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Betwixt the popular and academic: the histories and origins of memetics


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In this thesis I develop a contemporary history of memetics, or the field dedicated to the study of memes. Those working in the realm of meme theory have been generally concerned with developing either evolutionary or epidemiological approaches to the study of human culture, with memes viewed as discrete units of cultural transmission. At the center of my account is the argument that memetics has been characterized by an atypical pattern of growth, with the meme concept only moving toward greater academic legitimacy after significant development and diffusion in the popular realm. As revealed by my analysis, the history of memetics upends conventional understandings of discipline formation and the popularization of scientific ideas, making it a novel and informative case study in the realm of science and technology studies. Furthermore, this project underscores how the development of fields and disciplines is thoroughly intertwined with a larger social, cultural, and historical milieu. Thesis (M.S.)--Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, 2003. Vita. Abstract. Includes bibliographical references.
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Betwixt the Popular and Academic:
The Histories and Origins of Memetics
Brent K. Jesiek
Thesis submitted to the Faculty of Vir
ginia Polytechnic Institute and State University
in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Masters of Science in
Science and Technology Studies
Gary L. Downey (Chair)
Barbara Reeves
May 20, 2003
Blacksburg, Virginia
ords: discipline formation, history, meme, memetics, origin stories, popularization
Copyright 2003, Brent K. Jesiek
Betwixt the Popular and Academic:
The Histories and Origins of Memetics
Brent K. Jesiek
In this thesis I develop a contemporary history of memetics, or the field dedicated to the study of
memes. Those working in the realm of meme theory have been generally concerned with
developing either evolutionary or epidemiological approaches to the study of human culture,
with memes viewed as discrete units of cultural transmission. At the center of my account is the
argument that memetics has been characterized by an atypical pattern of growth, with the meme
concept only moving toward greater academic legitimacy after significant development and
diffusion in the popular realm. As revealed by my analysis, the history of memetics upends
conventional understandings of discipline formation and the popularization of scientific ideas,
making it a novel and informative case study in the realm of science and technology studies.
Furthermore, this project underscores how the development of fields and disciplines is
thoroughly intertwined with a larger social, cultural, and historical milieu.
I would like to take this opportunity to thank my family, friends, and colleagues for their
invaluable encouragement and assistance as I worked on this project. I could mention countless
individuals who selflessly gave their support, but I am particularly indebted to my wife Julie, my
parents, my good friend Matt back in Michigan, and my fellow students and colleagues here at
Virginia Tech. My committee members also deserve special thanks, not only for their
willingness to participate in this process, but also for the time and energy that each of them
devoted to this project. The finished product was made all the better in light of their countless
comments, suggestions, and insights.
Table of Contents
Abstract.......................................................................................................................................... ii
Acknowledgments ........................................................................................................................ iii
Table of Contents ......................................................................................................................... iv
Figures........................................................................................................................................... vi
Chapter 1: Introduction ............................................................................................................... 1
Memetics: A Historical Primer................................................................................................... 1
Controversies in Meme Theory...................................................................................................5
Literature Review........................................................................................................................ 9
Outsider and Insider Perspectives.......................................................................................... 9
Contextualist Historiography................................................................................................ 12
Disciplinary Development..................................................................................................... 13
Marginality and Hybridity.................................................................................................... 15
Science Popularization and the Boundaries of Science........................................................ 17
Tracing the Emergence of Memetics ........................................................................................ 19
Chapter 2: From Popular Science to Niche Popular............................................................... 21
Prelude to Popularization.......................................................................................................... 21
Toward the Tipping Point ......................................................................................................... 28
The Meme Enthusiasts.............................................................................................................. 35
Westoby’s Ecology of Intentions........................................................................................... 36
Brodie’s Virus of the Mind.................................................................................................... 37
Lynch’s Thought Contagion.................................................................................................. 41
The Popular Meme.................................................................................................................... 44
Dilution of Theory................................................................................................................. 44
Circular Theorizing .............................................................................................................. 45
Mixing Metaphors................................................................................................................. 47
Popular Predispositions........................................................................................................ 48
Conclusion................................................................................................................................ 51
Chapter 3: Meme Academe........................................................................................................ 52
Organizing a Discipline ............................................................................................................52
Journals................................................................................................................................. 53
Conferences........................................................................................................................... 55
Controversial Careers................................................................................................................ 55
Academic Memetics.................................................................................................................. 59
Memes, Genes, and Replicators............................................................................................ 62
The Geography of Meme Theorists .......................................................................................... 65
Origins of Controversy ............................................................................................................. 67
Disciplining the Amateurs ........................................................................................................70
Conclusion................................................................................................................................ 73
Chapter 4: Whose Meme Is It, Anyway? Exploring the Origins of Memetics...................... 75
Dawkins’s Meme ...................................................................................................................... 75
Memetics in Historical Context ................................................................................................ 80
Lynching Dawkins ....................................................................................................................83
Dawkins: Inadvertent Founder and Ironic Spokesperson......................................................... 87
Conclusion................................................................................................................................ 90
Conclusion................................................................................................................................... 93
Bibliography ................................................................................................................................ 97
Vita ............................................................................................................................................. 111
Figure 2.1. Brodie’s Analogies……………………….………………………………………….39
Chapter 1: Introduction
The term “meme” has become increasingly pervasive in recent years, particularly on the
World Wide Web and in trendy cultural outlets such as Wired magazine. Given that I’m a long-
time Internet user with a proclivity for exploring esoteric topics, it was perhaps only a matter of
time before my encounters with this curious word would lead me to explore it in more detail.
And as I would later come to recognize, my earlier experiences as an electrical engineering
student and computer programmer probably heightened my affinity for the meme concept. As I
started to research the topic, I uncovered a diverse body of authors and texts spanning multiple
disciplines and decades, and my inquiries quickly led to more questions and answers. My initial
quest to uncover the origin and meaning of the term eventually grew into this ambitious thesis: a
contemporary history of memetics, or the field dedicated to the study of memes.1 At the center of
my account is the argument that memetics has been characterized by an atypical pattern of
growth, with the field moving toward greater academic legitimacy only after significant diffusion
in the popular realm. As I will demonstrate, the history of memetics upends conventional
understandings of discipline formation and the popularization of scientific ideas, making it a
novel and informative case study in the realm of science and technology studies. Furthermore,
this project more generally underscores how the development of disciplines is thoroughly
imbricated in a larger social, cultural, and historical milieu. But before I delve into the specific
methods, goals, and implications of this project, it is necessary to develop a brief historical
primer as an introduction to both the field of memetics and the controversies that surround it.
Memetics: A Historical Primer
An obligatory entry point for an introduction to the meme concept is the work of Oxford
zoologist Richard Dawkins. In his first book the popular science tome The Selfish Gene (1976)
Dawkins popularized the argument that evolution should be studied in terms of competition
between “selfish genes.” His approach was an important challenge to the theory that evolutionary
processes are best understood at the organism or species level, a view long trumpeted by authors
such as renowned paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould. Along with a number of other texts,
1 My use of the term “field” is not meant to suggest that memetics has achieved a high level of legitimacy,
disciplinarity, or cohesiveness. Throughout this project I use “field” more generally, as in “branch of knowledge” or
“domain of inquiry,” without any additional normative assumptions.
including Edward O. Wilson’s Sociobiology (1975), Dawkins’s book contributed to the nature
verses nurture debates that climbed to a fever pitch as the 1970s wore on. As a key element of his
larger argument, Dawkins proposed that genes are prototypical “replicators.” In brief, a
replicator is any entity able to make identical or nearly identical copies of itself, all while
following the tenets of natural selection. In a subsequent book, Dawkins offered this oft-cited
definition: “A replicator is anything in the universe of which copies are made” (1982, p. 83).
While the bulk of his 1976 text demonstrated the heuristic power gained by viewing
genes as “selfish replicators,” Dawkins professed that gene-centered approaches failed to
adequately explain the diversity and complexity of human culture: “[F]or an understanding of the
evolution of modern man, we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas
of evolution” (1976, p. 191). After naming a handful of scholars who had tentatively explored
analogies between cultural and genetic evolution including philosopher Sir Karl Popper,
geneticist Luigi Cavalli-Sforza, anthropologist F.T. Cloak, and ethologist J.M. Cullen Dawkins
hypothesized that culture must follow an independent evolutionary process (p. 190). Casting
about for a novel, non-genetic replicating entity, he posited the “meme” as a “unit of cultural
transmission, or a unit of imitation” (p. 192). Dawkins coined the term as an abbreviation of the
Greek “mimeme” or “something imitated.” It also sounded like “gene,” a fitting parallel given
the analogous nature of the two entities (p. 192). 2 He added:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of
making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene
pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate
themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which,
in the broad sense, can be called imitation (p. 192).
Further developing the analogies between genes and memes, Dawkins argued that memes must
follow the tenets of natural selection, with the consequence that some are necessarily more
successful than others (p. 194). In addition to the examples given above, the author also looked
at scientific concepts and religious doctrines to explain how memes evolve and spread. Dawkins
also strayed briefly from evolutionary rhetoric by describing memes in epidemiological terms.
2 Dawkins added that the term meme “could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory,’ or to the
French word même” (1976, p. 192).
He referred to the “infective power” of particular memes (p. 193), and offered a striking quote
from colleague N. K. Humphrey: “[M]emes should be regarded as living structures, not just
metaphorically, but technically. 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” (p. 192). Offering additional
clarification of where these entities called memes reside, Dawkins stated: “The computers in
which memes live are human brains” (p. 197).
Dawkins’s selfish gene theory proved both controversial and durable, and his 1976 book
moved into position as a long running best seller in the popular science genre. But the meme
idea, introduced in a scant twelve pages of text, received only scattered attention into the 1980s.
Other scholars were developing their own evolutionary approaches to the study of culture during
this time period, but they largely avoided Dawkins’s terminology. Of the few authors who did
offer early commentary on the meme concept, noteworthy discussions can be found in articles by
the eminent philosopher David Hull (1982), astronomer John Ball (1984), scientist and popular
science writer Douglas Hofstadter (1983; 1985), and Dawkins himself (1982; 1989). Engineer
and research scientist K. Eric Drexler offered an early popular interpretation of memes in his
best-selling 1986 book Engines of Creation, and introductions to the topic also appeared in
outlets such Whole Earth Review (Henson, 1987b) and The Washington Post (Schrage, 1988). By
the mid-1980s, the term “memetics” was first used in reference to the study of memes, and in
1990 futurist and science fiction author Glenn Grant identified a “memeticist” as “one who
studies memetics” (1990).3 Such monikers foreshadowed the movement of meme theory and its
proponents toward both greater popularization and a more coherent identity in the 1990s.
One author who contributed significantly to this movement was the philosopher Daniel
Dennett, who first discussed memes in a 1990 journal article. Dennett further adopted and
adapted the meme concept as an important part of his larger theoretical framework via a pair of
popular science texts dedicated to topics such as cognition, consciousness, and evolutionary
theory (1991; 1995). In addition to making the ground-breaking argument that “human
consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes” (1991, p. 210), Dennett was one of the first
authors to evaluate seriously the prospects for a new “science of memetics” (1995, p. 352-360).
3 For the sake of historical accuracy, the term “memetics” is not an appropriate label for the entire history of the
field. Before roughly the mid-1980s, there was only scattered discussion of “meme theory” or the “meme concept.”
Looking beyond Dennett’s work, we find that the dissemination of the meme concept to various
niche audiences of technologists and futurists was apparent by the mid-1990s, as evidenced by
the founding of the Internet newsgroup alt.memetics, the appearance of articles about the topic in
Wired magazine, and references to various meme-like entities in a number of science fiction
stories. Discussions of meme theory appeared in a diverse assortment of books as well, ranging
from the more academic treatments of the topic offered by anthropologist and human biologist
William H. Durham (1991) and psychobiologist Henry Plotkin (1993) to the popularized
interpretations presented by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (1993) and evolutionary and
social theorist Howard Bloom (1995).
More recently, the growth of the field has accelerated. In addition to a plethora of
contemporary articles, columns, reviews and web pages, at least five texts wholly dedicated to
the meme concept have been published since 1996.4 The Journal of Memetics Evolutionary
Models of Information Transmission (JoM-EMIT) started publication as an online, peer-
reviewed academic journal in 1997, and the first conference on memetics took place in 1999,
suggesting that the field was moving toward more substantial academic foundations. In 1997, the
term “meme” was officially added to the Oxford English Dictionary, an indication that the
concept had to some extent taken root in the realm of popular culture as well (Oxford University
Press, 1997). Today the field of memetics enjoys a diverse following. It has an interdisciplinary
flavor, with participants hailing primarily from the domains of evolutionary biology, psychology,
and various social sciences (Aunger, 1999a). The meme concept has also attracted a variety of
popular authors and independent researchers, many with technology backgrounds. Proponents of
the idea have developed supplemental terminology, case studies, and mathematical models, and
various concepts from memetics have been applied in diverse domains such as marketing,
artificial intelligence, and cognitive studies. A handful of prominent meme theorists including
the aforementioned Dennett and the psychologist Susan Blackmore have challenged traditional
notions of consciousness by depicting a de-centered view of the human self, with minds
characterized as colonies of memes. Others have pitched memetics as the long-awaited discipline
that might unite the natural and social sciences, thereby bridging seemingly disparate fields such
as anthropology and biology. And competing approaches to understanding the evolution and
transmission of culture such as Donald T. Campbell’s evolutionary epistemology or various
4 See Brodie (1996), Lynch (1996), Blackmore (1999), and Aunger (2000; 2002).
coevolutionary theories developed by sociobiologists have failed to gain momentum or form
the academic and popular niches for which memetics is known.
But regardless of the relative success of the field, memetics remains somewhat fractured,
immature, and controversial, and widespread recognition of the domain as a legitimate scientific
discipline remains a hazy prospect. Critics have portrayed meme theory as riddled with intrinsic
defects, making it of little value for those who study the evolution and transmission of culture.
They point out that the field lacks the solid empirical grounding necessary for a progressive
discipline, going so far as to label the meme concept a “meaningless metaphor” and memetics a
“cocktail party science.”5 Others argue that meme theorists have overextended neo-Darwinian
theorizing and oversimplified human cognition and culture. Even those who identify themselves
as proponents of the field remain divided on many fundamental matters. To further explore both
the historical development and contemporary state the field, I turn to a number of key schisms
that have long divided meme theorists.
Controversies in Meme Theory
While a number of controversial issues have shaped the history of meme theory, three in
particular prove most relevant to my analysis. The first issue centers on questions about the
history of the field, particularly with regard to the origin of the meme concept. In the preceding
primer, I advanced a historical narrative that appears frequently in discussions of memetics: the
founding of the field can be traced back to Richard Dawkins’s 1976 text, The Selfish Gene.
