The Meme as Meme

Is memetics a science?  In Nautilus, Abby Rabinowitz asked Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and Susan Blackmore.

… trawling the Internet, I found a strange paradox: While memes were everywhere, serious meme theory was almost nowhere. Richard Dawkins, the famous evolutionary biologist who coined the word “meme” in his classic 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, seemed bent on disowning the Internet variety, calling it a “hijacking” of the original term. The peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics folded in 2005. “The term has moved away from its theoretical beginnings, and a lot of people don’t know or care about its theoretical use,” philosopher and meme theorist Daniel Dennett told me. What has happened to the idea of the meme, and what does that evolution reveal about its usefulness as a concept?


From the perspective of serious meme theorists, Internet memes have trivialized and distorted the spirit of the idea. Dennett told me that, in a planned workshop to be held in May 2014, he hopes to “rehabilitate the term in a very precise kind of way” for studying cultural evolution.

According to Dawkins, what sets Internet memes apart is how they are created. “Instead of mutating by random chance before spreading by a form of Darwinian selection, Internet memes are altered deliberately by human creativity,” he explained in a recent video released by the advertising agency Saatchi & Saatchi. He seems to think that the fact that Internet memes are engineered to go viral, rather than evolving by way of natural selection, is a salient difference that distinguishes from other memes—which is arguable, since what catches fire on the Internet can be as much a product of luck as any unexpected mutation.


Susan Blackmore, a British professor who may be one of the last defenders of memetics as a scientific field. In a 2008 TED talk, Blackmore is an animated speaker, bright-eyed and wiry, her short grey hair dyed with streaks of blue. I reached her at her home in Devon, England, where she is occasionally joined in the garden by Dawkins and Dennett for meetings of the “meme lab.” “It’s only a bit of fun, nothing serious,” Blackmore said. Sometimes, members try experiments, like folding Chinese sailing ships from origami, itself a kind of meme. She remembered a March meeting in which the issue of Internet memes arose, saying, “Richard was upset because he invented the term, which shouldn’t just be about viral Internet memes. It’s a very powerful concept for understanding why humans are the way we are.”

For Blackmore, memetics is a science. An Oxford-educated psychologist, her early work was on telepathy, which she spent years investigating after an out-of-body experience at the age of 19. She subsequently found no evidence for the existence of paranormal phenomena, but she was no stranger to pushing scientific frontiers. It is perhaps unsurprising that she decided to flesh out memetics. Dawkins wrote that, with memes, he did not intend to “sculpt a grand theory of human culture.” In her 1999 book, The Meme Machine, Blackmore does just that. She argues that everything from the development of language to our big brains were products of “memetic drive.” This is perhaps her most radical claim: that memes make us do things.

“The Meme as Meme” | Abby Rabinowitz | Sept. 26, 2013 | Nautilus at

The Meme as Meme