Memes are units of cultural inheritance, like genes. But they represent an evolutionary approach for understanding the mind, culture, and language. Richard Dawkins put his memes (memetics) theory in 1976, and it has been one of the unique ideas that tried to create a relationship between evolution and culture. It replicates traits throughout generations in a similar way to how genes replicate the inheritance of specific traits. In addition, memes are needed as a replicator which explains cultural inheritance via different methods to genes, such as music, language, clothing, building methods.
Therefore, ideas copy themselves at different rates, depending on their effects on the people of their local environment. Furthermore, selfishness in memes is the human intentions to control ideas.
Both evolutionary scientists and social science scholars have arguments against memetics theory. Although social scholars were attacking memes as it is linked to the theory of evolution, evolutionists also have strong arguments against memetics. We can summarize the problems in the main topics below:
Memes’ lack empirical support
Memes are depending on a wide range of topics such as anthropology, psychology, culture, linguistics, and sociology. However, it doesn’t provide enough data, experiments or any kind of evidence.
In memes, ideas are not replicators
Some critics argue that there is no mechanism to explain the copy of memes. Nonetheless, they may not be correct here as those ideas are transferable by language. Whereas the cognitive scientist, Dan Sperber, argues that the transfer of ideas never seems a copy, Sperber considers the transfer of ideas as so creating new ideas in every transition.
Others see that not all ideas are capable of copying, by providing an example of the piece of cake made with a secret recipe. You may like the cake slice but you’ll never know the recipe behind it. The same could happen with ideas, you may not be able to adopt the idea despite your desire to do so, similar to that delicious piece of cake.
Ideas are not traceable like genes
A great difference between memes and genes is that genes are traceable to their ancestors. But memes are not because you may not take your ideas from your father only and he might have taken his ideas from a parental source. Memes specialists try to explain this by religions; however, if we come to religion we’ll find that religion can spread among humans. This, in turn, could result in a huge number of cultural parents for a long history of all the ideas that came to us from different sources. The religion, perhaps, may have come from different resources.
Can we divide ideas?
Taking religion, for instance: you cannot adopt a religion without understanding the relations of its ideas to different aspects that you care about. You could think about the forgiveness of God, or about the creation of the world and the laws of physics under your belief in God. such ideas that are related to God (as the example here) are not separable from the main idea of God. Despite the debate and the different arguments held by some scientists and philosophers, still, there’s no final strong idea that solves this problem in a scientific manner.
Memes identification problems
Maria Kronfeldner in her book, Darwinian Creativity and Memetics, had mentioned a set of problems that faces meme-gene analogy. First, the boundaries problem where there are no clear boundaries of a meme as the gene. If we take a symphony of Beethoven as an example of a meme: the symphony should be memorable and distinctive in a way that makes it serve as a unit of transmitting. The problem here is that the transmission of the meme is depending on the person listening to the symphony. Some say that this might be possible if we have enough scientific knowledge, but not now. Even though some scientists argue that DNA strings may have the same boundary problem, where we cannot specify exactly which string will contribute as a replicator during reproduction. Still, there’s a huge difference between the physical materialistic state of genes compared to the mere concepts of memes.
Kronfeldner discusses another problem of memes which is the problem of holism where memes cannot work alone. Memes cannot work without a complex intersection with other memes. Thus, the meaning of a single meme is not an independent variable, which is a crucial matter in scientific inquiry.
Memes have many problems that make them distant from being a real science with known scientific features that makes it measurable and falsifiable, on top of the problems that they hold with the gene-meme analogy. Nonetheless, not being a real science is not the end for memes. Many of these problems may end if we have more scientific knowledge in the near future in certain fields such as scientific sociology; psychology; anthropology; and further connections to seal the gap between psychology and neuroscience.
Poulshock, Joseph. “The problem and potential of memetics.”
Lewens, Tim, “Cultural Evolution”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2013/entries/evolution-cultural/>.