Robert Aunger, an anthropologist who has emerged as a prominent spokesperson for memetics in
recent years, offers one version of this perspective:
The product of humble birth, the concept of meme was “invented” by the
zoologist Richard Dawkins of the University of Oxford (in his 1976 book The
Selfish Gene), as a foil to the idea, prevalent among some biologists, that the
evolutionary process applies only to genes. … But the idea has long since
outgrown its paternity, and one has the impression that Dawkins's main reaction
to his progeny, a bit more than two decades after its conception, is to shake his
5 Journalist Unmesh Kher (2001) attributes the “meaningless metaphor” condemnation to Gould, and the “cocktail-
party science” moniker to evolutionary geneticist H. Allen Orr.
head in bewildered amazement at the plasticity and staying power of the idea he
unleashed (Aunger, 1999b, para. 2).
Far from a simple attribution of credit, Aunger’s depiction is steeped in both biological rhetoric
and paternalistic overtones, with Dawkins painted as the sole originator of the meme concept.
Given the context of Aunger’s comment a book review in which he briefly introduces
memetics readers might quickly conclude that Dawkins is indeed the “father” of the field.
Corroboration for this view can be found in the comments of social psychologist and marketing
guru Paul Marsden, who writes, “The emerging research project [memetics], and spawn of
Richard Dawkins's brain, investigates the spread, structure and selection of memes which can
loosely be defined as infectious units of culture” (Marsden, 2000a). Following in Aunger’s
footsteps, Marsden singles out Dawkins as founder of the field. Furthermore, these salutary
depictions are two examples among many. As I will explore in subsequent chapters, this
“Dawkins origin story” is a recurrent theme in the memetics literature.
However, important questions have been raised in recent years regarding Dawkins’s
position in the history of the meme theory. Contrary to Marsden’s claim that Dawkins
“spawned” a research project, the meme concept was originally described by the Oxford
zoologist as speculation (1976, p. 199-200), and for many years it failed to gain significant
attention. In fact, proponents of the nascent theory tentatively started to discuss the possibilities
for a new “discipline of memetics” only in the mid-1980s. Even Dawkins himself has stated on
multiple occasions that, far from attempting to form a new field of inquiry, his ambitions for the
meme concept were originally rather modest. To the present, he remains an ironic founder and
reluctant spokesperson, never entirely embracing or distancing himself from the field. And while
most commentators agree that the term “meme” was coined in The Selfish Gene, the narratives
delivered by Aunger and Marsden suggest that the meme concept appeared phoenix-like from
the head of Dawkins.
Aaron Lynch, a Fermilab engineer turned author and independent researcher, has
surfaced as one of the most outspoken critics of Dawkins’s role in the history of the field. He
points instead to anthropologist F.T. Cloak as developing the foundations that led to both
Dawkins’s meme idea specifically, and the field of memetics more generally:
Yet contrary to common belief, evolutionary cultural replicator theory was not
invented by Richard Dawkins, but goes back at least to the cultural anthropologist
F. T. Cloak, who discussed it in his 1973 paper [Cloak, 1973] … The idea of
Dawkins as originator of evolutionary cultural replicator theory has become so
widespread and often communicated (due to Dawkins's popular writing style,
ongoing publicity, etc., and Cloak's technical style, obscure modes of publication,
and lack of self-promotion) that even people who have read Cloak's early papers
and forgotten their publication dates can acquire the idea of crediting the theory's
origin to Dawkins (Lynch, 2000a).
In another article, Lynch added that “the word [meme] was apparently coined by Dawkins to
popularize Cloak's theoretical paradigm” (Lynch, 2001b). These are no minor charges, for they
suggest that Dawkins may have borrowed Cloak’s idea, developed catchy terminology to
popularize it, and then failed to give credit where due. Even if Lynch’s comments prove only
partially accurate, they would warrant a substantial revision of entrenched historical narratives.
In order to develop a more compelling and inclusive history of the field, it will be necessary for
me to grapple with Lynch’s claims at some length in subsequent chapters.
But questions of motivation also loom large, especially given that debates over the
origins of the field have become more prominent in recent years. As a case in point, Lynch
himself offered numerous attributions of credit to Dawkins before abruptly switching to the
steadfast promotion of Cloak’s work in the late 1990s. On the one hand, promoting alternate
origins for the field may be prompted by a desire to set the historical record straight, or to give
credit to authors whose contributions have been overlooked. But debates over the origins of
memetics also point to a tension in the field between early popularization and delayed academic
legitimacy. As suggested by the preceding historical primer, the meme concept started to diffuse
in a broad, non-scientific audience well in advance of appreciable recognition by academics. In
order to place the history of memetics on more scientific and scholarly foundations, Lynch and
other authors have turned to the more technical and theoretical work of authors such as Cloak.
Quite simply, a popular science tome such as The Selfish Gene is an atypical starting point for
what is purported to be a revolutionary new scientific discipline, and invoking alternate origin
stories is an important strategy for those who want to raise the apparent legitimacy of the field.
Questions about the origins of the field are tied to a second controversial theme, namely
definitional debates over the term meme. Dawkins’s original explication of the concept offered
readers little more than the assertion that memes are “units of cultural transmission,” and
subsequent attempts by Dawkins and other authors to refine and clarify the term resulted in a
profusion of competing definitions. One question surfacing frequently in these debates is
whether memes should be defined as either cultural instructions that reside in the brain versus the
behaviors or material artifacts that result from those instructions. Take the case of a pervasive
advertising jingle. When viewed as a meme, does the jingle exist as a pattern of information in
the brain, as a pattern of notes and words recorded via some other medium, or perhaps some
combination thereof? A closely related matter involves the specification of the unit meme.
Capturing another oft-discussed musical example, psychologist and author Susan Blackmore
queries, “Is Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony a meme, or is only the first four notes?” (1999, p. 53).
From a historical perspective, such questions are central to documenting the development
of the field. But far from being purely technical disputes over the vagaries of meme theory,
debates over terminology and units frequently have a political subtext. Bruce Edmonds, a
philosopher and current editor of the Journal of Memetics, reaches a similar conclusion. He
remarks: “[T]he political subtext of these definitional disputes are nothing more than the
leadership and membership rights of the tribe of memeticists” (1998a). As suggested by
Edmonds’s comment, redefining terminology or narrowly specifying a “unit of memetic
analysis” may implicitly include or exclude large numbers of authors and texts, or even entire
swaths of the field’s history. Perhaps not surprisingly, many authors have attempted to untangle
these issues in recent years, but with only limited success.
A third major source of controversy in the field involves a rivalry between evolutionary
and epidemiological approaches to the study memes. Aunger aptly depicts these competing
perspectives with the labels “meme-as-gene” and “meme-as-germ” (2000, p. 9). The former
draws on the terminology and conceptual framework of Darwinian evolution and genetics, with
memes viewed as analogous to genes, but operating in the realm of culture. Treating memes as
true replicators, theorists speculate on the three key processes replication, variation, and
selection required for the evolution of memes to take place. Edmonds offers a succinct
description of this approach by characterizing memetics as “the application of models with an
evolutionary or genetic structure to the domain of (cultural) information transmission” (1998b,
Section 2).
The “meme-as-germ” perspective, on the other hand, explores the spread of memes via
“infection analogies.” These tend toward viral or parasitic models and borrow terminology from
immunology, resulting in concepts such as the “epidemiology of ideas” (Sperber, 1990; 1996),
“thought contagion” (Lynch, 1996), “viruses of the mind” (Schrage, 1988; Dawkins, 1993a,
1993b; Brodie, 1996), and “thought viruses” (Lofland, 1997). Such phrases are often used in
reference to particularly nefarious or pervasive memes, with examples ranging from fads and
fashions to religious doctrines and cults. A closer look at foundational work in the field reveals
that these two analogies are deeply rooted in the history of meme theory. Furthermore, the
relatively early popularization of the field can to some extent be explained by the forceful
resonance of “meme-as-germ” analogies with popular authors and audiences, while the academic
sphere of meme theorizing has generally favored evolutionary analogies.
The controversies outlined here paint a more complex picture of the historical
development of memetics. Fortunately, my effort to untangle these debates and develop a
compelling depiction of the field is necessarily informed by the work of many other authors. I
begin with a handful of texts that provide critical analysis of the history and development of
memetics. I then turn to a larger body of work to discuss a number of theoretical and
methodological insights that are more generally applicable to my project.
Literature Review
Outsider and Insider Perspectives
In the general realm of science and technology studies (STS), memetics has largely been
ignored. Scholars who might perform critical outside analysis of the field’s development, such as
sociologists and historians, have thus far overlooked meme theory. A handful of philosophers,
however, have offered discussions of the topic. David Holdcroft and Harry Lewis, for instance,
are recent critics of the meme concept. In an article published in Philosophy, their disparagement
is leveled rather narrowly at Dennett, and to a lesser extent Dawkins (2000). They fail to mention
more recent texts appearing in the Journal of Memetics, and while they do cite Blackmore’s
influential The Meme Machine in a footnote, they provide no additional analysis of her book.
Their conclusions and challenges are therefore primarily aimed at Dennett’s formulation of
memetics rather than the field writ large. More relevant for the current project is the work of two
well-known contemporary philosophers. The first, Mary Midgley, has been a stalwart opponent
of Dawkins’s work generally and the meme concept specifically since at least the late 1970s
(1979; 1983). More recently, Midgley authored an article that was highly critical of memetics,
categorizing it as an “ethereal, quasi-scientific system” (1999, p. 85). The eminent philosopher of
science David Hull, on the other hand, has been labeled a “sympathetic critic” of the field. While
it is difficult to determine just how far his sympathies extend, a recent article by Hull titled
“Taking Memetics Seriously: Memetics Will Be What We Make It” (2000) suggests that the
author views himself as a member of the memetics community. His first discussion of the topic
dates back to 1982, and his involvement in the field is an important but often overlooked
historical consideration.
Looking beyond the domain of philosophy, three literary scholars have written valuable
recent commentaries about memes. English professor Mark Jeffreys provides one the best
contemporary introductions and abbreviated histories of the field (2000). He explores many of
the key obstacles facing the advancement of meme theory, emphasizing the competing
metaphors that have divided the work of theorists. Jesse Cohn, on the other hand, delves into a
series of science fiction texts to discuss how “viral imagery and meme theory run parallel with
one another” (2001). Focusing specifically at the ways in which viral metaphors foreground
power and identity issues for contemporary authors and audiences, Cohn explores various
interpretations of memes offered by authors such as Dawkins and Henson. And in her doctoral
dissertation, Anne-Marie Thomas offers a thorough analysis of the intersection of memetics,
immunology, and technology (2002, Ch. 5). Like Cohn, science fiction texts prove central to her
effort, and she adroitly contextualizes viral interpretations of memes in the domain of popular
culture generally and among technophiles specifically. I’ll return to the work of these three
authors in exploring how “meme-as-germ” analogies have resonated forcefully with popular
authors and audiences.
While the texts outlined above prove informative for this project, there remains relatively
little outside commentary about the history and development of memetics. Hence, I will also
draw extensively on first-hand materials for historical details and bibliographic reference. Many
authors working in the field have developed informative discussions regarding both the history
of meme theory and the controversies and debates that surround it. For instance, Blackmore’s
The Meme Machine (1999) presents an insightful overview of the development of and main
debates in the field. Similarly, Aunger’s recent books (2000; 2002) provide substantial
commentary on the history and contemporary state of meme theory. The Journal of Memetics
(JoM-EMIT) is also a focal point of activity and valuable source of recent articles and opinion
However, the accounts presented by “insider” sources may prove problematic. Authors
are sometimes inclined to entrench questionable origin stories or advance Whiggish
interpretations of the field’s history. Other writers present historical details as background or
introductory material, or in tandem with particular theoretical goals, rendering them incomplete
or conflicting. Historian Helge Kragh warns that writing the history of an interdisciplinary field
requires the frequent crossing of disciplinary boundaries, an undertaking likely to be dodged by
those insiders and historians who approach the field in question with a narrow perspective (2002,
p. 56). Furthermore, the development of disciplinary histories is often bound up with “political”
interests and motivations. A volume edited by historian Loren Graham and sociologists Wolf
Lepenies and Peter Weingart, aptly titled Functions and Uses of Disciplinary Histories (1983),
brings these issue to the fore. In the Introduction, Lepenies and Weingart note, “One function of
such histories is that of legitimating ‘political’ interests often pursed by the authors of such
histories themselves” (1983, p. xvii). The authors add:
Histories thus serve to legitimate new paradigms and to delegitimate old ones. A
different periodization, the mentioning of some, hitherto less known, and the
ignoring of others, hitherto highly respected scholars will change the image of a
discipline’s history, it will restructure the memory of the past and, by way of
socialization, structure the future (Lepenies and Weingart, 1983, p. xvii).
Lepenies and Weingart note, finally, that historical accounts are shaped by the individuals or
groups that produce them, the audiences to which they are directed, and the uses for which they
are written (pp. xix-xx). The diverse historical case studies presented in the rest of their volume
which are drawn from the natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities both support and
extend these major themes outlined.
In light of the issues raised by these authors, a large part of this project involves a critical
evaluation and synthesis of the histories already developed by proponents of meme theory. In
doing so, it will be necessary to seek out the lesser-known theorists and texts that have been
ignored or disregarded by contemporary authors. This effort will also require an exploration of
the various “non-theoretical,” “external,” and “political” issues that have received relatively little
attention in the historical accounts developed by insiders. Aunger is one of the few proponents of
the meme concept to even acknowledge that “intellectual agendas having little to do with
memetics itself” (2000, p. 21) have likely shaped debates in and around the field, but he avoids
an extensive discussion of the topic. Looking at how these agendas have shaped both the field of
memetics and historical accounts of the field’s development are central themes in my analysis.
As I will discuss in more detail below, discussions about the historical origins of meme theory
frequently involve the political motivations of the participants.
Contextualist Historiography
My emphasis on crafting a more compelling and inclusive historical study of memetics is
supported by a bevy of contextualist and constructivist theorists who have convincingly argued
that the social, cultural and intellectual milieu in which fields are situated are key considerations
that cannot be separated from theoretical content or narrow “internal” processes of disciplinary
development. While scholars such as Shapin and Latour pioneered this movement, I am partial to
a recent description of contextualist historiography offered by Lenoir. He argues that “science as
cultural practice is imbricated in a seamless web with other forms of social, political, even
aesthetic practices, and I treat the formation of discipline and scientific institutions as sites for
constructing and sustaining forms of social and cultural identity situated in relation to these other
cultural frames” (1997, p. 3). Fields such as memetics provide us with unique opportunities to
explore this seamless web, raising important questions about how a host of non-theoretical
considerations impinge on the growth of fields, shape theoretical work, and influence intra- and
extra-scientific knowledge transfer. Of particular relevance to this project are the ways in which
various interpretations of the meme concept resonate with historically specific social currents
and bodies of knowledge, thereby promoting synergies between memetics and particular
academic and popular audiences. In subsequent chapters I look more specifically at how the
ongoing development and dissemination of the meme concept has been intertwined with the
increasing prominence of genetics, immunology, and technology in diverse cultural realms.
