by the organic crystal we call DNA. 1977. initially. It isn’t his “meme. it included commentaries from the “composers” connecting each contribution with the collection’s themes: “What is the mind? Who am I? Can mere matter think or feel? Where is the soul?” (p. consciousness. “fantasies and reºections” on the themes of mind. Yet its re-presentation in 1981. the chapter used his words.” Sure. 1976–1981 The meme. self. The Mind’s I. the caveat has special signiªcance: in the early 1980s. Escher. the units are the same. in a popular collection of essays and short stories. Hofstadter and Dennett presented a new version of the meme-metaphor. however. For life as we know it. and soul. This began the process of reifying the meme as the actual cultural counterpart of the gene. in The Selªsh Gene. More than this.
then. K. or that. material had been lifted mid-paragraph and re-presented out of context. so as to assemble a new narrative from multiple sources. Although Dennett (2006) later noted that he and Hofstadter had constructed the essay from two excerpts. reinvented by pulling text haphazardly. In the following (a particularly egregious example). We also see that only a few pages from the original memes-as-replicators chapter (the one that Humphrey commented on) . ‘belief in life after death’ is actually realized physically. turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of the host cell. But. The new version provides no clear indication that changes had been made. comments are included from the original—without any editorial remarks—that misrepresent the whole as a coherent unit. Indeed. this analysis implies something rather more selective.” after all. rather than one (as suggested by the editorial footnote). . in several instances. hither and thither. which then led him to suggest that the memes “be regarded as living structures. such as to shift the spelling and punctuation from UK to US standard. as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over. This omission could perhaps be forgiven. it seems uncontroversial to suggest that the replicated narrative had indeed been disconnected from the original Replicators Argument. it doesn’t indicate that the essay had been wholly fabricated from those excerpts. But this is just a single example. memes should be regarded as living structures. The collection was “composed.” It was not.” (Dawkins in Hofstadter and Dennett 1981. say. the suggestion is that this chapter—in The Mind’s I—was the chapter read by Humphrey. there is more to its composition than a simple departure from the original. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind. Following this. Humphrey [a theoretical psychologist] neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: “. millions of times over. 143) In other words. a naïve reading is biased toward a new non-metaphorical meaning for meme: As my colleague N.82 Misunderstanding of Memes excerpted from the original. you literally parasitize my brain. p. in the case of the meme. And this isn’t just a way of talking— the meme for. not just metaphorically but technically. . he read a different chapter in The Selªsh Gene. How much of the chapter is cobbled together? From where were the cherries picked? Table 1 compares the text from the constructed essay presented in The Mind’s I to the original words as they were presented in the ªrst two editions of The Selªsh Gene.
12–20 pp.” “Once upon a time.” “Natural selection in its most general form means . and without guidance from the editors. 124–131 pp. 61–64 pp. I suggest that this text could not but be read for what it said: The new soup is the soup of human culture. . 131–132 pp.” “One of the most striking properties of survival . . . 13–21 pp. 142–143 pp. 143–144 Selªsh Gene/1e pp. Presented out of context.” “Survival machines began as passive receptacles . while the words are the same. but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit .” “I conjecture that co-adapted meme-complexes . 139–142 pp. . It’s clear that. page references to both editions are provided here should the reader wish to replicate this ªnding. . 132–133 pp. From Selªsh Gene to Selªsh Meme Passage starting: “In the beginning was simplicity . . We need a name for the new replicator. 191–192 p. 46–47 pp. . . in The Selªsh Gene. the text presented in The Mind’s I originates. . The two most crucial of the seven paragraphs connect the idea of the gene pool—and the primordial oceans in which the Earth’s ªrst replicators were imagined by Dawkins to have arisen—with that of a cultural “meme pool” (Dawkins in Hofstadter and Dennett 1981. 1981: 142). a new sub-heading was also added: “Selªsh Memes” (Hofstadter and Dennett. . 53–59 pp.” “One of the most interesting methods of . really. 199 This table shows from where. a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission. 205–207 pp. 133–134 pp. 24–25 pp. or a unit of imitation. 49–50 pp. 134–139 pp.Perspectives on Science 83 Table 1. means just seven paragraphs. “Mimeme” comes from a suitable Greek root. Although Hofstadter and Dennett had access only to the ªrst edition of The Selªsh Gene. passages from The Selªsh Gene are re-presented out of context.” “The laws of physics are supposed to be true all over . . 50–55 pp. natural selection consisted of . In the constructed version. . . And this. 143). their organization has been changed: in The Mind’s I.” The Mind’s I pp. 33–34 pp. 57–60 pp. have been included in the new essay. . 35–36 pp. The result is a smoothly-ºowing essay with continuous pagination. Yet the gaps between pages in the original source indicate how much material was skipped in constructing the new presentation. . p. . 25–26 pp. 213–214 Selªsh Gene/2e pp.
