Are memes scientifically valid?

Are there any testable claims that meme theory makes? Are memes truly observable, quantifiable or falsifiable? What about memes makes them anything other than a (brilliant) convenient explanation for the passing of ideas without much more than circumstantial evidence?

I want to research the idea more, but I’m hung up first on the idea that they don’t seem to be empirically researchable.

The folks at the Journal of Memetics seem to think so.

I don’t know if he has softened on this since, but Dawkins’ original assertion about memes is that they actually created reproducible and possibly identifiable structures in the brain. Now, we know it’s true from recent research on the formation of memories that in fact the storage unit of a memory or concept is an concentration of a specific class of enzymes (cAMP-dependent protein kinase) for short-term memory, or the formation of preferred synaptic connections to neurons for long-term memory. However, the overall composite structure of conceptual memories (i.e. how a bunch of differing synaptic junctions work together holistically to recreate the sensations or intellectual concepts that create a complex memory) is still an almost complete mystery, and there is no reason to believe that the specific memory of some catchy phrase or jingle in one person has some kind of identical structure in other people; indeed, given that our memories are essentially built as a comparison with previously accumulated memories (i.e. you relate the memory of one event to similar or stimulating memories of another event) this seems entirely unlikey.

On the other hand, there are certainly phrases, collections of music, images, ideas, et cetera that are immediately appealing to a wide range of the population, likely stemming from some shared internal stimulation. On that basis, the concept of a meme at least has some metaphorical value to talk about these shared impulses qualitatively. But for memes being an actual or virtual structure, I think Dawkins in on crack.


Dawkins has a way of oversimplifying and making foolishly broad claims. This is a perfect example thereof.

Here’s an experiment:

Ask 1000 adult Americans what religion they are (Christian, Jewish, Muslim, whatever). Then find out what religion their parents were.

The theory of memetics predicts that there will be a correllation between peoples’ answers to the two questions, since the meme for particular religions is commonly transmitted from parent to child.

Well, duh. That’s a big problem with memetics. At this point, it doesn’t seem to be telling us anything that we don’t already know.

This is similar to writing off genetics as some monk getting all excited because green peas produce green peas and yellow peas produce yellow peas. Well, duh.

The point is, has that “Well, duh.” survey ever been conducted or has no one bothered because everyone already “knows” the result?

What’s the most likely religions of children born to parents of different combinations of mixed faiths? Are they more likely to take after the religion fo the mother or father or something completely different? What about cases of different denominations within a single faith?

These could all have interesting and surprising answers. Or they could confirm something we “already know.” Until then, we don’t know.

I don’t know if that is entirely fair. Certainly, in his specific discpline areas (evolutionary zoology, and in particular the entomology of family Agaonidae (fig wasps and related wasps) he’s a noted expert, as well as a legitimate authority on the gene-centric view of evolution, quite aside from his role as a science popularizer. One can argue that his definition of an extended phenotype can end up being hopelessly vague and indefiniable, but as a metaphor for a characteristic for which the benefit is shared by the system as a whole it is apt and useful. However, like many experts, once he gets afield of his area of immediate knowledge, his attempts to apply the same principles to other fields are less successful, and his aggressive screeds against religion are quite frankly painful to read even though I agree in principle with the points that he makes. He is most certainly no expert on neurology (functional or evolutionary), nor a concerted student of cognition. He is hardly alone in this regard; Carl Sagan made some embarassingly wrong assertions in Cosmos and elsewhere; Fred Hoyle was completely out to lunch on a vast number of issues; and Isaac Newton wasn’t above dabbling in alchemy and attempting transmutation despite any credible evidence, even in the day, that such a thing was possible.

Dawkins has made many substantial and astute (albeit not inarguable) claims in evolutionary biology. That he’s also make some cracktastical claims outside of that domain makes him human and fallible, not oversimplified and foolishly broad on every topic he addresses.


Sure. And if that’s all that genetic experiments produced, they wouldn’t be very interesting.

However, genetic experiments often have far more interesting results. For example, what if you crossed a certain green pea plant with another certain green pea plant and found that around 25% of the resulting peas were yellow?

One can then define “dominant genes” and “recesive genes” and build up a model that explains the results one sees.

Then one can test the model.

Perhaps, but I think that memeticists are putting the cart before the horse a bit. Show me an interesting or surprising experimental result for which “memes” provide a good explanation.

Otherwise, what’s the point of postulating some new entity?

I’ve only read The Selfish Gene, and I don’t recall finding this anywhere. If anything, he was very reluctant to throw any real weight on memes and acknowledged they were a new concept that needed a good deal debate before being accepted as true.

Perhaps in The Extended Phenotype he advocated a “meme spot” in the brain?

*As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: `… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.(3) When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking – the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’

This brings me to the third general quality of successful replicators: copying-fidelity. Here I must admit that I am on shaky ground. At first sight it looks as if memes are not high-fidelity repliators at all. Every time a scientist hears an idea and passes it on to somebody else, he is likely to change it somewhat. I have made no secret of my debt in the book to the ideas of R.L. Trivers. Yet I have not repeated them in his own words. I have twisted them round for my own purposes, changing the emphasis, blending them with ideas of my own and of other people. The memes are being passed on to you in altered form. This looks quite unlike the particulate, all-or-none quality of gene transmission. It looks as though meme transmission is subject to continuous mutation, and also to blending.