Disciplinary Development
As suggested by Lenoir’s comments presented above, contextual considerations play an
important role in discipline formation and legitimation. The edited volume titled “Perspectives
on the Emergence of Scientific Disciplines” (Lemaine et al., 1976) provides us with a
noteworthy albeit more traditional window into such issues. For starters, this text moved
significantly beyond the sort of internalist intellectual histories that dominated earlier studies of
science. Many of the pieces in this volume are concerned with the role of both internal
intellectual and social processes in disciplinary development, while also exploring how internal
and external social factors “actually mould the content of scientific ideas” (p. 16). Historian
Michael Worboys (1976) nicely summarized this more inclusive perspective by arguing that “the
cognitive development of science, the socio-institutional aspects of science, and the influence of
wider social conditions and social change” must all be taken into account when studying the
emergence of new scientific fields (p. 93). And while Worboys explicitly challenged the well-
known but theory-heavy historical accounts developed by authors such as Thomas Kuhn, his
remark hints at an early movement toward contextualist and constructivist historical approaches.6
However, the pieces in the Lemaine volume largely failed to challenge the formulaic
views of disciplinary development that were prominent in historical accounts of science in the
1960s and 1970s, Kuhn’s work included. In fact, many of the authors in the Perspectives book
focus their analysis somewhat narrowly on the natural and physical sciences with articles
dedicated to genetics, medicine, biology, and astronomy, to name a few while also assuming a
“standard” model of discipline formation. In the Introduction, the authors noted that “all new
areas of scientific investigation grow out of prior research or out of the extension of an
established body of scientific and/or technical knowledge” (p. 2), and they went on to argue that
new research areas tend to develop in set stages, or “typical sequences” (p. 6). The authors also
emphasized “the way in which science grows through the branching of new lines of research” (p.
6 Worboys’ article explicitly discussed the limitations of Kuhn’s approach (Worboys, 1976, pp. 76-77). He noted
that Kuhn discussed only one or two “mechanisms of specialty emergence” (p. 76), and he added that “Kuhn sees
shared paradigms or specialties as essentially theory -based … Kuhn can still be seen in the tradition of intellectual
history of science” (p. 77).
7). According to this perspective, scientific disciplines and the subunits thereof predictably move
toward stability, built around common theories and methodologies, objects of inquiry, research
agendas, institutional structures, and social cohesion. And while the editors admit that this sort of
characterization is incomplete, the articles within the volume demonstrate only a dim awareness
of the diverse strategies and processes that characterize the emergence and growth of scientific
fields. And finally, there was little recognition that patterns of discipline formation may vary
significantly depending on whether one is studying the physical, natural, or social sciences.
More recently, authors working in the constructivist and contextualist traditions have
challenged these traditional views. Lenoir, for instance, argues that we should “avoid thinking of
discipline as monolithic and uniform in favor of the notion of a repertoire of packaged and
coadapted practices assembled in diverse local settings” (1997, p. 71). In an article exploring the
development of geophysics, historian Gregory Good further summarizes how understandings of
disciplinarity and discipline formation have changed in recent decades. In most general terms, he
follows a line of reasoning similar to that of Lenoir in arguing that disciplines should be
understood as “ever-changing frameworks within which scientific activity is organized” (2000,
p. 260). Good adds that achieving disciplinarity is far from a simple yes or no proposition, and
that “scientific activities may achieve degrees of identity development” (p. 259). Finally, he
states that disciplines “pass through no regular stages on their way from immature to mature
status” (p. 259). This rather open-ended understanding of disciplines is borne out in Good’s
analysis of geophysics, but case studies offered by Lenoir and many other authors point in a
similar direction.
Yet questions remain regarding the relationship of disciplines to other organizational
units, such as sub-disciplines and specialties. Perhaps not surprisingly, Good argues that the
answers to such questions are variable according to the context in which they are being asked:
A sub-discipline in one context (e.g. seismology against the discipline of
geophysics) is interdisciplinary in another context (e.g. seismology related to
geology and physics) and is an applied science in another (e.g. seismology in
relation to urban policy). Sub-disciplines may focus on a more tightly defined set
of research problems, and the more overt importance of pedagogy and political
goals may increase with disciplines and supra-disciplines (p. 266).
Good further argues that the various units used to describe scientific fields are difficult to rigidly
delineate, and even within a single domain “disciplines, sub-disciplines, inter-disciplinary fields,
research schools, research programmes and traditions, and specialisations all participate in a
complex continuum” (p. 266). As we’ll see, a field such as memetics can be located in any
number of these categories, depending on what definitions and criteria are applied. I’ll return to
this issue in exploring how proponents position memetics with respect to science generally and
other disciplines in particular, with the goal of evaluating the status of the field as a province of
scientific activity. But we must also take seriously the ways in which fields develop into
recognizable and bounded domains of inquiry, no matter what labels are attached to them.
Marginality and Hybridity
While case studies reveal that the development of disciplines and sub-disciplines is a
highly variable process, we can uncover general patterns evident in the history of numerous
fields. Such an inquiry might involve any number of sorting or grouping criteria, but focusing on
the origins of contemporary disciplines and subdisciplines proves particularly insightful. In
Creative Marginality (1990), political scientists Mattei Dogan and Robert Pahre describe how
processes of specialization, fragmentation, and hybridization have shaped the emergence and
growth of many twentieth century academic fields. In summary, the authors argue that an
increasing density of theorists and theorizing often accompanies disciplinary growth, leading
researchers to fragment into specialized subfields. These subfields tend to cluster on the margins
of traditional disciplinary bounds, thereby promoting cross-disciplinary exchanges. Offering
additional insight into the title of their book, Dogan and Pahre note, “Not only are the margins
less densely populated, providing more room to grow, but successful combinations of material
from two sub fields typically allows greater scope for creativity. In fact, the greatest
accumulation of incremental advances takes place at the intersection of fields” (pp. 7-8). In a
vein similar to that of the “boundary work” approach developed by science studies scholars such
as Thomas Gieryn (1983; 1999), Dogan and Pahre’s remarks shift our focus away from the core
of disciplines to the researchers and theories that populate the boundaries, margins and
peripheries of science.
Dogan and Pahre describe two types of hybridization that occur as a result of work on the
margins, namely institutionalized and informal forms.7 Institutionalized hybrid fields are
characterized by widely recognized and relatively stable identities, either as subfields within a
larger discipline, or as permanent cross-disciplinary collaborations (1990, p. 63). As the authors
note, this form of hybridization has a long history in the physical sciences. For instance, the aptly
titled volume Chemical Sciences in the 20th Century: Bridging Boundaries (2001) focuses
specifically on the various historical bridges between chemistry and other disciplines, and editor
Carsten Reinhardt explicitly references quantum chemistry, geochemistry, and cosmochemistry
as examples of “hybrid fields” (Reinhardt, 2001, p. 1-2). Many of the articles in Reinhardt’s
volume also reveal how these and other hybrids develop boundaries that are shaped by not only
theoretical considerations, but also historical and social factors. We find similar examples in
biology, as evidenced by the molecular and organismic branches and sub-branches that have long
defined the organization of the field. Dogan and Pahre emphasize institutionalized hybridization
in both the social sciences and between the social and natural sciences, with developmental
psychology, criminology, artificial intelligence, and cognitive science a few of their many
examples. A more recent hybrid worthy of adding to this mix is the artificial life field, which is
the subject of a noteworthy ethnography authored by anthropologist Stephan Helmreich (1998).
Helmreich’s book also brings into relief the importance of founder narratives and origin stories
in disciplinary histories.
Informal hybridization, on the other hand, involves a wide variety of disciplinary
exchanges, with “hybridized topics” one prevalent case in point. Klein lists “analogies, methods,
theories, topics, concepts, discoveries, and perspectives” as other examples of informal exchange
that are explored in Creative Marginality (1993, p. 192). And as hinted at by Dogan and Pahre,
the characteristics of both institutional and informal hybridization often overlap. Women’s
studies, for instance, is described as an “enormous invisible hybrid college” (p. 70) that has not
yet achieved a high level of institutional hybridization. The domain of sociobiology, on the other
hand, is described as an immature and controversial hybrid that hasn’t yet been very productive
(p. 203). But in looking at these and other fields, the authors also push their argument beyond the
7 Sociologist Peter Weingart’s earlier discussion of hybridity is also worth noting here as an important predecessor
to the work of Dogan and Pahre (Weingart, 1982, pp. 74-78). He used the phrase “hybrid communities” in reference
to various configurations of “expert groups” that emerge in science policy-making processes. Weingart framed the
hybrid concept to include both scientists and experts more generally, and his study was explicitly concerned with the
intersection of knowledge and politics in the formation of expert knowledge communities.
various organizational units and subunits that characterize the contemporary sciences. Discussing
the individual actors who participate in hybrid fields, Dogan and Pahre coin the label “hybrid
marginals” to describe those “creative scholars whose work at the intersection of many subfields
leaves them essentially without a home. Like prophets, they often may have no honor in their
own fields, but exercise influence in those more distant” (p. 177). Furthermore, the work of these
and other scholars are often found in countless “hybrid journals,” the profusion of which has
been facilitated in recent years by the ubiquity of information technology and inexpensive
electronic publishing (p. 164).
In delving into both the history of meme theory and the more recent emergence of an
academic community of meme theorists, I will be exploring both institutionalized and informal
forms of hybridization. In line with the former, I turn to the ways in which the proponents of
meme theory have worked toward establishing memetics as a more stable and cohesive cross-
disciplinary community, complete with “hybrid marginals” and “hybrid journals.” But the
history of the field is also rife with instances of informal hybridization. While Dawkins’s initial
presentation of the meme concept is a case of informal hybridization par excellence, the links
between memetics and the various coevolutionary theories developed by sociobiologists are
another noteworthy example. It should also be noted that Dogan and Pahre’s analysis focuses on
processes of hybridization that are largely internal to science and academe. As the preceding
overview suggests, the field of memetics stands as a novel historical case precisely because of
the links between meme theory and the larger social and culture sphere in which it has
developed. Hence, it is necessary to look elsewhere for discussions about the role of popular
theorizing in the development of fields and disciplines.
Science Popularization and the Boundaries of Science
As recently as 1994, historians Roger Cooter and Stephen Pumfrey bemoaned “our
ignorance both of the low drama and the high art of science’s diffusion and modes of popular
production and reproduction” (p. 237). They begin their critique by problematizing a long
influential “diffusionist” approach that assumes scientific knowledge developed by elites is
“watered down and then trickled down for popular consumption, along the way losing theoretical
content” (p. 248). To counter this view, the authors explore how popular and scientific theorizing
might be understood in much more dynamic and interactive terms. Cooter and Pumfrey remark,
“[P]opular culture can generate its own natural knowledge which differs from and may even
oppose elite science” (p. 249). They add that “there is no reason to suppose that popular science
takes the form intended by its popularizers. ‘Successfully popularized’ natural knowledge may
take on very different meanings within popular culture from those intended by its popularizers”
(p. 249).
Even more importantly, the authors draw on the work of various constructivist theorists
to suggest that scientific and popular domains reciprocally shape one another: “[P]opularization,
conceived as a process of translation and enrolment, reconfigures the cultural content of
scientific activity and hence conceivably reconfigures the nature of science itself” (p. 251). In
promoting this line of reasoning, Cooter and Pumfrey urge historians to be more responsive to
the diversity of sites and signifiers in which science is produced and reproduced. Their
arguments and recommendations are to some extent born out in the special issue of History of
Science in which their article appears, appropriately dedicated to the topic of “Science
Popularization.” However, the case studies offered therein focus on nineteenth century examples
that sit uneasily with contemporary historical inquiries into fields such as memetics.
Surveying a wider field of literature, we find that many authors have focused on the
movement of various types of metaphors and rhetoric to explore how scientific knowledge
moves both within and beyond the sciences. Emily Martin’s Flexible Bodies (1994) is an
important piece in this area, and the author explores how biological concepts are represented in
the media and understood by the general public and scholars. Martin also looks at how various
metaphors and analogies such as complex systems theory and the notion of flexibility have
become increasingly ubiquitous in various popular and scientific contexts. Elizabeth Shea
(2001), on the other hand, uses textual analysis to explore the gene as a “rhetorical figure.” She
reveals the historical origins of the term “gene” while also demonstrating how the meaning and
contextual use of the term have changed over time, particularly in the popular realm. Authors
such as the aforementioned Jeffreys, Cohn, and Thomas also offer valuable insights into the
complex crosscurrents that connect the rhetoric of immunology and technology with both the
field of memetics and popular culture outlets such as science fiction texts.
However, none of these authors are specifically concerned with connecting the topic of
discipline formation to the development and maintenance of various boundaries between the
scientific and popular. Casting a wider net reveals that authors studying various fields and
disciplines on the margins of science such as parapsychology, ufology, and creation science
point us toward the various criteria often used to demarcate science from non-science, while also
highlighting the historical role of “amateur” theorists and popular audiences in the development
of controversial fields. Exploring these cases also reveals how both proponents and opponents of
fringe fields use various tactics and strategies in support of their respective agendas. An edited
volume (1979) and subsequent article (1985) by sociologist Roy Wallis stand out as noteworthy
introductions to these topics, and the diversity of cases presented in these texts supports the
argument that the emergence of disciplines is a highly variable and contingent process.
Gieryn’s discussions of “boundary-work” (1983; 1995; 1999) also prove valuable to my
project as they highlight the construction of boundaries both within and beyond the realm of
science. Particularly noteworthy is Gieryn’s studies of four central types of boundary-work,
namely monopolization, expansion, expulsion, and protection (1995, pp. 424-439). In relating
these themes to various historical case studies drawn from the realm of science and technology
studies, Gieryn explores how actors use boundary-work to maintain, control, and legitimate their
fields. I will periodically return to the work of both Wallis and Gieryn to not only situate my own
account with respect to other disciplinary histories and case studies, but also to discuss the
strategies and tactics employed by meme theorists and other actors. In the end, however, it will
be evident that memetics has followed a historical trajectory quite unlike that of any other field.
Tracing the Emergence of Memetics
My exploration of the unique trajectory of meme theory is grounded in a baseline history
of memetics from roughly 1976 to present, as developed in the following two chapters. More
specifically, Chapter Two examines the field from the 1976 coining of the term “meme” to the
publication of the first full-length texts dedicated to the topic roughly two decades later. During
this time period, the field was shaped by a handful of foundational texts authored by prominent
popular science writers. Perhaps even more importantly, the meme concept also moved toward
wider popularization as lesser-known authors embraced the concept and pushed it in new
directions. In addition to evaluating the backgrounds and motivations of these proponents of
meme theory, I will look at a number of key themes evident in popular discussions of the topic.
