Ever since Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (Oxford, 1976) floated the idea of a cultural unit called the meme analogous to the biological gene, the term has been used in many places with about as many meanings. A number of GAlist members have wondered about the similarity of the memetic to the mimetic and the value of the various attempts to build a theory of memetics.

A supposedly scientific term whose usage shows no sign of converging on a publicly accepted definition should arouse suspicion. Pseudo-science always relies on the suggestive power of words rather than models. That memes turn up in the writings of pop psychologists and in the motivational hocus-pocus of such doctrines as spiral dynamics–about which I was privileged to learn (until my patience ran out) at the recent COV&R meeting in Atlanta–hardly reflects well on its scientific credentials. Although most writers’ idea of a typical meme is a minimal snatch of music such as the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, the spiral dynamicist presented memes as the (color-coded) mental equivalents of the stages of human social evolution, roughly from terror before the supernatural through submission to reason to self-governing freedom. Whatever truths about human organization may have found their way into this Comtian scheme, the word “meme” added nothing to their perspicuity.

Recently a friend recommended to me a book that made a more intelligent use of Dawkins’ concept: Cultural Software by J. Balkin (Yale, 1998). But rather than persuading the reader of the value of memetics, this book supplies its reductio ad absurdum. Balkin is a serious, well-informed writer, and his functionalist software metaphor allows him to score points against “postmodern” thinking a la Foucault that fetishizes “discourse” into an independent controlling force. But Balkin fails to realize that while pointing out the failings of fashionable social theory he is putting nothing in its place. Although he deals in cogent detail with a wide variety of cultural phenomena from the aesthetic to the political, because he lacks a concept of the fundamental operation of culture, he can say nothing substantive about any cultural process, let alone about any individual “meme,” other than that its fitness has been demonstrated by its survival.


Darwinians fascinated by their hero’s “dangerous idea” (Daniel Dennett) never seem to realize that its strength lies in its emptiness. That the “survival of the fittest” is a tautology because “fitness” is just another word for “survival” is not a quip: it is the simple truth. Of course “fitness” means reproductive fitness–surviving without offspring to the age of 100 does nothing for your genotype–but exchanging the survival of the fittest to survive for the reproduction of the fittest to reproduce does not make Darwinian doctrine any less tautological.

Let the reader not surmise from this that I am a “non-believer” in Darwin: on the contrary. Aside from the detailed observations that make The Origin of Species doubtless the most readable of major scientific documents, the genius of Darwin’s theory of evolution is precisely its lack of presuppositions. In its most general form, the theory is by no means limited to life; any system will tend to evolve in the direction of more “survivable” states, which, as Ilya Prigogine in particular has pointed out, are just the opposite of entropic states of simple equilibrium.

Life is unique in that living creatures reproduce themselves, and the particular merit of Darwin’s theory as opposed to Lamarck’s “inheritance of acquired characteristics” is that it makes reproduction a necessary factor in evolution. If we could inherit acquired characteristics, we could just as well be immortal creatures “evolving” through time; the usefulness to the species of death and sexual reproduction, as immortalized by Freud’s eros and thanatos or Bataille’s l’érotisme et la mort, would be unclear. The advantage of sexual reproduction is the generation of variance, and the usefulness of variance requires the testing of different forms in different conditions. Implicit in the tautology of “the survival of the survivors” is the idea that survival is not guaranteed, that life is a competition, as expressed in the other great Darwinian (more precisely, Spencerian) phrase: struggle for life. We have heard so much irony directed at the “social Darwinists” who once drew crude parallels between competition in market society and competition through natural selection that we forget how strong the parallel really is; we take for granted or even denounce the fact that by forcing economic entities to participate in something like a “struggle for life,” the market system has created by far the most productive economies ever known.