4 The Mind’s I was ªrst reviewed in The New York Times on December 13. II. By January 1982. impact in the US. I suggest. ways of making pots or of building arches. 1981. it could alternatively be thought of as being related to “memory. 143) The most famous passage. we must interpret 4. in the broad sense. are selªsh predators. so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which. catch-phrases. Macmillan Book Clubs. the metaphorical meme has been made active in its pursuit of replication. which in turn went through seven printings by April 1988. p. can be called imitation. (Among other things. p. Memes. and immediate. chaperoned copying of the molecular soup. is the one that followed this introduction of terminology: Examples of memes are tunes. in this presentation. And the pulp paperback Bantam edition was published in November 1982. and Readers’ Subscription. Noted on the copyright page of the 1988 edition. it had become an ofªcial selection of Book-ofthe-Month/Science. (Dawkins in Hofstadter and Dennett 1981. Gone is the passive.” I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. The cause of this difference. in terms of how the meme has since come to be understood. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs. . is the same as that which caused the controversy noted by Dawkins in the preface to the second edition: the reception of each book was tied to its popularization.84 Misunderstanding of Memes like “gene. Mind’s in America. it popularized an essay by Stanislaw Lem that led to the creation of SimCity. And our brains are their prey. though. it was serialized in Book Digest magazine. We must therefore understand one book—the meme’s popularizer (The Mind’s I)—to understand the other (The Selªsh Gene).” or to the French word même. In March. the hugely popular computer game franchise [see Lew 1989]. Originally released in November 1981 by Hofstadter’s publisher (Martin Kessler of Basic Books). 143) Here. 1981–1988 The Mind’s I had a massive. The Mind’s I was an immediate commercial success. ideas. Reading the reviewer’s comments now. If it is any consolation. It should be pronounced to rhyme with “cream. the market uptake of The Selªsh Gene was slow.” (Dawkins in Hofstadter and Dennett 1981.) By contrast. clothes fashions.
. it seems Dennett’s perspective prevailed. and 3 were coauthored but ªrst-authored by Dennett. as a result of Hofstadter’s naiveté as a computer scientist dabbling in philosophy: “for all its stimulation. he noted that The Mind’s I had sold more than 100. . And. indeed. I found the book rather confusing. 1983. 1982: “Hofstadter . that this book was indeed the result of a full collaboration.000 copies after fewer than two years in print. (There is no conclusion. who comments about the then-recent turn by philosophers to try and understand the mind as something more than an inºexible computational mechanism: “that’s something of a band5.Perspectives on Science 85 his reaction as “mixed” at best—even as we note that Bantam later extracted a positive. 3 were co-authored but ªrst-authored by Hofstadter. He set the record straight by letter on January 10. Hofstadter and I enjoyed a collaboration that was intense. in the “new and noteworthy” list of paperbacks on November 14 (1982b). and even confused” (Barrett 1981).000-word essay celebrating Hofstadter as a writer and a thinker. 6. . . There. though heavily-elided quote and included it on the back cover of the paperback edition. 8 were authored individually by Dennett. James Gleick—then an assistant metropolitan editor at the Times. and our agreements run broad and deep” (Dennett 1982). The reviewer’s impression therefore likely came from the inclusion of three chapters (i. William Barrett (who was well known for his works explaining philosophy to lay audiences). and highlighted it as one of the “notable books of the year” on December 5 (1982c). Hofstadter. Dawkins’ writing style clearly had an impact on Gleick: both The Selªsh Gene and Gleick’s (1987) book are described by Matt Ridley (2006) as being exemplary of a new kind of science writing. treated the book as if Hofstadter had been totalitarian in his direction of the project: “The chief voice throughout is that of the principal editor. but shortly to become the bestselling author of Chaos: The Making of a New Science6—published a sprawling 7. the introduction authored individually by Dennett. The reviewer. Examining the end-of-chapter “reºections” reveals this to be somewhat misleading: of the 26 commentaries. Barrett’s negative comments clearly did not damage the opinion of the reviews editor: the Times included The Mind’s I on the “books for vacation reading” list on June 6 (1982a). On August 21. reprints) from Hofstadter and only one from Dennett. Dennett was miffed. . Mr. He also quoted Dennett.) It is therefore clear. But this was just the beginning. and the “further reading” section co-authored but ªrst-authored by Dennett. . .”5 Barrett also suggested that the commentaries had made interpretive mistakes. The preface was co-authored but ªrst-authored by Hofstadter.e. sought me out as his collaborator precisely to insure that the book would be philosophically sophisticated and informed. 12 were authored individually by Hofstadter. as Dennett (1982) points out in his letter to the editor.