As the preceding introduction suggests, “meme-as-germ” analogies figure prominently here.
Finally, I’ll take a closer look at the resonance between mainstream treatments of memetics and
larger social, technological, and historical themes. In Chapter Three I focus on the academic side
of meme theorizing, primarily from 1997 to the present, and with an emphasis on the
evolutionary analogies (“meme-as-gene”) most prominent in this sphere. This chapter turns to
the actors who have promoted memetics as a legitimate scientific discipline, highlighting their
backgrounds, institutional affiliations, motivations, and strategies. Finally, I will look at the
controversy that surrounds the topic, both with respect to internal debates and the criticisms
offered by outsider opponents.
The fourth chapter further problematizes the history of memetics by looking at the
multiple and at times conflicting narratives that have been invoked to describe the origins of the
meme theory. By further delving into the complex milieu from which memetics has emerged,
this chapter will evaluate Dawkins’s role as a founding figure, while also situating meme theory
in a more inclusive historical context. Chapter Four also brings into further relief the extent to
which disciplinary histories are frequently intertwined with the politics of discipline formation.
In the Conclusion, I briefly assess both the contemporary state of the field and its prospects as a
formative discipline to suggest that memetics might be viewed, quite metaphorically, as a case
study in divergent evolution.
Chapter 2: From Popular Science to Niche Popular
As scientific concepts go, the ‘meme’ meme had the best possible start it was
launched in one of the most popular scientific books of the twentieth century. Yet
while computer geeks ran away with the idea, generating a popular subculture of
meme followers, in academic circles the meme fell on fallow ground.
Kevin Laland and Gillian Brown, Evolutionary Biologists (2002a, p. 200)
In the history of memetics, the boundaries between the academic and the popular have
frequently blurred. The relatively immature state of work in the field has limited highly
theoretical and technical discussion of the topic, and many authors with respectable scholarly
credentials have published articles and books offering popularized and accessible interpretations
of memetics. The opening passage hints at additional complication. Dawkins’s original
presentation of the meme idea was ignored for many years, and the concept eventually started to
circulate in the popular realm well in advance of appreciable recognition by academics. Most
generally, the goal of this chapter is to untangle the first two decades of meme theorizing. As a
historical foundation, I begin with an overview of the scattered early treatments of the topic
developed by a wide variety of scholars and popular science writers. I will then take a closer look
at the gradual diffusion of the concept into new domains, with an emphasis on the authors who
pitched memes to niche popular audiences. As I will demonstrate, the popularization of the
meme concept has not only diverged significantly from its historical origins, but also from recent
scholarly treatments of the topic. Furthermore, exploring how particular understandings of
memes have resonated with different authors and audiences will begin to reveal the boundaries
between the popular and academic spheres of the field, while also hinting at the extent to which
the development of meme theory has followed a historically specific trajectory.
Prelude to Popularization
Following Dawkins’s discussion of the meme concept in The Selfish Gene (1976), the
theory failed to attract much attention. Penelope Greene briefly explored the idea in a book
review of The Selfish Gene, published in Contemporary Sociology (1978). She concluded that
Dawkins’s chapter on memes was not very valuable, but predicted that it might attract undue
attention, especially from critics of sociobiology. The well-known philosopher Mary Midgley
one of Dawkins’s long-time adversaries also offered early comments about memes in the
journal Philosophy (Midgley, 1979). Painting Dawkins’s approach to evolutionary biology as
unrealistic and reductionist, Midgley briefly went on to disparage the meme concept as well. She
argued that Dawkins’s “half-finished meme construction” was “unrelated to facts,” and that
“even if absurdly imitation were the essence of culture, it could not have units” (p. 457).
Dawkins’s reply to Midgley was published in 1981 and Midgley’s counter-reply in 1983, but
relatively little attention was paid to memes in these two pieces. Perhaps most noteworthy is a
footnote by Midgley that pointed to the parallels between the meme concept and a science fiction
book by Colin Wilson titled The Mind Parasites, drawing attention to Dawkins’s original
depiction of memes as potentially parasitic and infective (Midgley, 1983, p. 377, fn12).8
By the 1980s, a number of prominent theorists were developing more robust evolutionary
approaches to the study of culture, but they generally avoided reference to memes. Most
noteworthy are a series of “coevolutionary” theories that posited the simultaneous modeling of
genetic and cultural evolution, with a particular emphasis on how the two interact. Laland and
Brown (2002a, p. 243) credit geneticists Luigi Cavalli-Sforza and Marcus Feldman for authoring
one of the first articles (Feldman and Cavalli-Sforza, 1976) and one of the first books (Cavalli-
Sforza and Feldman, 1981) that developed a robust theory of gene-culture coevolution, complete
with detailed mathematical models. Sociobiologists Charles Lumsden and Edward O. Wilson
(1981) offered their own coevolutionary theory around this time that was based on a unit of
culture called the “culturgen.” However, genes remained the final arbiter of culture for these
authors, as exemplified by Wilson’s well-known declaration that “genes hold culture on a leash”
(1978, p. 167). In an influential 1985 text, anthropologists Robert Boyd and Peter Richersen
advanced a “dual-inheritance theory” that was similar to other coevolutionary models. But as
memeticist Susan Blackmore points out, Boyd and Richersen were more inclined to “let go of the
leash,” thereby treating culture as evolving independently of biological advantages (Blackmore,
1999, p. 35). While this line of reasoning appears similar to that developed by Dawkins, Boyd
and Richersen avoided reliance on a discrete cultural units such as the “culturgen” or “meme.”
On the surface, these coevolutionary models may appear only marginally relevant to a history of
memtics. However, many meme theorists have also grappled with the relative importance of and
8 Additional research reveals that Wilson (1967) is the book to which Midgley referred in her article.
relation between the processes of genetic and cultural evolution, often with explicit reference to
the authors discussed here. In addition, authors such as E. O. Wilson would go on to develop
closer ties to the memetics community in later years.9
But just as evolutionary biology in general and coevolutionary theories in particular were
attracting significant attention in the early and mid-1980s due in no small part to the
controversies surrounding sociobiology the meme concept remained relatively obscure.
Biologist John Bonner, philosopher David Hull, and Dawkins were some of the only authors who
did discuss memes around this time. In The Evolution of Culture in Animals (1980), Bonner
expanded the application of the meme concept to any organism with the capacity for culture.10
Noting the definitional uncertainty surrounding Dawkins’s terminology, Bonner remarked,
“Dawkins has not attempted a rigorous definition of a meme, nor shall I here … I shall use the
word in the sense of any bit or any collection of bits of information passed by behavioral means
from one individual to another” (p. 18). While his effort was largely speculative, Bonner’s text
foreshadowed subsequent efforts to study empirically the evolution of memes in animals. Also
noteworthy was the author’s call for “a clear distinction between genetical and cultural change”
(p. 19), an argument clearly aimed at the coevolutionary theorists who were gaining prominence
around this time.
Dawkins briefly revisited memes in The Extended Phenotype (1982), but the book was
predominantly devoted to more germane topics in evolutionary biology. Noteworthy in this text
is the author’s clarification of the “meme” as both “a unit of information residing in a brain” (p.
109) and “a unit of cultural inheritance” (p. 290). Also in 1982, philosopher David Hull offered
his first remarks about memes in “The Naked Meme.” This article was included in an edited
volume dedicated to evolutionary epistemology, a somewhat esoteric corner of philosophy that
postulates the application of evolutionary theory to knowledge systems. Hull drew on Dawkins’s
1976 text to argue for the application of the “replicator” concept to both biological and
sociocultural evolution (p. 275), and he promoted the meme as a “unit of sociocultural evolution”
(p. 276). Hull’s endorsement was certainly a boost to the legitimacy of the term, and it also
created a more palpable link between meme theory and evolutionary epistemology. 11 As I’ll
9 In fact, Wilson dropped the “culturgen” concept and adopted the term “meme” in his 1998 book Consilience.
10 Bonner begins this passage by defining culture as “behavior transmitted from one individual to another by
teaching and learning” (p. 18).
11 It is worth noting that Dawkins’ first discussion of the meme concept mentions the work of Sir Karl Popper and
discuss in the following chapter, Hull would resurface as an important proponent of memetics in
the late 1990s.
The gradual dissemination of meme theory to scholarly and popular science audiences
continued in 1983 when Douglas Hofstadter discussed the topic in a Scientific American column
titled “On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures.” After reviewing the similarities
between viruses and self-replicating sentences, Hofstadter summarized the meme concept via
two excerpts from The Selfish Gene (1985, p. 50-52). The column was later reprinted in the best-
selling compilation Metamagical Themas (1985), and in a post scriptum following the original
text, Hofstadter noted:
After writing this column, I received much mail testifying to the fact that there are
a large number of people who have been infected by the ‘meme’ meme. Arel
Lucas suggested that the discipline that studies memes and their connections to
humans and other potential carriers of them be known as memetics, by analogy
with “genetics.” I think this is a good suggestion, and hope it will be adopted
(1985, p. 65).12
This is one of the first uses of the moniker “memetics” in reference to the study of memes, and
Hofstadter’s mention of a “discipline” hints at early recognition of the potential for a new field
dedicated to meme theory. Also noteworthy is the author’s talk of “infection,” a turn of phrase
that depicts meme transmission as analogous to immunological rather than evolutionary
processes. This interpretation resonated with both Hofstadter’s interest in “viral sentences” and
Dawkins’s earlier references to “parasitic” and “infective” memes (Dawkins, 1976, pp. 192-193).
Around the time of Hofstadter’s publications, an article by astronomer John A. Ball titled
“Memes as Replicators” (1984) was one of the first substantial discussions of meme theory to
appear in a peer-reviewed journal, namely Ethology and Sociobiology. In addition to introducing
the meme concept to readers, the author pushed into new theoretical territory by “taking several
well-known genetic phenomena and translating them into memetic language” (p. 145). Ball
favored Dawkins’s theorizing and terminology throughout the article, but in line with the topical
Donald Campbell arguably the two most important founding figures in the history of evolutionary epistemology
as authors who were also exploring the analogies between cultural and genetic evolution (1976, p. 190).
12 Archivist and librarian Arel Lucas is married to Keith Henson, another early proponent of meme theory discussed
in more detail below.
focus of the journal he also reviewed the coevolutionary models developed by Lumsden and
Wilson, along with those of Boyd and Richersen. The article touched on a number of key themes
that can be traced throughout the history of meme theory. For starters, the author developed a
lengthy comparison of organisms and computer systems, going so far as to suggest that memes in
brains are analogous to data or instructions stored in computer memory (p. 154). Furthermore,
Ball was one of the first theorists to promote the phrase “meme meme,” a clever idiom
suggesting that the meme concept can be reflexively understood as a meme itself. Following this
line of reasoning, Ball queried, “Does meme theory predict its own success?” (p. 146). By the
end of the article, the author’s own ambitions for the success of the theory are made plain. He
concluded, “The meme meme is an extraordinarily powerful model and world view. It not only
bridges the gap between biology and the social sciences, but also between biology and the
future” (p. 160). This is lofty rhetoric, particularly from an astronomer pitching a theory of
cultural evolution. But as it turns out, Ball stands at the beginning of a long and diverse line of
meme theorists, many with atypical backgrounds.
Another important author rarely mentioned in the annals of memetics is K. Eric Drexler,
an engineer and research scientist best known for his contributions to the field of
nanotechnology. In his popular science introduction to that topic, titled Engines of Creation: The
Coming Era of Nanotechnology (1986), Drexler connected the basic tenets of replicator theory to
the development of next-generation technologies. The author turned to the meme concept in
particular to describe how the principles of evolution are applicable in both the domains of
technology and knowledge. Drexler offered a number of different interpretations for the term,
including this definition in the glossary: “MEME: an idea that, like a gene, can replicate and
evolve. Examples of memes (and meme systems) include political theories, proselytizing
religions, and the idea of memes itself” (p. 313).13 The author also described memes as “agents
in the mind that are formed by teaching and imitation” (p. 84) and elsewhere in the text argued
that human minds have developed “mental immune systems” to defend against “parasitic
memes” (p. 49) In line with this theme, he explained:
At best, chain letters, spurious rumors, fashionable lunacies, and other mental
parasites harm people by wasting their time. At worst, they implant deadly
13 The pagination used here is for the online version of the book and may not correspond to paper-based
misconceptions. These meme systems exploit human ignorance and vulnerability.
Spreading them is like having a cold and sneezing on a friend (pp. 48-49).
Drexler certainly pushed the analogy between memes and parasites farther than any prior author.
Perhaps even more importantly, Engines of Creation went on to become a best-seller, further
disseminating Drexler’s comments about memes not only to broad general audiences, but also to
the sundry science and technology enthusiasts fascinated by the promises of nanotechnology.
Furthermore, evidence suggests that Drexler’s remarks about the meme concept had a direct
influence on the work of later authors.
Another author writing about the topic around this time was Keith Henson, a computer
engineer and futurist whose musings about memes appeared in three different outlets in 1987 and
1988 (1987a, 1987b, 1988).14 An accessible article titled “Memetics: The Science of Information
Viruses,” originally published in Whole Earth Review (1987b), was another early discussion of
the meme concept aimed at niche popular audiences. In this piece, the author paid homage to
Dawkins as the originator of the meme concept and described the “new field of memetics” as a
“science of social prediction.” And like Drexler, Henson thoroughly mixed epidemiological and
evolutionary interpretations of memes. For instance, he stated that “memes are subject to
adaptive evolutionary forces very similar to those that select for genes,” but he also described
memetics as “germ theory applied to ideas.” Henson preferred the latter approach throughout the
article, as evidenced by his frequent use of terms such as “infection,” “epidemic,” “information
disease,” and “information virus” to describe the spread of memes. Most of the examples
presented in the text were drawn from cult-like behavior and religious movements, giving these
meme-as-virus analogies a high level of intuitive appeal. Henson applied the meme concept
somewhat superficially to a large number of cases, all while avoiding detailed discussions of
theory, methodology, or related texts. He also failed to discuss the realistic prospects for a “new
science of information viruses.”