In the Darwinian context, the search for the gene as the unit of evolution reflects the need to understand how the elements of variance are transmitted from one generation to the next. Darwin implies Mendel because, where Lamarckian inheritance is the transmission of a homunculus who changes along with the body that produces it, Darwinian variance requires only the transmission of a mixture of each parent’s original information with the addition of a small amount of random variation, supplied in genetic theory by “mutation.” But if Darwin implies Mendel, the latter’s construction of the gene in abstracto and the much later decoding of the genetic material are genuine scientific discoveries. Genetic decoding associates specific protein chains with specific phenotypic traits. If I belabor these obvious points, it is because what makes the gene useful in biology is precisely what makes the meme appropriate for spiral dynamics.

The meme promises by analogy a hard-headed genetics of culture. Just as the biblical “origin of species” by arbitrary divine command has been replaced by Darwin’s supremely parsimonious hypothesis–creationism being essentially a rearguard action–so the proponents of memetics promise to reduce the apparently arbitrary diversity of culture to its basis in evolutionary logic. What the memeticists fail to realize is that the criterion of cultural survivability is truly a null hypothesis. To claim that the cultural elements now in our brains have survived competition and must therefore possess certain traits that have ensured this “fitness” is not only a tautology, it is too vague a tautology to serve as a working hypothesis for the study of culture. Even the traditional literary scholar who proposes we wait a century before deciding which works “stand the test of time” has a more concrete notion of cultural fitness.

Scientific activity begins not with the empty hypothesis that fundamental cultural traits or “memes” exist but when we begin to make testable conjectures about the nature of these traits. Darwin himself could have posited the “gene” as the minimal component of evolutionary change, but the idea in itself would have had no content. The gene was born as a scientific concept when Mendel discovered its combinatory properties; it acquired a physical counterpart only decades later when the discovery of DNA led to the analysis of its chemical composition and structure–at which point the gene’s isolation from its surrounding genetic material is no longer an absolute a priori. Those who would analyze culture in terms of memes would similarly have to discover, first, rigorous rules of combination and, ultimately, some physical correlate, presumably wiring patterns in the brain, that can be experimentally isolated and recombined under the proper conditions of human interaction to “generate” culture.

Some readers may find this an intolerable prospect. I do not, because the history of science, as opposed to that of scientism, demonstrates that greater rather than less freedom accrues to societies that discover and exploit new laws of nature, including, to the extent that it is possible, human nature. My hostility to the concept of the meme is directed not to its ultimate scientific potential but to its use in pseudo-science. If you take the meme seriously, the last thing you should be doing is to seek it in such things as tunes that run through our brain. Such examples of cultural survival may well provide interesting material for study, but to call them “memes” is even more inept than confusing the gene that stimulates a fruit fly’s wing development with the wing itself. If the four-note beginning of the Fifth is a meme, what is it a meme for?


A more profound difficulty of the application of Darwinian theory to the evolution of human culture emerges in the discussion aroused by such books as Francis Fukuyama’s recent The Great Disruption (Free Press, 1999). When we reduce morality to an evolutionarily advantageous trait, are we not eliminating the spiritual content of morality in favor of its pragmatic value? How then can we defend moral action, as we all do, at times when its pragmatic value is not immediately apparent? The “little bang” of the originary hypothesis provides an answer to this question. The originary scene of language supplies the originary model of moral reciprocity, just as it supplies the originary model of religious transcendence. Durkheim’s idea that God is a projection of the community as a whole is valid only if we understand this “projection” not as an illusion of mediated desire but as a necessary condition for the constitution of the human, both as an object of (“anthropological”) thought and in reality.

Not long ago it was fashionable to explain moral behavior by means of an “altruism gene.” Tomorrow it may become popular to speak of a “morality meme”–indeed, this would be an improvement over most uses of the term. But although morality has indeed been “selected for” in the sense that we as morally aware creatures exist, calling the kernel of morality a “meme” adds nothing to our understanding of it in the absence of a hypothesis concerning the specific process of selection–irreducible to that of biological evolution–for this and other cultural traits. Because the originary hypothesis offers the only non-religious, that is, minimal depiction of such a process, we have reason to assume that it will eventually be adopted in some form by those engaged in fundamental human science. At that point, it might well become useful to assimilate the individual moments of the originary event to something like “memes.” For the moment, however, I think this assimilation only confuses the central issue of distinguishing human origin from the biological origin of species.