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Hunneman, R.

Auteur: Ronald Hunneman

Afstudeerjaar: 2010

Vakgroep: Theoretische Filosofie 

Titel: On the Senselessness of Memes & How They Might Make Sense as Replicators


In 1976 Richard Dawkins introduced the notion of a meme in The Selfish Gene. A meme is the cultural counterpart of what a gene is in biology. Memes are the units of cultural transmission, just like genes are the units of biological transmission: both kinds of transmission can give rise to a form of evolution. The expectations surrounding the new concept were high. Many books, articles, scientific papers, magazines, internet forums, symposia and documentaries were devoted to memetics, the science of memes. However, the interest in memes withered as quickly as it had blossomed. In this thesis I examine why memes never gained a genuine scientific status, despite the great amount of energy that was put into memetics. Today no real meme scholars are left, certainly not within the field the notion originated from, scientific evolutionary biology.

Dawkins wanted to introduce a replicator that could compete with genes. According to his own criteria it should always be possible to tell whether a meme is a copy of another meme. But very soon after the introduction memes came to be considered as mental entities. As a result it became impossible to give an unambiguous description of memes, and thus an unambiguous notion of a copy of a meme. Moreover, if memes are defined in terms of ideas, thoughts and the like, Quine´s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation applies. Two meme scholars can both give an adequate explanation of a cultural phenomenon, whereas their descriptions of the memes involved would irreconcilably diverge. In this case memetic analysis comes to rely on a manual of translation and therefore cannot be a proper part of a natural science like evolutionary biology.

Most probably the definition of memes in mental terms was driven by the fascination with software and computer viruses of the 1980´s. Memes were likened to software modules. Without this preoccupation Dawkins and others might have settled for a more Quinean definition of memes in terms of behaviour and/or artefacts: meme An (element of an) artefact or behaviour that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.

Had Dawkins been satisfied with a definition such as this one, he could have employed a method of analysis that he uses repeatedly in The Extended Phenotype (1982). He could have described memes as (parts of) parasites that compete with genes and their survival vehicles, organisms. Most probably this would have been the only way to give memes a scientific ontological status, because as long as memes are not capable of influencing and exploiting genes, they can be put aside as nothing more than figments of the mind, with at most a literary status.

Laatst gewijzigd:01 november 2013 14:01