whether these observations were fair or not is irrelevant for our purposes (pace Dennett). the outline of a bridge from one to the other is emerging. “and to get on that bandwagon you’ve got to pay attention to Hofstadter” (qtd in Gleick 1983). we affect to believe that it is sufªcient. from this perspective. Memes in America. at least in our behaviorist moments. exists in the pattern and in the paradox. and that there is an I behind their actions. It’s clear. to regard human beings as mechanisms that behave with sufªcient complexity to be called intelligent. (Barrett 1981) Ultimately. Barrett. and this knowledge permeates all our social and personal intercourse with others. however. There is a curious schizoid state of our culture at work here. a magazine of popular science. If we believed. Gleick’s conclusion is interesting in light of what ultimately happened with the popularization of Dawkins’ idea through the lens provided by Hofstadter and Dennett. at least for the purposes of science. The most valued kinds of behavior seem to depend on a willingness to recognize the soul in ourselves and others—the danger of looking only at the lowest biological level is in losing sight of the essential humanity that. Hofstadter 2007). III. and perhaps for the many nonspecialists drawn to Hofstadter’s writing. Hofstadter published an essay that directly dis- . What matters is that they indicated a second. reading of The Mind’s I that Hofstadter himself had apparently not intended (cf. my emphasis) Yet the intended perspective—the human duality of mechanism and mindfulness—was clearly at risk. The reviewer for the Times. really believed. In January of 1983.” he said. that they did not intend a cold mechanistic reading: Synapses and souls are hard to reconcile. noted something similar about a possible misunderstanding by nonspecialists. Hofstadter began a successful column in Scientiªc American. 1981–1988 Just prior to the publication of The Mind’s I. Yet in the theoretical parts of our culture. This ran from 1981 through 1983.86 Misunderstanding of Memes wagon these days. soulless. But for many philosophers. we would be pushing ourselves into psychosis. (Gleick 1983. in Hofstadter’s view. In our ordinary life we know that other people are conscious and have minds. unique in its own way but like our own. the peak of his popularity and inºuence. in our everyday life that other people were merely intelligently behaving mechanisms.
are susceptible to variation or distortion—the analogue of mutation. by letters from readers of his previous columns—in particular. whose last chapter further develops this theme” (Hofstadter 1983. Various mutations of a meme will have to compete with one another. for radio and television time.. thus a “niche” in idea-space is carved out. The answer should be obvious to students of evolution: the sentences do not do so because of competition from other self-replicators. p. Memes must compete not only for inner resources but also. he followed the same problematic interpretation as he and Dennett had advanced in The Mind’s I. newspaper and maga- . and then encourages the reader (as carrier) to ªnd or construct new instances of meaning-breaking self-reference. by letters from Stephen Walton and Donald Going. who suggested that selfreferential sentences of the sort discussed in Gödel. to take over a large portion of that space. Given the existence of such self-replicating structures. Both Walton and Going were struck by the perniciousness of such sentences: the selªsh way they invade a space of ideas and manage.Perspectives on Science 87 cusses his interpretation of the memes proposal. One type of replicator seizes one region of the space and becomes good at fending off rivals. Escher. billboard space. in the sense that illuminates Dawkins’ Replicators Argument. 14). for brain resources in terms of both space and time devoted to that meme. for attention. Hofstadter even pointed to Dawkins explicitly: “In 1976 the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins published his book The Selªsh Gene. Hofstadter’s answer provides one of the earliest instances of the meme’s actual use in the popular press.g. Memes. rather. Indeed. p. that is. Bach (e. Hofstadter’s meme isn’t just like a gene. This was inspired. as well as with other memes. 14) We see here the afªnity with Dawkins’ original proposal. since they are transmissible visually and aurally. makes it inconsistent with itself. Walton and Going wondered how meaning could be preserved. (Hofstadter 1983. as well as with the sentential view of evolutionary biology to which Dawkins responded. But Hofstadter did not follow Dawkins’ rhetorical approach. merely by making copies of themselves all over the place. “This sentence is false”) could be described as being afºicted by a kind of meaning-virus: self-reference parasitizes language. he said. it is the same as a gene. in the sense that both are replicator-kinds. like genes. Why do they not manage to overrun all of the space? It is a good question.
In describing the idea’s source. Furthermore. Although this was reviewed in The San Francisco Chronicle (Riordan 1985). and some groups of memes will tend to be internally self-reinforcing (Hofstadter 1983. was something of a landmark date for the popular understanding of the meme. it linked the meaning of the meme to a book by Dennett that had been published a few years before.” sees human consciousness as a collection of memes. . Perhaps tellingly. none of the reviewers discussed his presentation of the meme as a self-replicating sentence. by 1995. published almost twenty years before.” by Richard Dawkins. And. is an example of the active. it wasn’t “infectious. it also made a curious connection: in addition to mentioning its origins in Dawkins’ writings. p. . however. who picked up the word in his book “Consciousness Explained. (New York Times Magazine 1995) We can read this as an innocent mention of the original source and a recent interpretation. non-metaphorical meme. clearly. the meme had become active and . it didn’t catch on right away. IV. 1995. Yet I suggest that it may be more accurate to interpret the resulting deªnition as the product of having been projected through the lens previously provided by Hofstadter and Dennett. and The Washington Post (Rucker 1985). Our next section examines the relevant period: 1988–1995. 18) This. a meme was. at the time.88 Misunderstanding of Memes zine column-inches and library shelf-space. It is therefore clear that. even then.” For that. Daniel Dennett. however. some memes will tend to discredit others. Memes in America. A book collecting the revised versions of Hofstadter’s popular essays was published in 1985: Metamagical Themas. a 1976 book that argued that an organism was just a gene’s way of making more genes. it still took a while to catch-on. 1988–1995 January 22. A hint appeared later in The Washington Post: “How did survival of the melodious give us Mozart?” (Mallove 1986). This is because The New York Times Magazine ran a short piece that explicitly explained what. Indeed: in the Times’ original review of the book. the reviewer hadn’t bothered even to mention the meme—he had focused instead on the Replicators Argument (Pfeiffer 1977). The New York Times (Maddox 1985). The best source seems to be “The Selªsh Gene. it needed further re-engineering. . But the meme itself was not formally introduced to general audiences in the US until two years later.