Viral themes also surfaced in a 1988 piece suggestively titled “Are Ideas Viruses of the
Mind?” This article was one of the first discussions of the meme concept to appear in a major,
mass media outlet (The Washington Post), and it was subsequently reprinted in a handful of other
14 Henson holds a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, and has worked as an engineer and computer
programmer for many years. In addition to his interest in memetics, Henson has been a long-time critic of the
Church of Scientology.
newspapers. At the time the piece was published, author Michael Schrage was a visiting scholar
at the MIT Media Lab. Like Henson, Schrage pitched memetics as a “new science” and “new
paradigm,” able to “explain such diverse phenomena as the spread of innovation, drug addiction,
birth control and political campaigns.” While the author’s overview was aimed at a general
audience, Schrage offered a reasonable review of the main authors and theoretical perspectives
that informed his topic. He drew on Dawkins’s work at length, but he nonetheless quoted Luigi
Cavalli-Sforza, paid tribute to E.O. Wilson’s “culturgen,” and mentioned biologist Marcus
Feldman’s approach to studying the “epidemiology of culture.” Schrage also raised a question
central to the coevolution debate: “Do memes really evolve independently of our genetic
evolution?” These references hint at the ongoing crosscurrents between the meme concept and
the coevolutionary theories mentioned above. Finally, the mixing of analogies throughout the
article is revealed by the author’s reference to memes as subject to evolutionary processes on the
one hand, and “communicable” and “comparable to viruses” on the other.
Dawkins revisited the meme concept in the latter half of the 1980s with two publications.
In The Blind Watchmaker (1986), he offered relatively little commentary regarding memes save
for his ongoing reservations about the utility of the concept. He stated that analogies comparing
Darwinian and cultural evolution are “inspiring but which can be taken too far if we are not
careful” (1986, p. 196). Dawkins added, “Cultural ‘evolution’ is not really evolution at all if we
are being fussy and purist about our use of words” (p. 216). Similar tendencies can be found in
the republication of Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, which included a lengthy compilation of
endnotes appended to his original text (1989, pp. 322-332). Dawkins noted in this text that his
initial “designs on human culture were modest almost to a vanishing point” (p. 322), but he
nonetheless offered ten pages of updates and clarifications to his chapter about memes. The
author began by stating that the original intention for his 1976 chapter was to “make the case for
replicators in general” (p. 322), while also admitting, “The word meme seems to be turning out
to be a good meme” (p. 322). Dawkins went on to discuss the mutation of memes by looking at
errors in song lyrics and the titles of scientific papers (p. 323-324), reviewed his ongoing interest
in “the analogy of memes with parasites” (p. 323), and performed a “memic analysis” to explore
how particular ideas seem to spread in an “epidemic” fashion in the scientific community (pp.
325-328). Building on his earlier analogy that “the computers in which memes live are human
brains” (1976, p. 197), Dawkins also argued that “[e]pidemics of ‘viruses’ and ‘worms,’
deliberately released by malicious programmers,” offered additional evidence for the existence
of “self-replicating patterns of information memes” (p. 329). These analogies with
immunology and technology are striking, but the suggestion that computer viruses can be called
memes appears inconsistent with the author’s prior contention that memes “live” in human
brains. Dawkins discussed to similar themes in a 1993 article, which I will return to shortly.
Toward the Tipping Point
As the 1980s wore on, the discussion of memes remained confined to a relatively small
number of authors and texts, and only in the latter half of the decade was the concept beginning
to inch beyond the confines of academe and pop science. The books and articles outlined thus far
delivered the rudiments of meme theory to niche audiences composed largely of academics,
popular science enthusiasts, futurists, and technologists. However, there were many important
variations in the work of each author discussed above. Not only do we find a profusion of
definitions offered for the term “meme” throughout this period, but also an increasing mix of
evolutionary and epidemiological rhetoric. These tendencies continued in the 1990s as the meme
concept diffused and diversified at an unprecedented rate via numerous book chapters and
articles, many produced by authors who were writing about memes for the very first time.
If any one author stands out as a major catalyst for the growth and development of meme
theory in the early 1990s, it is philosopher Daniel Dennett. In fact, Laland and Brown claim that
Dennett’s ventures into meme theory in the 1990s “reinvigorated” memetics (2002a, p. 203). In
1989, Dennett offered his first discussions of the topic in a lecture addressed to the American
Society for Aesthetics and subsequently republished in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art
Criticism. Like prior theorists such as Hull and Ball, Dennett pointed to the heuristic power of a
“general and abstract characterization of evolution by natural selection” (1990, p. 127). He drew
on Dawkins’s 1976 text to argue that memes should be viewed as a “new kind of replicator,” and
that the evolution of memes “obeys the laws of natural selection exactly” (p. 128). To further
emphasize what he called the “meme’s eye view,” Dennett delivered the now infamous slogan “a
scholar is just a library’s way of making another library” (p. 128). While his arguments were
occasionally sloppy it is often difficult, for instance, to tell whether Dennett’s memes are
supposed to reside in the human mind, in physical artifacts, or in some combination thereof
Dennett advanced the novel argument that “[t]he haven all memes depend on reaching is the
human mind, which is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain to make it
a better habitat for memes” (p. 133).15 In Consciousness Explained (1991), Dennett extended
these claims. The 1990 article summarized here is reprinted nearly verbatim in the text, and
Dennett incorporated memes into his larger theoretical framework to conclude that “human
consciousness is itself a huge complex of memes” (p. 210). Dennett’s writing was both insightful
and accessible, and his book quickly moved into position as a long-running best seller in the
popular science genre. Consciousness Explained, along with the commentary and critique that
followed it, likely introduced or reintroduced the meme concept to large and diverse audiences.
In parallel with Dennett’s early forays into meme theory, the first print journal to offer
extensive coverage of the topic initiated publication. Elan Moritz – who otherwise held a day job
with the U.S. Department of the Navy founded the Journal of Ideas in 1990, publishing it via
his own dubiously named “Institute for Memetic Research.” According to Moritz, the journal
was intended to “circulate and nurture inquiry regarding the evolution and spread of ideas, the
process of discovery, and the electronic implementation of idea/knowledge generation and
processing” (“Journal of Ideas,” n.d.). Moritz has stated more recently that he originally viewed
the function of the journal as a “service to a broad community of researchers,” adding that he
hoped his institute would eventually attract financial support (1999). The editorial board of the
journal consisted of Moritz and one other individual affiliated with the Institute for Memetic
Research, and an editorial advisory board was comprised of two individuals with academic
affiliations and a third from the private sector. 16 Moritz claimed that the journal was selective in
accepting papers (Moritz, 1999), and authors with academic affiliations were responsible for
roughly half of the articles published. The remaining contributors were a diverse lot of
independent and private sector researchers, providing us with further evidence for the early
recognition of the meme concept and related theorizing in many non-academic, niche audiences.
However, this rather atypical outlet turned out to be a short-lived venture. Amidst revenue
shortfalls and the competing demands of family and day job, Moritz suspended publication in
1991 (Moritz, 1999).
15 For a lengthy criticism of Dennett’s development of the meme concept, see Holdcroft and Lewis (2000).
16 I have been unable to uncover additional information about Patricia S. Smith, the second editor. The editorial
advisory board consisted of R. Wilburn Clouse of Vanderbilt University, Matthew Witten of University of Texas
System (Huntsville), and Peter Kiss of Sentar Corporation (Austin).
Nonetheless, the three issues of the Journal of Ideas that were published provide a
snapshot of meme theory in the early 1990s, revealing scattered commentary from diverse
contributors cohering only partially and tentatively around common terminology and theoretical
goals. One specific trend evident in the content of the journal is a shift toward quantitative
approaches. For instance, a piece by Moritz titled “Memetic Science: I Introduction” (1990)
treated memes as replicators and offered a discussion of population dynamics and replicator
equations. Moritz added that his primary goal was to develop “a rigorous foundation for
discussion of memes and approaches to quantifying relevant aspects of meme genesis,
interaction, mutation, growth, death and spreading processes” (1990). Similarly, independent
researcher Aaron Lynch presented a “population memetics” framework (1991), while Matthew
Witten drew on demographic theory to develop a model for the distribution of memes in given
populations (1991).17 Less technical writings include a piece by the aforementioned Bonner, who
once more focused on the potential application of meme theory to the study of social animals
(1990). Building on their prior efforts, Henson and Lucas tackled “the question of creationism
and evolutionary theory in the context of memes” (1990). It should also be noted that many of
the articles in the journal were only tangentially relevant to memetics, and others avoided the
term “meme” entirely, perhaps not surprising given the relatively broad scope of the
publication.18 As this overview reveals, the demise of the Journal of Ideas may have been
partially due to the topical, theoretical and methodological fragmentation evident in the articles
outlined above. But Moritz’s effort stands as an early attempt to build a “hybrid” periodical that
would bridge multiple disciplinary domains and a wide variety of independent theorists, private
researchers, and academics. And unlike the kinds of academic hybridity discussed by Dogan and
Pahre, the journal created tentative connections not only between a diverse lot of researchers and
topics, but also between a variety of academic and non-academic niches.
Given that back issues of the Journal of Ideas are exceedingly difficult to find even in
university libraries the publication probably did not contribute significantly to the diffusion of
memetics to new audiences in the early 1990s. Looking elsewhere, however, we find evidence
17 At the time, Witten served on the editorial advisory board of the Journal of Memetics, and was also the head of
the Center for High Performance Computing at University of Texas System.
18 Examples include an article by biologist Stanley Salthe (1990), who proposed a new approach to the “study of
uncertainties” in information theory, and biologists Daniel Brooks and Deborah McLennan, who worked toward a
“general theory of biological evolution” (1990). Other authors discussed cultural evolution but avoided the term
“meme.” Charles Lumsden, for instance, built on his prior work in coevolutionary theory to develop “a semantic
fractal organization for culture” (1991).
for the continued spread of meme theory into new domains. Brief references to memes appeared
in journals such as AI & Society (Rada, 1991), Cultural Dynamics (Costall, 1991), and Semiotic
Review of Books (Bouissac, 1994). More substantial discussions of the topic include an article in
National Productivity Review that connected the meme concept with product innovation
(Patterson, 1990), and a piece by biologists Alejandro Lynch and Allan Baker that proposed a
meme-centered analysis of the evolution of bird song (1993; 1994). Schrage pitched the value of
the concept to advertisers and marketers via Adweek (1992), while biologist Mario Vaneechoutte
proposed memetics as useful for analyzing the evolutionary development of religious beliefs in a
correspondence letter published in Nature (Vaneechoutte, 1993).
More substantial discussions of meme theory appeared in a handful of science and
popular science texts. In Coevolution: Genes, Culture, and Human Diversity (1991),
anthropologist and human biologist William H. Durham explored the relationships between
genetic and cultural evolution. Durham was one of the first coevolutionary theorists as well as
one of the first anthropologists to use the term “meme,” defining it as "the unit of information
that is conveyed from one brain to another during cultural transmission" (1991, p. 188). He
focused on a number of cases where the evolution of culture appears to operate independently
from biological advantage, but as Blackmore has pointed out, Durham ultimately placed memes
as subservient to genes (1999, p. 35). In the same year, neurobiologist Juan D. Delius offered his
interpretation of memes in an article published in an edited volume (1991). Delius defined
memes quite specifically as “synaptic patterns that code cultural traits” (p. 83), and he went on to
look at the ways in which particular memes might be viewed as “symbiotic” or “parasitic.” The
author concluded, “Memes have to be viewed as independently evolving entities whose core
habitat happens to be the brains of some high animals” (p. 92). And finally, psychobiologist
Henry Plotkin discussed memes in his 1993 text, Darwin Machines and the Nature of
Knowledge, as a part of his larger effort to develop an accessible treatment of evolutionary
epistemology. In his overview of meme theory, Plotkin treated memes as replicators and focused
on the parallels between cultural and biological evolution. Dawkins’s work informed his effort,
and Plotkin briefly looked at the oft-discussed examples of religion and science as domains
where the meme concept might prove useful.
While the texts by Durham, Delius, and Plotkin offered rather conservative treatments of
meme theory that reached relatively small academic and popular science audiences, subsequent
pieces by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Dawkins, and media critic Douglas Rushkoff
were both more speculative and reached larger numbers of readers. In his popular psychology
book The Evolving Self (1993), Csikszentmihalyi dedicated a chapter to memes. After briefly
reviewing Dawkins’s work, the author defined the term “meme” very generally as “any
permanent pattern of matter or information produced by an act of human intentionality” (p. 120).
The author traded in both evolutionary and epidemiological analogies in the text, and he
emphasized how particular memes might be viewed as “parasitic species” that colonize minds.
He offered rather informal exploratory discussions about the evolution of ideas and artifacts, the
role of the media in transmitting memes, and the relationships between memes and consumerism.
Connecting his commentary with the self-help themes central to his book, Csikszentmihalyi
concluded, “It is not easy to know when we are serving the runaway replication of memes, and
when we are doing something because it is the best for us … we can at least take cognizance of
our limits, step back and evaluate where our psychic energy is being directed, and why” (p. 143).
Given the success of the author’s previous best-seller, Flow (1990), it is likely that The Evolving
Self reached a relatively large audience. The influence of Csikszentmihalyi’s work is particularly
evident in the work of author Richard Brodie, discussed below.
Dawkins and Rushkoff also turned to the rhetoric of immunology to discuss memes
around this time, but with an added technological twist. In an article suggestively titled “Viruses
of the Mind,” published in both the secular humanist magazine Free Inquiry (1993a) and a
scholarly edited volume (1993b), Dawkins pursued a number of meme-as-virus analogies while
avoiding substantive discussions of replicators or natural selection. Proposing a new model of
“informational epidemiology,” Dawkins discussed computer viruses at length to both explore
non-biological evolutionary environments and to suggest the potential for generalizing the virus
concept to cultural transmission. Building on a series of rather anecdotal religious examples, he
concluded that “minds are friendly environments to parasitic, self-replicating ideas or
information, and that minds are typically massively infected.” In a similar vein, Rushkoff offered
a simplified interpretation of memes in his best-selling pop culture title Media Virus! (1994).
After mentioning Dawkins’s work, Rushkoff concluded that memes comprise the “code” that
undergirds “media viruses.” He went on to state that the “[media] virus injects its more hidden
agendas into the datastream in the form of ideological code not genes, but a conceptual
equivalent we now call ‘memes’” (p. 10).
Two more important texts appeared in 1995, one by Dennett and the other by
evolutionary and social theorist Howard Bloom. And while both books quickly turned into best-
sellers, the authors offered markedly different interpretations of memes. Dennett’s 1995 tome,
Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, was largely premised on the argument that Darwinian theorizing has
“an unmistakable likeness to universal acid: it eats through just about every traditional concept,
and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view” (p. 63). In a chapter dedicated to
understanding culture in evolutionary terms, Dennett reworked his earlier writings about memes.
Even more importantly, the author developed further discussion of two key topics, “Could There
be a Science of Memetics?” and “The Philosophical Importance of Memes” (pp. 352-369). In
these sections, Dennett reviewed important criticisms of the “meme perspective,” while also
exploring the potential value of memetics as both a philosophical outlook and basis for a new
science. Dennett’s discussion suggests that prominent proponents of the meme concept were
beginning to take seriously the prospects for a new discipline of memetics as the 1990s wore on.