It is possible that this appearance of non-particulateness is illusory, and that the analogy with genes does not break down. After all, if we look at the inheritance of many genetic characters such as human height or skin-colouring, it does not look like the work of indivisible and unbendable genes. If a black and an white person mate, their children do not come out either black or white: they are intermediate. This does not mean the genes concerned are not particulate. It is just that there are so many of them concerned with skin colour, each one having such a small effect, that they seem to blend. So far I have talked of memes as though it was obvious what a single unit-meme consisted of. But of course that is far from obvious. I have said a tune is one meme, but what about a symphony: how many memes is that ? Is each movement one meme, each recognizable phrase of melody, each bar, each chord, or what ? *[right]–Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (2006 edition), Chapter 11, pg 192-95. [/right]

It’s true he doesn’t speak of actually having identified a meme, but he also argues more credence than merely suggesting that it’s a highly speculative notion with no established physiological basis. While the concept of a meme is certainly of value in phychology and sociology, students of neurology consider the idea of a meme as a real, physical analogy to a gene to be just short of Flat Earthism.


A unit of information in its own, being transmitted from one being to another, absolutely has no physical qualities. A meme isn’t translated like bacteria or a real virus, but I get the impression that he meant a more of a virus-as-analogy.

A meme in itself has no quantifiable presence, but once one meme is transmitted from one individual to another, for the brain to store and recall that meme there surely must be a physical process (memory). It’s my impression of that that is what Dawkins meant.

I am on record as rejecting the concept of “meme” as many people seem to interpret it. But then, I reject most of what Dawkins has to say (the bulk of Dawkins scientific works are centered around both his “selfish gene” and “meme” theories, neither of which I put much stock in, while the bulk of his popular works are screeds against creationism / ID, which I feel others have said better).

As I mentioned in the linked thread, “memes” are analogous to genes in some ways, but not in crucial ones. They are little more than by-products of language, and there is little that they can explain that the concept of “idea” can’t.

I dunno, are you?

Beep beep boop bop bort does not compute.

No, he clearly means that the individual unit of a meme is a series of unique physical structures in the brain analogous to a sequence of codons. Re-read The Selfish Gene, chapter 11. He speaks of memes undergoing evolution exactly analogous to genes, and to do that they need some kind of consistant structure to diverge from. He’s not just making a coarse analogy to a virtual ‘mem’; he clearly advanced the hypothesis that they are real objects, implicit units of conceptualization that are formed by replicating the thought process and (presumably) identical correlation of memory formation and stimulus from one person to another.


I’ll be sure to do that. I expect my understanding of his theory is tempered by the thirty-odd years we’ve had to kick around the idea so what is batshit crazy I’m translating into sane talk.

I understand a meme to ‘evolve’ in that certain ideas become more suitable to taking root in the human mind because of how the mind and culture continuously change. It’s not that a meme really evolves, exactly, but certain memes can become dominant over others because the environment in which they operate has changed. That’s my understanding of how meme theory should be read.

Lets say we had a 100 groups with a 1000 people in each. And we told the first 50 groups one story we just made up, and the next 50 groups a different story. Then after a year we check how many of each of the 100 groups know the story. Isnt that then a falsification of a scientific hypothesis? (“meme A spreads more effectively than meme B”)

All that would really demonstrate is the fact that more people felt there was value in passing on one story over the other. The stories themselves play no part in the process. And it certainly wouldn’t validate the concept of “meme” in any way.

I think memes are perhaps a useful as-if construction to attempt to understand how ideas spread, but don’t really exist. The more I think about it and talk with you guys, the less sure I am of their validity.

I think one good point about this talk of memes brought out one excellent insight: that the idea most easily replicated is most likely to be successful. In addition to that, they are ideas that actively seek to displace competing memes. You can see this in the world’s religions, which codify their beliefs in a book and whose central tenets are this religion and no others, often advocating violence in propagation of the meme.

That said, I think there might be better explanations than memetics.

mr. jp: That’s just an extended game of “Telephone.”

I would think that a fully-formed meme theorywould explain why the game of “telephone” unfolds as it does. However, I don’t think meme theory is fully-formed.

An example of the kind of question that we would want meme theory to answer is the one begged by the Snopes article, “From Gere to Eternity” about “gerbilling”:

The scientific mind must wonder, why is this so? Certainly the gerbilling concept on its own, is robust enough to be attached to several people over time, but the gerbil-Gere connection has proven particularly robust, lasting into its third decade now, known to toddler and pensioner alike, where other similar rumors have faded from memory. A well-developed memetic theory would explain this to us.

I certainly think there are enough similar incidences to the Gere-Gerbil phenomenon to sustain memetics as a promising hypothesis, but while Dawkins came up with his idea decades ago, the concept has not received widespread attention until just the past decade. I think memetics remains promising, but is at too early a stage of development to really assess whether the field is ultimately valid or not.