Morrison Professor in Population and Resource Studies and editor of American Naturalist] is “surprised” that Madison Avenue hasn’t yet leapt to exploit the new concept. Pronounced meem. the habit of saying “Yo. while the idea of individual freedom would be a powerful and good meme. And the new science of memetics may enable students of society to purge their discussions of such imprecise terms as “trend” and “tendency. They are literally ideas with a life of their own. Meme. drug addiction. this was not the meme’s ªrst introduction to the American mass market.” (New York Times Magazine 1995) Whatever else the meme may have been. . (Schrage 1988b. Schrage (1988a) introduced the general American reader to the meme via The Washington Post on October 30. he explained the concept and—crucially. Dad. a way of thinking. although trivial. Yet. mutate and travel from one host to another. a phrase. That task fell to Michael Schrage. memes shape both language and thought. . where’s my allowance?” might be thought of as an extremely successful. birth control and political campaigns.” Still. in terms of how the meme’s meaning continued to shift as others adopted it as their own—incorporated a discussion of its possible applications: Like genes. who was then a fellow at the MIT Media Lab. In each replication. it seems clear from this that by the mid-1990s it had been reiªed in the US as something more than a rhetorical device. But a side-bar published in The Washington Post and The San Francisco Chronicle made the meme more immediately relevant to readers: The advertiser as memetic engineer would be able to splice memes together to create memorable and effective advertisements.” as in “Yo. memes can replicate themselves. Think of it as a thought virus or the cultural equivalent of a gene. as the piece also suggests.Perspectives on Science 89 non-metaphorical. though. His essay was subsequently edited and republished in the Chicago Sun-Times (on November 9 [1988c]) and the San Francisco Chronicle (December 11 [1988d]). The idea of racism would be a more powerful and malevolent meme. And not trivially so: here. 1988e) . in the late-1980s. Mark [sic] Feldman of Stanford [then the Clifford G. Now researchers have begun using the notion to explain such diverse phenomena as the spread of innovation. . Yet it was also still sentential. One meme that is starting to catch on is the very word “meme. the result was mostly an academic discussion. meme. For instance.
Dawkins 1989) appear to be a dead end” (Ehrlich and Feldman 2003. When I asked Schrage about what he had hoped to achieve in writing the original essay. which—given the allusion to Genentech and its incredibly successful performance on the stock market—would have huge implications for investment. Feldman and others anticipate the discovery of “culture markers” that correlate the co-evolution of genes and memes. p. 94). There. and cultural theory. . He wrote: i do explicitly recall ªnding “memes” particularly interesting as a unit of analysis because a lot of the wilson/tooby evo-psychology and sociobiology crowd kind of did ch-cha-cha hand-waving around issues of “culture” and “learning”—memes as “viruses of the mind” and “pattern organizers” struck me as an underappreciated and underexplored construct . everything we know about this industry’s future is up for grabs. Schrage expanded upon Feldman’s comments in a later piece. (Schrage 1992) Memes. he explained that he had wanted to push the meme into the discussions then-ongoing at the boundary between evolutionary. 18 November 2009. . Feldman’s later rejection was totally consistent with Schrage’s earlier goals as a journalist. he called for the equivalent of a Human Genome Project for culture: Just as there are gene markers that identify heritable traits. 9:55 PM. this is consistent with the meme’s changing fortunes within the Academy. . By 2003. . Researchers have yet to ªnd the “double helix of culture. psychological. published in AdWeek in August 1992.90 Misunderstanding of Memes The meme thus became a topic of interest for business people: Schrage’s sidebar introduced the idea of the selªsh meme as a scientiªc tool for money-making. in Schrage’s reading. But if they do. however. These “meme maps” might ultimately chart the future of memetic engineering and the advertising it inspires. can a Mementech be far behind? If Dawkins and other sociobiologists are right about how culture evolves.” as Watson and Crick did with the double helix of life. Feldman had completely reversed his position: “the most recent attempts using a ‘meme’ approach (Blackmore 1999. (Personal communication. in his recollection. Yet Schrage’s intent. typography as in the original) . as part of a conversation by email in 2009. Indeed. had not been to use the meme to advance a solution to an economic concern. offered an exciting future: a science of culture. . And indeed.