And while generally classed as a popular science book, Dennett’s arguments were reasonably
well supported with supplemental references, many of them drawn from the academic realm.
Bloom, on the other hand, turned to a more flexible and simplified interpretation of
memes in The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Exploration into the Forces of History (1995). The
author’s larger effort involved a “scientific” reinterpretation of human history, centered in part
on a “bottom-up” view of society in which groups of humans who share common memes
aggregate into larger and more powerful “superorganisms.” Citing Dawkins as the source of the
meme concept, Bloom variously defined memes as “self-replicating cluster[s] of ideas” (p. 10)
and “ideas, the snatches of nothingness that leap from mind to mind” (p. 98). The author pointed
out that memes are replicators subject to evolutionary forces (p. 101; p. 179), but he also
described how memes “infect minds with abstract ideas” (p. 164) and “fan out across the planet
carried by vigorously scheming hosts” (p. 179). The author’s informal and often confusing use of
the term meme is evidenced by his depiction of Marxism as both an assembly of “fragmentary
memes” and as a “new ideological meme” itself (p. 98). Like Csikszentmihalyi, Bloom advanced
a malleable interpretation of memes that is almost entirely devoid of theoretical foundations or
supporting material, save for a number of anecdotal historical narratives.
While the books and articles outlined thus far suggest that variations of the meme concept
were being disseminated to ever-larger audiences as the 1990s wore on, the “popular subculture
of meme followers” described by Laland and Brown was also gaining prominence. Additional
insight regarding the composition of this subculture has been offered by political and cultural
theorist Mark Kingwell, who has referred to the “small circle of Netheads, fringe thinkers, and
cutting-edge artists” who first embraced meme theory (1999, p. 84). While writers such as
Henson and Moritz would likely be included in the circle to which Kingwell referred, additional
evidence reveals a subculture well beyond the authors and texts discussed above. For instance,
the Usenet newsgroup alt.memetics was founded in 1993, and a bibliography and FAQ
(Frequently Asked Questions) file posted to the newsgroup suggestively titled “Memetics:
Sources of Infection” verifies that numerous articles dedicated to the topic were available
online by 1994 (de Hingh, 1994). Furthermore, a number of meme theorists were using the
Internet for self-publication and self-promotion. As one example, an article by Keith Henson
titled “Memes, Metamemes and Politics” (1994) was posted on the Internet as early as 1992, and
the author later admitted that the piece had originally been rejected for publication by Reason
The trendy technology/culture outlet Wired, founded in 1993, quickly became another
important outlet for musings about memes. Lawyer Mike Godwin (1994), in one early Wired
article, briefly explored the prospects for a “new science of the meme memetic engineering.”
And building on his prior efforts to connect meme theory with advertising and marketing, a 1994
Wired piece by Michael Schrage described memetics as a “a new paradigm to explain pop
culture.” He went on to suggest that the future of advertising might be increasingly reliant on
“memegraphics” rather than demographics. A 1995 feature article by Schrage focused on the life
and work of Richard Dawkins, and in this piece the author described memes as “ideas that are, to
use the felicitous phrase of William Burroughs, ‘viruses of the mind.’ Memes are to cultural
inheritance what genes are to biological heredity.”19
As both Cohn (2001) and Thomas (2002) have pointed out, even science-fiction novels
popular among “Netheads” and futurists, such as Synners (Cadigan, 1991) and Snow Crash
(Stephenson, 1992), featured meme-like entities as central plot elements. Best-selling science
19 Schrage’s characterization is slightly skewed here. The more specific phrase “language is a virus from outer
space” is frequently attributed to Burroughs, while “virus of the mind” is not. However, Thomas explains that
Burroughs was describing both words and images in viral terms by the early 1970s, and she notes that Burroughs’
remarks clearly preceded the science fiction authors who presented meme-like entities in their texts in the 1980s and
1990s. Thomas adds that Burroughs developed “his theory of the Word in his novels years before Dawkins coined
the term meme” (Thomas, 2002, p. 174).
fiction writer David Brin who incidentally holds a doctorate degree in physics was also
writing about memes in the 1990s, and one of his well-known non-fiction treatments of the topic
was included in a best-selling collection of Brin’s work titled Otherness (1994). As described by
Cohn, Brin cautioned that his discussion of the meme concept was a “metaphor rather than a
scientific explanation” (Brin, 1994, pp. 355-356), but he nonetheless turned to a viral
interpretation of memes to develop “a pretty good model for what's been going on throughout
most of human history” (p. 349). While initial popularization of meme theory among science
enthusiasts, technophiles, and futurists can be traced back to pieces written by Henson and
Schrage, the authors and texts reviewed here suggest that the spread of meme theory accelerated
in these niche groups as the 1990s progressed. Furthermore, the resonance of immunological and
technological interpretations of memes among these authors and their audiences both paralleled
the work of subsequent meme theorists and foreshadowed the continued diffusion of the meme
concept in the popular realm.
The Meme Enthusiasts
As the preceding overview suggests, by the 1990s the meme concept was developing
along two distinct, but to some extent overlapping, paths. On the one hand, a small but diverse
lot of authors from the academic realm were tentatively exploring the possibilities and pitfalls of
meme theory. On the other hand, the meme concept was being reinterpreted and disseminated by
a distinct “subculture of meme followers.” Two of these followers, Richard Brodie and Aaron
Lynch, surfaced in the mid-1990s to publish the first book-length texts ostensibly dedicated to
memetics. Their efforts stand as prominent symbols of the popularization of the meme concept,
and Aunger has even singled out Brodie and Lynch as “prominent meme enthusiasts” (2002, p.
17).20 However, there are also important differences between these two authors. While Brodie
has emerged as the archetypical popularizer of meme theory, Lynch is more aptly viewed as a
boundary actor who has long negotiated the academic-popular divide. But before I explore these
two authors and their texts in more detail, I turn to the curious story of political scientist Adam
Westoby, another writer who made an early effort to write a book about memes.
20 See Lynch (2002b) for his vigorous opposition to the “meme enthusiast” moniker.
Westoby’s Ecology of Intentions
While Westoby was one of the first authors to attempt a book-length treatment of meme
theory, his credentials and life history highlight the atypical character of many meme enthusiasts.
After earning B.A. and B.Phil. degrees in the 1960s from Balliol College, University of Oxford,
Westoby was offered a Lectureship in the Department of Education at The Open University, a
position that he held from 1970 onward. For much of his career he was an expert on the
structure, politics, and economies of communist states, authoring or co-authoring numerous
articles and books on these topics. Unfortunately, Westoby was diagnosed with a progressive
spinal cord disability in 1973, which he fought until his death in 1994. The deterioration of his
condition in the 1980s, combined with rapid changes in the Eastern bloc, made it increasingly
difficult for him to keep up with the literature in his original area of expertise. But by the end of
the 1980s he had developed an interest in memes and pursued the topic in earnest. Often able to
type with only a single finger, Westoby slowly drafted a 50,000-word manuscript titled The
Ecology of Intentions: How to Make Memes and Influence People: Culturology (1994). Most
generally, Westoby’s piece is built around the notion that culture can be viewed in organic terms.
He drew on prior theorizing by Dawkins and Dennett, among others, and connected various
interpretations of the meme concept to a wide range of topics, ranging from laws and norms to
economics and artifacts. He further delineated various “parasitic” and “reproductive” traits of
memes, and his analysis hinted at the differences between evolutionary verses epidemiological
approaches to the study of culture.
While Westoby’s text remains somewhat scattered and speculative, the author did
develop a number of novel ideas, many of them built upon a large body of supporting literature.
Echoing this point, Dennett described the “variety of original and incisive ideas about memes”
that appeared in the draft. In addition, Westoby’s lengthy bibliography was one of the most
inclusive lists of sources that had yet been compiled on the topic of evolutionary culture theory
(ECT) in general and meme theory in particular. The final revision of the text is dated July 1994,
and Westoby’s brother Mark himself an evolutionary biologist delivered the unfinished
manuscript to Dennett. Westoby’s impressive effort was likely an influence on other authors who
were working on meme theory in the mid-1990s, especially given that Dennett both distributed
the manuscript among fellow meme theorists and subsequently placed the text online. Two of the
theorists who received the draft, Richard Brodie and Aaron Lynch, went on to publish their own
treatments of the topic. But unlike Westoby’s effort, these authors delivered popularized
interpretations of memes to much larger audiences.21
Brodie’s Virus of the Mind
Richard Brodie was one of the first authors to publish a book-length discussion of the
meme concept. Some brief biographical details foreground both the content of the book and the
author’s role in the field of memetics. Like some of the popular authors discussed above,
Brodie’s background is limited in terms of scholarly credentials. The book jacket for Virus of the
Mind claims the author was “educated at Harvard,” but elsewhere Brodie admits to dropping out
of the famed school to “join the computer revolution” (2000a). While such testimonials might
not bode well in the academic community, similar stories are legendary among technology gurus.
After leaving Harvard, Brodie went to work for another well-known Harvard College dropout,
Bill Gates. Following a successful stint at Microsoft, where he garnered credit as the primary
author of Microsoft Word V1.0, Brodie left the company in 1986 to “search for meaning in life”
(1996, “About the Author”). He later started his own software and consulting firm, and penned a
self-help book titled Getting Past OK (1993). In this text, Brodie admitted that he first heard
about memes in the 1980s from colleagues at Microsoft, not surprising given the early
circulation of the concept in computer enthusiast subcultures (1996, p. 23). His interest in the
topic eventually led to Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme (1996), a book self-
published by the author under the clever moniker Integral Press.22
Aimed at popular audiences, Virus of the Mind is decidedly non-scientific and non-
academic, and the Brodie warned readers, “Although this book is about science, it’s obviously
not a scientific text” (1996, p. 19). The author even eschewed extensive citations and footnotes in
his writing, and opted for a “Recommended Reading” list instead of a bibliography. Early in the
text, Brodie both introduced memetics as a revolutionary new science and positioned his own
project as a part of the field: “Viruses of the mind, and the whole science of memetics, represent
21 As a tongue-in-cheek promotional gimmick for his most recent book, The Electric Meme (2002), Aunger posted a
lampoon of the Westoby story on his web site (Aunger, 2001a).
22 Regarding the title of his book, Brodie explains, “thanks to Richard Dawkins for being so gracious when he
discovered I had inadvertently ‘pinched’ the title he had previously used in an essay” (1996, p. 235). Apparently
neither Dawkins nor Brodie realized that Schrage had used the title “Are Ideas Viruses of the Mind?” back in 1988.
a major paradigm shift in the science of the mind” (p. 15).23 He also posited that memetics was
“the long-awaited scientific theory unifying biology, psychology, and cognitive science” (p. 13).
Midway through the Introduction, Brodie clarified his agenda. Building on his prior endeavors as
a self-help writer, he stated that Virus of the Mind was written to “make a difference in people’s
lives” (p. 18). He further clarified that “understanding memetics can naturally help increase the
quality of people’s lives” (p. 18), and added that the book was intended to “consciously spread
the new paradigm of memetics” (p. 19). Brodie went on to define memetics as “the study of the
workings of memes: how they interact, replicate, and evolve” (p. 26). Highlighting the profusion
of definitions in the field, the author reviewed biological, psychological, and cognitive
definitions of the term “meme” by paraphrasing the work of Dawkins, Plotkin, and Dennett.
Brodie also offered his own definition, which he adapted from Dawkins (1982): “A meme is a
unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself
get created in other minds” (p. 32). Following in Dennett’s footsteps, the author added that
memes are “the building-blocks of your mind” (p. 36). As this overview suggests, Brodie
generally maintained that memes exist in the brain and are subject to evolutionary processes
befitting replicators. The author reinforced this interpretation by later referring the unit meme as
“a replicator that uses the medium of our minds to replicate” (p. 82).
Turning to the title of his book, Brodie explained, “A virus of the mind is something out
in the world that infects people with memes. Those memes, in turn, influence the infected
people’s behavior so that they help perpetuate and spread the virus” (p. 36). Throughout the text,
the author focused on these “mind viruses” as particularly nefarious memes that spread
infectively from person to person. Brodie gave many examples thereof, ranging from fashions
and religions to pervasive advertising jingles and pyramid schemes. This somewhat confusing
depiction of memes and mind viruses is outlined in Figure 2.1 below. In addition to revealing the
extensive mixing of evolutionary and epidemiological terminology that characterizes much of
the book, the table hints at the author’s tendency to build speculative analogies connecting the
domains of biology, computer technology, human culture, and human mind. Further muddying
the waters are the self-help themes that run throughout the text, largely premised on the notion
that individuals can consciously “deprogram” or “disinfect” their own minds in order to live
better lives. Brodie remarked, “Most people are so full of mind viruses, of externally acquired
23 Brodie also describes memetics as “revolutionary science,” but he fails to cite Kuhn in his discussion.
mental programming, that they
don’t spend much of their time
and energy pursuing what they
want in life” (p. 220).
Elsewhere he noted, “We can
either give up on the hope of
having a fulfilling life and a
better world, or consciously
choose which memes to
program ourselves with and
which memes we want to
spread” (p. 215). As this
overview suggests, Brodie’s
self-help agenda had much in
common with earlier work by Csikszentmihalyi. In fact, The Evolving Self (Csikszentmihalyi,
1993) even appeared on Brodie’s “Recommended Reading” list (p. 232).
Also noteworthy are the ways in which Brodie conveyed and reflexively applied his own
theoretical claims, with the explicit goal of spreading the meme concept and selling more books.
Indeed, Virus of the Mind might be viewed as an experiment in applied memetics. Prominent
examples of this approach include the phrase “Warning: live mind virus!” emblazoned on the
book jacket, and a disclaimer that appeared at the beginning of the text:
[W]arning! This book contains a live mind virus. Do not read further unless you
are willing to be infected. The infection may affect the way you think in subtle or
not-so-subtle ways or even turn your current world view inside out (Brodie,
These clever ploys were clearly designed to attract attention and pull in readers, and the author
utilized similar tricks throughout the book. Brodie even explicitly described his approach in the
book: “Virus of the Mind is my attempt to consciously spread the bundle of memes known as
24 This figure reprinted with permission from Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme by Richard Brodie,
1996, Integral Press. Copyright 1996 Richard Brodie.
Figure 2.1. Brodie’s Analogies (Brodie, 1996, p. 56)24
memetics” (p. 155). In a Journal of Memetics discussion list message, the author added: “Virus
of the Mind is deliberately (and overtly) infected with language designed to plant memes
designed to make the reader leap up and recommend the book to others” (1997). There is
evidence that Brodie’s strategies were to some extent effective. His title was on the
best-seller list for more than a year (2000b), and his efforts even caught the attention of talk
show hosts. Brodie made promotional appearances on the Donohue and Oprah television shows
in 1996 and 1999, respectively, to talk about “viruses of the mind.”