initially in Consciousness Explained. 9:55 PM.” (Personal communication. But since the meme’s introduction into the UK occurred later than it did in the US. Odling-Smee. typography as in the original). to help make minds more thinkable from an evolutionary perspective. the meme and its maker—or rather. Odling-Smee. Feldman has been involved in related projects for many years. 2001. Laland. Schrage’s goal. which in its turn also became a ªnalist for the Pulitzer Prize—secured his position 7. and Feldman. 2000. astrology. in other words. We end this chapter of our story with a ªnal contribution from Schrage: his July 1995 feature. Memes in the UK. say. for Wired. his own hugely successful book—Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). could parasitize a mind just as surely as a hookworm could infest someone’s bowels” (Schrage 1995). 18 November 2009. Daniel Dennett’s involvement on both sides of the Pond makes the two halves of the story commensurable. for Schrage. 3 October 2010. The earliest of these is Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman. This has become the contemporary touchstone for discussions of memes in both the US and the UK. It is sufªcient simply to point out that it was the popularization of Dennett’s later reading of his and Hofstadter’s take on the original meme proposal that helped to construct the context through which other ideas (e. 8. was to help readers engage with the debates surrounding the same ideas popularized by Hofstadter in Gödel.7 It was then Dennett who took up this challenge. was its simplicity: “i was struck by memes and the conceit of ‘memetic engineering’ because they were ACCESSIBLE ideas that bridged impenetrable academic discourse and ‘pop’ psychology . Conªrmed by email (personal communication.. which was published in 1991. and Feldman. While Dennett had played second ªddle to Hofstadter in The Mind’s I. Escher. With this. Bach and The Mind’s I. which put Dawkins on the cover of a major American magazine.g.” are probably Laland. 7:48 PM).Perspectives on Science 91 Yet the idea’s key attraction. 1995–1999 Our story ultimately ends with the publication of Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine in 1999. . V. in connection to the idea of “niche construction. . the details of that book as an intellectual achievement—although wonderful—are largely unimportant for our purposes. But beyond its connection to The New York Times’ deªnition. however. it followed a different trajectory that must also be traced. The most relevant of his contemporary writings. their popular understanding—had both become thoroughly Americanized: “A meme for. Conveniently. Feldman’s arguments regarding the implications of “niche construction” for cultural change)8 have since been read. 1973. . including the debate regarding its meaning and subsequent dismissal—by Feldman and many others.
To make the distinction they are named “memes”. however. the UK equivalent of The Wall Street Journal. that human ideas. this reading had been pushed much further. Instead. This didn’t translate into immediate fame in the UK. . as if almost in echo of Schrage’s writings in the US. the Financial Times. very little else was “read in. but the detailed implications are largely left to the reader. Following the initial introduction of the idea. and Schrage’s celebration of Dawkins. Its later uses of the meme-concept reºect this interest. Indeed. indeed. followed a few years later by a review of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (Brittan 1995). Dennett was presented as the lead expositor of Dawkins’ original proposal. in this ªrst usage. was published by Andrew Brown (author of The Darwin Wars ) in The Guardian well after the millennium (Brown 2004). beliefs and institutions may be studied by means analogous to genetics.” That came later. in other words. . But ªrst the connection was made to Dennett: in the British introduction of the meme. though: the British equivalent of Gleick’s celebration of Hofstadter. For example. as Martin Mulligan explained in his discussion of the proselytizing use of the internet by religious organizations: Few reasonable souls doubt any longer that the Net has ushered in a fresh communicative epoch. he follows a hint of Richard Dawkins. . Michael Prowse—the ªnancial journalist who had written the review of Consciousness Explained in 1992—had begun to present the meme as something akin to a philosophical zombie-maker. By the end of the millennium. the Oxford biologist. the internet had thus come to stand-in for the primordial ocean of replication. (Mulligan 1996) By the mid-1990s. (Brittan 1995) Yet as we can see. but without reducing them to genes. The Financial Times is a business broadsheet. and in parallel with the rest of our story. it was in that later review that audiences in the UK were ªrst introduced to the meme—in. the British uptake of Dennett’s ideas was slow: it started with a review of Consciousness Explained (Prowse 1992). .92 Misunderstanding of Memes as a public intellectual. But similarly no reasonable soul could have foreseen such intellectual viral warfare breaking out on a scale unprecedented in the history of mass communication. The Net has effectively become a meme factory. And. a laboratory of good and bad infections. of all places. journalists were enthusiastic in extending its active non-metaphorical meaning. by the year 2000.
And it is perhaps no surprise that. The ªrst. Dennett became increasingly inºuential through the 1990s. at around this time. The “smoking gun” demonstrating the primacy of Dennett’s later inºuence in popularizing the “meme” meme is provided ªrst by his (1990) essay reafªrming the active view in explicit contrast to Dawkins’ (1982) retreat back to metaphor. a matter that is often beyond their control. Before concluding our discussion. marketing itself went “viral” (following Rushkoff 1994. which we have concentrated on here. we will brieºy discuss each of these in turn. Hofstadter and Dennett made the idea of the active non-metaphorical meme thinkable as a social psychological entity. and. connected to the publication of Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine in 1999. “memetics” (p. Rayport 1996). simply put. This then provided the background against . 65). This is a lot to lay on Hofstadter and Dennett.Perspectives on Science 93 The signiªcance of the idea. their inºuence is split across time. VI. What memeticists argue is that human beings exist in a soup of memes: how they turn out depends largely on which memes bed down in their brains. That said. And I’m reluctant to do it. however. Step 1: Dennett’s Reinterpretation In §II. I suggested that it was through the cobbled-together re-presentation of Dawkins’ original proposal in The Mind’s I that the meme acquired its active. regardless of how the idea came into being. Four Stages of Popularization I think the popularization of the meme can be conceived of broadly as having developed through four stages. sovereign agents. Why? Because. in the larger social context of the 1990s. non-metaphorical meaning. Although Hofstadter (1985) popularized the term that was later used to describe the science of memes. But I think it’s fair. broadly in control of their fates. not least because I’m an admirer of both. relates to Hofstadter’s and Dennett’s involvement in its reinterpretation and the subsequent uptake of their version of the meme in newspapers. the implication by the millennium was that understanding memes would give business leaders a more effective (read “scientiªc”) way to reach into the pocketbooks of their customers. the second can be situated in the larger social context of the 1980s. (Prowse 2000) Clearly. at least in the hands of Dennett and Blackmore. the third. is that it throws doubt on the conventional view (at least in the liberal west) that individuals are independent. the fourth.
which Hofstadter reviewed for The New York Review of Books in 1980. Indeed. p. reprinted in 1978) by way of exam9. (Dennett’s chapter in that book is excerpted from Brainstorms. ix) Similarly. in turn. p. He even goes so far as to defend the hypothesis that “human consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes. that Dennett read Dawkins. the active meaning came as a result of the idea’s reconstruction: actions taken by individuals working in their own contexts.” The intentional stance was originally intended to help people predict the actions of Others.) The collaboration also led to a recommendation. Rather. led to the collaboration—also in 1980—which had as its fruit The Mind’s I. he was explicit in connecting the active meme to Dennett. A further smoking gun is provided by Dawkins’ own description of how his conception of the meme changed over time. p. No one individual made a copying mistake. suggested Dennett (1971.” (Dawkins 1999a. before I read Consciousness Explained and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea by Daniel Dennett and then Susan Blackmore’s new book. . Dawkins’ 1993 essay—“Viruses of the mind. I did not know. therefore. Dennett explains this in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea. more publicly.” which was posted online not long after it was published (noted by Mulligan 1996)—begins with a quote from Dennett. 1995. how ambitious such a thesis might turn out to be. coming full circle. Dennett published a book called Brainstorms. also in his essay of 2006. in Consciousness Explained (1991) and Darwin’s Dangerous Idea (1995). 102. that the active meme can be more properly attributed to Dennett than to Dawkins. there was no “mutation” following continued replication. see also Dawkins 1999b. This. As he explained in Time magazine in 1999: I was always open to the possibility that the meme might one day be developed into a proper hypothesis of the human mind. Yet how did this interpretation originally come to be? (Was it intended to be nonmetaphorical?) To be clear: I am not suggesting that the making of the active meme was the result of a misunderstanding. 143. by Hofstadter. A chess-playing computer could be made more thinkable. it was in one of the essays collected in Brainstorms that Dennett introduced the idea that I think led to his espousing an active interpretation: “the intentional stance.9 And. Dennett vividly evokes the image of the mind as a seething hotbed of memes. Thus: what was Dennett’s context? In 1978. It seems.94 Misunderstanding of Memes which he developed the idea. The Meme Machine.
this unremarkedupon application of the otherwise-useful intentional stance led the popular understanding astray. 1978. 8). we immediately run into a problem: a cultural meme pool can be thought of as an intentional system only insofar as it remains an object of philosophical enquiry. 3–4). I suggest that this rule (which we might call “Dennett’s Rule. wrote the “reºections” on the memes chapter in The Mind’s I. without similar guidance by Dawkins. Step 2: Greed is Good If we expand the scope of the examination of the context in which Dawkins’ book was received. if one were to treat it as an “intentional system”—as if it were “rational” (Dennett. we must move beyond the intellectual environment and consider the broader social setting as well. this also came with a warning: “a particular thing is an intentional system only in relation to the strategies of someone who is trying to explain and predict its behavior” (pp. p. 3). In other words: one should not be confused.” in echo of his appeal to Brentano’s thesis) became increasingly implicit over time. 5). 1987. as could the popular reception of the 1989 second edition of The Selªsh Gene—exempliªed. by Michael Douglas’ Academy Awardwinning delivery of the famous line “greed . the meme proposal could certainly have been read by non-philosophers as suggesting that these “cultural genes” actually do have intent. is good. Most notably: the stock market crash in October. followed in December by the theatrical release of the popular ªlm Wall Street. Indeed. then we can be assured that the populations we observe have been selected in virtue of their design” (p.) Although potentially productive in terms of the resulting predictions. We can do the same thing in trying to understand the outcomes of evolution: “If we have reason to suppose that a process of natural selection has been in effect. . However. in particular. genes could be interpreted as actually being selªsh in the same way that humans sometimes are. to make mistakes about the true nature of the simpliªed system’s supposed essences (see also Dennett 1987).” . adopting either a “design stance” (What did the individual human meme-maker intend?) or a “physical stance” (What is an intended meme made of?) becomes more appropriate. If we generalize this approach from predicting behavior to trying to understand culture. by adopting the intentional stance. As soon as it is reiªed as actually involving intentions. (Hofstadter. without providing the same sort of editorial guidance in The Mind’s I as that which existed in Brainstorms (p. The emergence of the meme in US newspapers at around this time could be read through this lens. After comparing Dawkins’ original proposal with its later popularizations.Perspectives on Science 95 ple. . just as. not Dennett.