Brodie’s effort to popularize meme theory is further revealed in a message posted to the
Journal of Memetics discussion list in 1999. He stated, “My work is not targeted at the academic
community. I am trying to reach the general public” (1999). But other evidence hints at loftier
ambitions. In the same message, Brodie added, “Virus of the Mind IS the seminal work on
memetics … . Everyone interested in the subject reads it” (1999).25 He went on to reflect on his
position in the field:
I would say, in fact, that academics as a group have been more guarded than other
folks to endorse my book [Virus of the Mind], and understandably so, since I am
kind of a “loose cannon” and don't play by academic rules. But that's also why I
was willing to publish the first book on memetics, this outlandish theory. I didn't
have an academic career to risk (Brodie, 1999).
As evidenced by this passage, the author painted himself as an outsider with respect to the more
academic sphere of meme theorists. Furthermore, Brodie clearly had no qualms about describing
meme theory as “outlandish,” suggesting that he viewed the field as both radical and
controversial. And thus far, his work in the realm of meme theory has been relatively limited.
Brodie’s contribution to the field remains limited to his 1996 book, a promotional web site, and
numerous postings to both the Journal of Memetics (JoM-EMIT) electronic mailing list and the
alt.memetics Usenet newsgroup.26 But as this overview suggests, Brodie’s effort to popularize
the meme concept far exceeded the efforts of any prior author. Furthermore, the influence of his
work is particularly evident in subsequent popular texts, a point to which I will return. But before
grappling with these issues, I turn to another popularizer of memetics, Aaron Lynch.
25 It should be noted that Brodie’s bold remark preceded the publication other important texts dedicated to the topic,
such as the books authored by Blackmore (1999) and Aunger (2002), and the volume edited by Aunger (2000).
26 Brodie’s web site, titled “Meme Central,” is located at:
Lynch’s Thought Contagion
Like Brodie, Lynch is well known for a popular interpretation of meme theory. However,
closer comparison reveals both similarities and differences between these two authors. In terms
of academic qualifications, Lynch’s undergraduate degrees in physics, mathematics and
philosophy are slightly more impressive than Brodie’s stint at Harvard. And prior to his work in
memetics, Lynch was an engineering physicist at Fermilab (1996, “About the Author”). He
claims that in 1978 he “independently reinvented” a theory of self-propagating ideas that was
similar to memetics, but subsequently decided to adopt the term “meme” after hearing about
Dawkins’s 1976 chapter (1996, p. vii). In 1988, an undisclosed private sponsor awarded Lynch a
full-time grant for research (1996, “About the Author”), and in 1990 his first treatment of the
topic was published in the Journal of Ideas.
Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society (1996) is the popular text that
eventually resulted from Lynch’s efforts. The author has stated that the first draft of his text was
completed in 1993, but publication was delayed until 1996 when Basic Books “took a chance on
it” (2002a).27 Lynch explains that “standards of simplicity in the trade book market,” along with
the hope of achieving broad accessibility, resulted in the exclusion of more technical material in
the text. The title was pitched to the intellectual lay reader, featuring a somewhat more academic
tone when compared to Brodie’s work. And while he avoided the extensive evidence and
documentation that would be expected in an academic volume, the author did support his effort
with some reference material. Thought Contagion seems to have fared reasonably well in the
marketplace given that it appeared on the New Scientist best-seller list in 1998, and a paperback
edition was released in late 1999 (Lynch, 1998b).
While Lynch’s book was primarily aimed at popular audiences, the author clearly
positioned his work in relation to both science generally and memetics specifically. In the
preface to the paperback edition of the text, Lynch stated that his original goal for Thought
Contagion was to provide a “concentrated collection of good examples” of memes, thereby
“putting memetics on more serious footing in the sciences” (1996, p. vii). In striking parallel
with Brodie’s book title, the phrase “The New Science of Memes” appeared on the cover of
27 Lynch remarked, “a draft manuscript for Thought Contagion was first registered in the Copyright Office of the US
Library of Congress March of 1993” (2002a).
Thought Contagion, and the author described memetics as “a new branch of science” (1996, p.
vii). Drawing explicitly on Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Lynch
argued that memetics is a “paradigm shift” and “revolutionary science” because it “takes the
much explored question of how people acquire ideas and turns it on its head: the new approach
often asks how ideas acquire people” (pp. 17-18). The author even offered a chapter titled “A
Missing Link: Memetics and the Social Sciences,” in which he discussed how work in the field
might inform disciplines such as economics, history, anthropology, and psychology, to name a
few (pp. 17-39).
Further delving into the content of the text, we find that Lynch’s interpretation of the
meme concept was based on both evolutionary and epidemiological analogies. Early in the book,
he stated, “memetics is, in part, an epidemiology of ideas” (p. 9).28 But Lynch also offered a brief
overview of “memetic evolution,” pointing out that “memetic evolution keep[s] certain beliefs
current and contagious” (p. 12). As suggested by the book’s title, the author’s primary focus was
on a particularly infectious class of memes that he called “thought contagion,” defined most
simply as “self-propagating idea[s]” (p. 2). In the passage below, Lynch invoked the suggestive
imagery of computer and biological viruses, while also appearing to conflate memes with
thought contagion:
Like a software virus in a computer network or a physical virus in a city, thought
contagions proliferate by effectively ‘programming’ for their own retransmission.
… Actively contagious ideas are now called memes (a word that rhymes with
“teams”) by students of the newly emerging science of memetics (p. 2).
This epidemiological focus appears to have much in common with Brodie’s Virus of the Mind,
but Lynch countered the view that infectious ideas should be viewed in negative terms. The
author pointed out that many of these thought contagion are benign, and that “[t]he terms thought
contagion and epidemiology therefore carry neutral connotations in the context of memetics
theory” (p. 10). Lynch covered a broad swath of examples in the book as he described how
memes and thought contagion connect with family structure and sexuality, cults and religions,
medical and health beliefs, and even controversial issues such as abortion and gun control. Like
28 Later in the text, Lynch briefly pondered the potential for a new “germ theory of ideas” (p. 155).
Brodie, Lynch clearly tended toward breadth over depth, often devoting only a few paragraphs to
any given topic and relying primarily on anecdotal evidence.
But unlike Brodie, Lynch’s publications in the field of memetics extend well beyond this
single popular book. In addition to writing Thought Contagion, Lynch is listed as an editor for
the Journal of Memetics and is a frequent participant on the journal’s discussion list.
Furthermore, he claims to have developed robust technical foundations for the study of memes
and thought contagion. In the preface to his book, Lynch explained: “Still, some will ask what
would remain of memetics if all analogies to genes, software viruses, and biological contagion
were removed. I have published my answer to this question separately in a technical journal
filled with propagation diagrams and mathematical equations, but lacking wide readability” (p.
viii). The piece to which Lynch referred was originally published in the Journal of Memetics
(1998a), and later revised and reprinted on his web site (2001b). Other articles by Lynch looking
specifically at thought contagion and stock market trends have appeared in financial journals
(2000a, 2001a), and another titled “Evolutionary Contagion in Mental Software” was printed in a
recent scholarly volume (2000b). Lynch has also authored shorter popular pieces that connect his
thought contagion approach with diverse topics such as the AIDS epidemic, dieting, and mass
Brodie and Lynch stand in a long line of meme theorists with rather atypical
backgrounds, such as astronomer John Ball, engineer Keith Henson, Journal of Ideas founder
Elan Moritz, and political scientist Adam Westoby. All of these authors have lacked advanced
degrees much less any significant formal training in the academic disciplines that are most
often associated with memetics, such as evolutionary biology, psychology, and anthropology.
Furthermore, their involvement in the field has either been a side interest or supported via
independent sources of funding, and none of them have had academic careers at stake. Brodie
and Lynch in particular view their efforts as important contributions to the domain of meme
theory, but both have demonstrated a willingness to break or bend widely accepted standards for
scholarly conduct, a point to which I will return. These are rather atypical characteristics for
authors who purport to be building the foundations of a new science, but they seem to have
embraced meme theory at an opportune time. Sensing the far-reaching possibilities for a new
“science” of culture, along with a relative lack of highly theoretical discussion on the topic, they
29 Articles on these and other topics are available on Lynch’s web site:
jumped in to fill a void, stake out their own claims, and perhaps garner some recognition for their
efforts along the way. In doing so, they disseminated their own interpretations of the meme
concept to a wide variety of readers at a historically opportune moment.
But there are also notable differences between these authors, particularly with respect to
their respective locations in the field. Brodie’s limited publications, self-avowed outsider status,
and decidedly non-scientific book place him quite solidly on the popular side of meme theory.
Lynch’s numerous publications and involvement with the Journal of Memetics, on the other
hand, demonstrate a somewhat closer relationship with the academic sphere of memetics. If
Brodie has emerged as the archetypical popularizer of meme theory, Lynch is more aptly viewed
as a boundary actor who has frequently negotiated the academic-popular divide. This distinction
will resurface in the following chapter as I take a closer look at how the more academic sphere of
meme theorists has reacted to the work of these and other meme enthusiasts. But questions
remain regarding why the meme concept gained early momentum among these atypical authors
and their ilk. Additional analysis will reveal a number of important themes prevalent in
popularized discussions of meme theory, while also pointing us toward tentative explanations for
why certain interpretations of memes have resonated with many popular authors and their niche
popular audiences.
The Popular Meme
Dilution of Theory
Looking specifically at the legacy of Brodie’s work reveals how popular authors have
reinterpreted various concepts and theoretical insights from the field of memetics and delivered
them to ever-larger audiences. Brodie himself offered simplified formulations of the meme
concept by borrowing from the somewhat more rigorous foundations provided by Dawkins,
Dennett, and Plotkin. And as evidenced by the sources listed in his book not to mention the
self-help themes and meme-as-virus rhetoric that ran through it Brodie gained further insight
and inspiration from the work of prior popular authors such as Rushkoff and Csikszentmihalyi. A
number of writers who followed in the wake of Brodie and Lynch have developed increasingly
simplified interpretations of the meme concept. Aunger, noticing this trend, has pointed to the
work of marketing gurus Seth Godin and Malcolm Gladwell as evidence for the “dilution” of
meme theory over multiple generations of popular theorizing.
Godin’s simplistic bit memorable “ideavirus,” developed in his best-selling book
Unleashing the Ideavirus (2000), is one noteworthy example of theoretical dilution. Godin
defines an ideavirus as “an idea that moves and grows and infects everyone it touches” (2000, p.
13), and he subsequently depicted memes and ideaviruses as equivalent (p. 94). A related theme
in this author’s work is the “sneezer,” a person who is especially likely to spread an “ideavirus.”
Godin cites Gladwell’s The Tipping Point (2000) as the source of this concept, and Aunger
recently noted that Gladwell originally “borrowed” many of his ideas from Lynch and Brodie
(2002, pp. 16-17). Further plumbing the historical record, we find a near-identical formulation of
the “sneezer” concept in Drexler’s discussion of “parasitic” memes in Engines of Creation
(1986). In exploring these and other instances of diluted theorizing, Aunger concludes that “the
rather elaborate analysis in the memetics books have been reduced to a small number of
concepts, and these wind up being somewhat vulgarly expressed” (2002, p. 17). But given the
wide dissemination of the texts authored by Godin and Gladwell, these “vulgar expressions” of
meme theory have been presented to large and diverse audiences. As a result, the understanding
of the meme concept in the popular realm continues to diverge from more academic treatments
of the topic.
Circular Theorizing
Another trend evident in many popular and popular science discussions of meme theory
is the use of self-reflexive or circular depictions of memes. Simply stated, this amounts to the
notion that the meme concept can be understood as a meme itself. Ball was one of the first
authors to encapsulate this idea with the phrase “meme meme,” and he further pondered, “Does
meme theory predict its own success?” (1984, p. 146). Hofstadter referred to the “large number
of people who have been infected by the ‘meme’ meme” (1985, p. 65), while Drexler noted that
one example of a meme is the “idea of memes itself” (1986, p. 313). Similarly, Henson described
the “meme-about-memes” (1987b) and Dennett bandied about the phrase “meme meme” (1990,
p. 134). And finally, Dawkins commented that “the word meme seems to be turning out to be a
good meme” (1989, p. 322).
By the mid-1990s, the self-referential themes suggested by the “meme meme” were
advanced by Brodie and Lynch, but in markedly different directions. As discussed above, Brodie
conveyed and reflexively applied his own theoretical claims in Virus of the Mind, with the
explicit goal of spreading the meme concept and selling more books. Lynch, on the other hand,
explored the topic in an epilogue titled “Thought Contagions of Thought Contagion” (1996, pp.
175-177). Unlike other authors, Lynch discussed the philosophical and theoretical implications
of self-referential systems, and he drew on Hofstadter’s well-known tome Gödel, Escher, Bach:
An Eternal Golden Braid (1979) to explain that “any consistent theory or system powerful
enough to consider itself has to be complete” (p. 177). Lynch went on to conclude that questions
such as “What does thought contagion theory forecast for the contagion of thought contagion
theory?” remain “formally undecidable” (p. 177). According to this line of reasoning, the
circularity of a theory is interpreted as a sign of power rather than as a fatal flaw leading to
infinite regress.
While Lynch’s argument remains open to criticism, my primary concern here is on the
diffusion of meme theory among particular authors and audiences. On the one hand, circular
phrases such as “meme meme” serve as a clever encapsulation of the meme concept that is more
easily understood by general audiences. But technologically savvy scientists and computer
programmers likely already familiar with concepts such as circularity and recursivity may be
even more likely to find these clever, reflexive concepts both intuitive and appealing. Support for
this argument can be found in the remarks of social psychologist Sherry Turkle, who has
discussed how recursivity is an important aesthetic in the subcultures of computer technology:
Escher was a favorite among computer people before [Hofstadter’s] Gödel,
Escher, Bach captured a long standing computer-culture aesthetic by making the
point, well known to programmers, that Escher’s prints of hands drawing each
other or of stairs that continue to rise until they reach their starting point are
recursive. These are “strange loops” whose power originates from the fact that
they refer to themselves … (1984, p. 220).
As evidenced by Hofstadter’s early promotion of memes which appeared in tandem with
musings about other replicating structures such as viral sentences Brodie and Lynch stand in a
long line of authors attracted to the “strange loops” of the “meme meme.” Furthermore, the
allure of self-referential theories of culture and cultural transmission enthralled the technologists,
futurists, and popular science enthusiasts who have historically composed the core audience for
articles and books about memes. But in order to develop a better understanding regarding the
popular appeal of memetics, we must also look at how various analogies and metaphors have
shaped both work in the field and the reception of the meme concept.