the extent and timing of its success may be due to its central contention that we exist as machines for reproducing our selªsh genes. Several observations on this theme were made in UK papers in the late-1990s (e. more than any other. however. the point is well made: the controversy surrounding the book in the late-1980s was related to how its message was perceived. . Thatcherism took off that the book did too. It was only when . At most.. . Oliver James (a clinical psychologist and television personality).96 Misunderstanding of Memes I am of course not suggesting that it was this conºuence of events which explicitly caused the emergence of the book’s controversial reading into the public understanding. each new meaning read through the implications of the last. Unfortunately. . expanded upon his earlier comment in 2008 in a way that makes my point quite clearly—albeit for different ends: The history of the sales of Richard Dawkins’ The Selªsh Gene is an example of how such ideas [“the re-emergence of Social Darwinism clothed anew as evolutionary psychology”] knitted into neo-liberal ideology. for a discussion of a compatible model of bio-cultural causality. (For a discussion of the psychological and educational sides of this recursive function. my making the connection between Wall Street and The Selªsh Gene is not original. . and so are we. . supplied the “scientiªc” underpinning for Selªsh Capitalism. James included “Reaganism” as the American counterpoint to British Thatcherism. Yet despite this potentially misleading use in a political context of a technical economic label. a highfalutin justiªcation for the “greed is good” ethos. see Burman 2008. so the use of “neo-liberal” here should not be taken out of context and applied to American Democrats. Published in 1976. see Burman in press. I am suggesting merely that such examples are representative of the larger context into which the second edition of the book ªts. This understanding of biology then became a property of minds and their ideas (see also Segerstråle 2000). which blends “exaption” with the Baldwin Effect. ªrst in language and then in the public understanding of what Dawkins seemed to imply: genes are selªsh. James 1998). Dawkins’ book. . relative to the context in which it was received.) Greed and selªshness thereby came to be linked. Rather. because that’s nature. One of the authors. Society must be red in tooth and claw because that’s how evolution works. by Lynn and Trump 1998. Whatever its merits.g. it was not until the 1980s that it became a bestseller. it seems reasonable to suggest that each new instance of the book’s claims came to be treated as exemplary of the original message. (James 2008) In his earlier comment. rather than through its history.
How did this change? For the ªrst ªve years after The Selªsh Gene had been published.) In any case. As a result. and as the Dot-Com Bubble burst. it was absent in Blackmore’s. anointed it as exemplary by contributing a foreword. a useful way to un- . When the second edition was published in 1989. Over the next ªve years. it was a well-written academic argument. In an essay published as this bubble then burst. on the basis of the material reviewed. Don Ross (2002) provided a more general version of the resulting argument: a Dennettian approach to explaining social behavior is useful only so long as you can assume that memetic (or. it became interesting to the public. following the publication of The Meme Machine. it is not clear why The Meme Machine ultimately became the point of departure for all subsequent discussions of memetics. was that Blackmore dropped the intentional stance even as she kept its active interpretation. Memetics. however. well organized. . so was there also a boom in interest in all things related to memes. in Ross’ case. 14). the meme was reiªed completely. The main difference between Blackmore’s replication of the meme and Dennett’s. VII. (Perhaps it was because Dawkins. While the stance had been implicit in Dennett’s discussions of the meme. whose work had been printed by the academic wing of the same publisher. economic) systems act like intentional systems. Step 4: Blackmore’s popularization Given that Blackmore’s book was one among many published in the late1990s. Conclusion I suspect.Perspectives on Science 97 Step 3: Memetic Economy The reverse of 1987’s market crash occurred in the late-1990s. It is lucid. there was therefore already a widespread popular misunderstanding of what it was that he meant. ªts perfectly into Dawkins’s idea of a replicator and into Dennett’s evolutionary algorithm” (p. and it also promoted Dennett’s interpretation: “The meme . . that the increasing controversy surrounding The Selªsh Gene emerged as a result of reading Hofstadter’s and Dennett’s active non-metaphorical presentations of the meme “back in” to Dawkins’ apparently sociobiological discussion of the selªshness of replicators. As soon as those rules began to break. from this perspective. the value of the book for the idea’s popularization is that it provided a single uniªed argument to which anyone could turn. provided a kind of folk psychology that was philosophically useful in thinking about economic behavior. And just as there was a boom in the stock market. the heuristic value of the intentional stance—and of the meme—disappeared. After 1987. it became insightful.
in The Extended Phenotype: It is true that the relative survival success of a meme will depend critically on the social and biological climate in which it ªnds itself. cannot seek out prey. . If the society is already dominated by Marxist. The brain is active. What’s important in this conception is the function of structures. Dawkins’ active language— and the non-metaphorical interpretation it affords—remained as the idea was popularized. So what? On its face. This even follows from the original argument of 1976: if there is such a thing as a meme. in 1982. that the lines of scholarly communication don’t just go one way: there is an interaction between “science. not the meme. And in the 1990s. but of reconstructions by different brains in different contexts. . The medium is where messages are remade. or Nazi memes. But this drift in meaning should not be taken as evidence for the theory as it exists now. and in the process of their remaking there is a competition for scarce resources. And it certainly cannot leap from one brain to another. The mutation of the “meme” meme is not the result of copying errors as it leapt from brain to brain. and then it mutated through replication and selection as it worked to achieve its own “critical mass for take-off” (cf.98 Misunderstanding of Memes derstand what was happening in the ªnancial world. such an interpretation seems fairly cut-and-dried. . Yet we should be clear: a meme. any new meme’s replication success will be inºuenced by its compatibility with this existing background. This is now being unraveled. We see in the vignette provided by Feldman’s exuberant acceptance of memes in the late-1980s.” the “public understanding of science. . pp. (p. if it does exist. however. Stekolschik. and Gallardo 2010). then it cannot exist as a replicator separately from its medium of replication. not the structures themselves as innate essences. Dawkins 1986. The conceit of thinking in this way is just useful sometimes. it became sacred—a prescient vision celebrated by Blackmore and other authors. the observation that makes this essay about something more than memes. But it will also depend on the memes that are already numerous in the meme-pool. followed by their near-complete rejection in the early-2000s. Public understanding inºects scientiªc meaning. Adaszko. this interac- . Dawkins tried to make this clear. and it isn’t metaphorical. 111) Despite this more limited position.” and the “thoughts of scientists” (cf. 219–220). This brings us to the substantive claim that I wish to make. in context. . Draghi. Actually. this analysis seems like it would support meme theory: an original idea was introduced. . As we have seen in this case. but the value of the original metaphor has been lost: memes have a meaning.
Feldman. Long before the rise of interdisciplinarity as a scholarly ideal.Perspectives on Science 99 tion provides the implicit frame through which scientiªc thoughts become thinkable. like Hofstadter and Barrett. Hofstadter. Barrett’s concern. But that Feldman—who was even then an important ªgure in evolutionary biology (and also. confusing his technical sense of the word “selªsh” and its everyday meaning. academics were reading material from outside their discipline. Barrett’s Law: not everyone who might read the productions of scholarly writers is an expert in the ªelds discussed. in order of receipt. Philip Stewart.” as Dawkins says in his ªrst chapter. And they were doing so because those ideas interested them. as Dennett replied to Barrett following his negative review of The Mind’s I in The New York Times. 1976. then we must also understand the social processes through which their contents become meaningful as they are translated through the public understanding. in this connection. are: Barrett. it seems almost as if Dawkins’ meaning has been obscured by how he is understood. an ecological economist at Oxford. a “real” philosopher would have understood what he and Hofstadter had been up to. (Indeed. however. (This information is available at the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation website: www . Hence.” as he 10. organismic biology and ecology.) . (Steward 2006) In short. was recently reiterated. lest they be misunderstood—and especially if they can be misunderstood in a way that becomes harmful to others (Teo 2008). philosophy.org. The subjects and dates for the others. It’s true that. then we are left with a problem: Dawkins is one of the best and most successful writers of science around (Ridley 2006). how is this different from how non-academics choose what to read?) The lesson therefore seems simple: we must be careful in how we choose to present our ideas. If this is true. Dennett received his Guggenheim Fellowship. 1980.gf. and many who have not read even that one book have concluded that it has been “scientiªcally proven” that “we are born selªsh. if we are to understand the implications of scientiªc claims. computer science. sent a letter to New Scientist in 2006 that repeated many of the same worries about how Dawkins’ writing has been received: Hardly any have read his more scientiªc work. In fact. a former Guggenheim Fellow)10— didn’t immediately see what Dennett thought was obvious suggests that Barrett’s concern was well-founded. 1974. in 1986. for philosophy. Indeed. I would go one better: I suggest that his concern can be generalized into a law. For Schrage-the-journalist to have been surprised—“stunned.
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