Mixing Metaphors
As discussed above, popular discussions of meme theory have tended to favor
epidemiological approaches or haphazard comparisons of memes with both viruses and genes,
while the more academic sphere of memetics has generally eschewed such references in favor of
genetic analogies. Noticing this trend, Aunger has described the field of memetics in terms of
competing metaphors that he aptly labels “meme-as-germ” and “meme-as-gene” (Aunger, 2000,
p. 9). The former is generally characterized by rhetoric borrowed from immunology, and is often
focused on the transmission, diffusion, and “fitness” of memes. The latter tends to view memes
as replicators, with a more nuanced emphasis on evolutionary processes. Dawkins captures
another important distinction between these two approaches: “Memes travel longitudinally down
generations, but they travel horizontally too, like viruses in an epidemic” (Blackmore, 1998, p.
ix). Pursuing a similar line of inquiry, Aunger described the differences between the major fields
that inform the work of many meme theorists, namely epidemiology and evolutionary biology.
He pointed out that epidemiological perspectives are often concerned with pragmatic issues
associated with fighting disease, such as the “the spatial dimension of reproduction or the
geographical spread of a phenomenon” (2000, p. 9). On the other hand, evolutionary approaches
tend to focus on the “temporal dimensions of replication,” such as the study of mutations and
selective pressures.30 Aunger adds that while these two domains have much in common at the
elementary level, each school of thought has “distinct intellectual histories, disciplinary agendas,
and popular perceptions” (2000, p. 9).
These remarks suggest that analogies based on either a genetic or epidemiological
framework may have advantages or disadvantages depending on the context in which they are
used. Hence, a given author’s tendency to emphasize one or the other is to some extent driven by
30 Various understandings of the space/time dichotomy, as from fields such as geography and cultural studies, might
be valuable here for looking at the larger implications of these theoretical tendencies. I leave this for future analysis.
theoretical and methodological considerations, along with that author’s intellectual background,
the particular subjects under investigation, the goals of a given analysis, and even the intended
audience. But these somewhat commonsensical conclusions only go so far. Noting the
prevalence of religious examples in the work of many meme theorists, Jeffreys remarked, “In all
these ‘virus’ and ‘contagion’ accounts, one suspects that the authors’ own convictions that
religions amount to no more than dangerous, self-serving superstitions have encouraged the use
of virological metaphors” (2000, p. 230). There may be a grain of truth to Jeffreys’ comment, but
it is surely not the whole story. Speculating about the whims and preferences of individual
authors fails to adequately explain more general patterns and tendencies in the field.
Aunger has noted that epidemiological approaches allow theorists to be “intellectually
lazy” by shifting attention toward the spread of memes, while largely ignoring the more complex
matter of how memes change or evolve over time (2002, p. 18). Hence, authors with limited
scholarly credentials may be more likely to pursue the meme-as-germ approach to avoid the
difficulties that accompany evolutionary understandings of cultural change and transmission.
The popular treatments of meme theory offered by authors such as Henson, Rushkoff, Brodie,
and Godin support this claim. But this explanation is not entirely satisfying. For starters,
epidemiological approaches are not inherently simplistic. There is a long history of complex
modeling by the proponents of various social contagion theories, and Lynch in particular has
developed what appear to be highly technical foundations for his own “epidemiology of ideas.”31
Furthermore, Dawkins’s “Viruses of the Mind” (1993) article reveals that even respected
scientists can speculate about meme-as-germ analogies with very little theoretical rigor. Another
consideration that deserves exploration is Aunger’s preceding reference to the “popular
perceptions” of the parent disciplines. Pursuing this line of inquiry offers additional explanation
for why the meme-as-germ approach has proven both prevalent and durable.
Popular Predispositions
The popular perception of a given base domain whether it be epidemiology or
evolutionary biology also plays a role in determining how particular interpretations of memes
resonate with authors and audiences. Far from being a case of neutral analogizing, the
31 An article by Marsden titled “Memetics and Social Contagion: Two Sides of the Same Coin?” (1998) looks at
how social science research on social contagion phenomena parallels much work in the field of memetics.
metaphorical comparison of memes to germs and genes is necessarily situated in and influenced
by a larger cultural milieu. Thomas, for instance, offered an exploration of such contextual issues
as a part of her more general effort to analyze the “viral reality” of the 1990s. As she compared
and contrasted representations of viruses in popular culture outlets and science fiction texts
(2002), Thomas explored the complex interplay of computer viruses, mind viruses, and memes.
In this passage, she hinted at one of the reasons for the prevalence of viral rhetoric in popular
discussions of memetics:
[T]he meme’s metaphorical counterparts, genes and viruses, may be discerned
with the proper equipment, though we might have difficulty describing just what
constitutes a gene, exactly. We have an easier time imagining viruses, which are
self-enclosed entities like bacteria or cells (p. 173).
Thomas’s comment suggests that the portrayal of memes as analogous to viruses may prove both
less complicated for authors and more palateable for general audiences, especially in light of
popular understandings of contagion. This argument is further supported by Shea, who has
demonstrated that the term “gene” has long been characterized by a rich diversity of uses and
meanings, particularly in the realm of popular culture (2001). While this malleability has likely
played an important role in establishing the gene as an iconic cultural symbol, the meme-as-gene
interpretation inherits ambiguity from both the definitional uncertainties of the gene and the
underlying complexities of evolutionary theory. But other factors also play into the popular
preference for particular analogies. Thomas remarks:
And we now have the terminology of viruses at our disposal, after years of
exposure to the AIDS epidemic and years of attempting to “innoculate” [sic] the
precious electronic extensions of our minds against marauding lines of code. It is
no wonder, then, that the figure of the virus is so readily appropriated by
adherents to meme theory, who are themselves well-versed in the language of
contagion (p. 173).
Here Thomas clearly follows in the footsteps of Emily Martin, who had earlier explored the
diffusion and understanding of immunology concepts both within and beyond science. The work
of these authors clearly supports the argument that popular authors and audiences were
increasingly primed for meme-as-germ analogies in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other hand,
genetic understandings of memes would come to dominate the more academic corners of meme
theory as the 1990s progressed, a point to which I’ll return in the next chapter.
But Thomas’s comments also hint at the importance of technological rhetoric in
discussions of meme theory. By developing analogies that compare memes and viruses, authors
are able to extend their discussions of meme theory from the biological to the technological with
relative ease, a tendency that appears deeply rooted in the history of the field. Both Dawkins and
Ball offered early portrayals of the brain as analogous to a computer, with Ball describing memes
as equivalent to data or instructions and Dawkins comparing memes with computer viruses. Such
formulations appear to have been particularly palatable to many of the early proponents of meme
theory hailing from various technology and futurist subcultures, as reflected in the work of
authors such as Henson and Brin. And subsequent popular authors, most notably Brodie and
Lynch, both extended these parallels and disseminated the meme-as-virus mantra to larger
audiences. Given the increasingly pervasive rhetoric of computer technology in the 1990s, Virus
of the Mind and Thought Contagion appeared at an opportune time. As personal computers and
the World Wide Web moved toward cultural ubiquity, so too did computer viruses, e-mail chain
letters, and Internet fads. In light of these intertwined trends, viral interpretations of memes were
rendered increasingly persuasive for a growing segment of the population, and the appeal of the
meme concept was increasingly visible beyond the niche social and cultural spaces occupied by
the technologists, science fiction enthusiasts, and futurists.
A number of commentators have taken note of the historically specific synergies between
memetics, technology, and society. For instance, Kingwell remarks, “In brains softened up by
computer metaphors, the meme meme finds a ready host. We are very much taken with the idea
that we resemble the cool machines that dominate our lives from their position on your desk and
mine” (1999, p. 88). Journalist Mic Moroney follows a similar line of reasoning, while crafting
an even more insightful explanation: “Just as we have always made anxious metaphors of
ourselves and society from our dominant technologies, the meme meme, so to speak, ties in with
the revival of social Darwinism in visions of capitalism; the infective metaphor of computer
viruses, even the viral apocalypse of AIDS” (2000). Moroney’s comment adroitly captures the
connections between these disparate realms of biology, technology, and society. It is from this
crossroad of anxious analogy that popular interpretations of the meme-as-germ have emerged
and taken hold.
As suggested by the preceding analysis, the history of memetics has been characterized
by an atypical pattern of growth. Originally and tentatively developed by popular science
authors, the meme concept was subsequently advanced by fringe intellectuals, futurists, and
technophiles. Without the appearance of rigid boundaries, a diverse body of authors adopted a
malleable meme and applied it to diverse domains such as marketing and self-help. Brodie and
Lynch stand out as two of the more visible meme enthusiasts, and their texts remain symbols of
the ongoing popularization and growth of the field. And while the value of their tactics and
theoretical claims can be questioned, their efforts have proven controversial and accessible,
further disseminating the meme concept to new audiences. But the theorizing promoted by these
authors has to some extent diverged from both the popular science origins of the meme and the
more academic sphere of memeticists. The meme-as-germ, framed by the powerful rhetoric of
immunology and technology, has resonated with particular niche popular authors and audiences.
In a cyclical manner, the viral meme has been further shaped by a pattern of diffusion and
diversification over multiple generations of theorizing. By looking at these historical trends,
boundaries become more evident. The meme stands as an increasingly tenuous link between the
academic and popular, between the viral and genetic.
The next chapter explores the nascent academic community of meme theorists that
developed as the 1990s wore on. I will emphasize the evolutionary analogies (“meme-as-gene”)
that gained prominence in this sphere, and will also take a closer look at some of the arguments
that scholars have advanced against epidemiological approaches to understanding memes. But as
the preceding analysis suggests, such criticisms may neither reach nor resonate with popular
audiences that are increasingly primed for metaphorical “infection” by the “meme meme.”
Chapter 3: Meme Academe
More entries have arrived in the search for the most outstandingly obscure academic
journal. Suggestions include the Journal of Memetics, which contains a paper titled “The
six essentials? Minimal requirements for the Darwinian bootstrapping of quality.”
The Times Higher Education Supplement, September 6, 2002 (“Obscure Pursuits”)
As we follow the historical traces of meme theory into the 1990s, it becomes evident that
the popularization of the meme concept paralleled, and to a significant extent preceded, the
gradual and emergence of an academic community of meme theorists. In line with the former,
books such as Virus of the Mind and Thought Contagion grew out of the earlier dissemination of
the meme concept among technophiles and futurists. However, these books also promoted the
ongoing spread of the concept to general and niche popular audiences, particularly via the
Internet. By 1997, “meme” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary, symbolizing the
movement of the term toward increasing cultural ubiquity. But somewhat ironically, 1997 also
marked the founding of the peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics, revealing that meme theory was
gaining ground in academic circles around the same time. This chapter will focus on the
development of a distinct academic community of meme theorists, with an emphasis on how this
community has both reacted to and distinguished itself from popular interpreters of memes. In
addition to promoting variations of meme theory that appear divergent from the work of many
popular authors, this new subculture of memeticists have turned to various strategies and controls
that to some extent regulate activity in the field and legitimate their collective endeavor.
Organizing a Discipline
Throughout the 1980s and into the 1990s, only a few scholarly discussions of meme
theory were published in peer-reviewed journals or other academic texts. The Journal of Ideas
was an important early attempt to develop more substantial theoretical and methodological
foundations for meme theory and related topics, but in hindsight this “hybrid” journal faced
difficult odds from the start. On the one hand, it was published by an early meme enthusiast who
lacked the sort of academic and institutional affiliations that often provide essential support for
such endeavors. Furthermore, the broad scope the publication resulted in a profusion of topics
and approaches that failed to coalesce around common themes, theories, methods or even
terminology. Even authors with impressive academic credentials such as Dawkins, Plotkin, and
Dennett, to name a few went on to develop relatively accessible treatments of meme theory in
the first half of the 1990s, and most of these were published in popular science books. As a
result, the first two decades of work in the field were characterized by an abundance of
speculation and anecdotal musing but relatively sparse theoretical insights or empirical results.
The establishment of the first journal wholly dedicated to memetics and related topics, however,
would herald an important new phase in the history of meme theory.
The diffusion and diversification of meme theory in the first half of the 1990s led to
renewed interest in developing more substantial theoretical and institutional foundations for the
field. Dennett, for instance, pondered at length the possibilities for a “new science of memetics”
in his 1995 text (pp. 352-360). By 1996, a group of scholars was working toward the publication
of a new academic journal dedicated to the meme concept and related theorizing. An
informational web page nicely captured the state of the field circa early 1997:
We are confronted with an avalanche of books, essays, and publications scattered
over different journals and disciplines, with dialogue flashing up here and there in
an unstructured manner. Many dialogues disappear after only a brief lifespan.
This chaos exists because a general framework is lacking (“Information about
JoM-EMIT,” 1997).
Later in 1997, the the peer-reviewed Journal of Memetics Evolutionary Models of Information
Transmission (or JoM-EMIT) was officially established. Recognizing the difficulty of sustaining
a print-based academic journal on a rather niche, controversial topic, the founders opted to
publish exclusively on the web. An editorial that appeared in the first issue further clarified the
motivations of the founders:
Although we cannot foresee future developments, we believe that our journal will
contribute to the development of evolutionary theory and memetics. We hope that
it may help turn memetics into an accepted scientific discipline, and lead to the
development of fundamental concepts applicable in the biological, social and
information sciences (“Editorial,” 1997).
As this passage makes plain, the original aim of the journal founders was to turn memetics into a
legitimate discipline, while also making important contributions to other scientific fields. This
statement, along with the makeup of the advisory and editorial boards, further reveals that the
Journal was established as an explicitly interdisciplinary or even “hybrid” academic outlet.
In fact, all six members of the advisory board have respectable scholarly credentials. Blackmore,
Dawkins, Dennett, and Hull stand out as the luminaries of the group, while cognitive scientist
Liane Gabora and psychologist Gary Cziko are lesser-known but nonetheless qualified scholars.
Of the nine permanent journal editors, seven hold advanced academic degrees. The remaining
two, computer consultant Mark Mills and the aforementioned Aaron Lynch, appear as the token
enthusiasts of the group. The advisors and editors hail from a wide variety of backgrounds, and
almost all of them have demonstrated a propensity for crossing disciplinary boundaries in terms
of both career paths and research interests. This diversity is also reflected in the content of the
journal, which I’ll discuss in more detail below.
While the JoM-EMIT has quickly turned into a focal point for the academic sphere of
meme theory, it should also be noted that a print journal titled Selection: Molecules, Genes,
Memes was launched in 2000. As indicated by the title, this outlet is dedicated more generally to
exploring the evolution of any replicating entity, memes included. An editorial in the first issue
explains, “The recognition of selection as the common grand theme of various disciplines
prompted us to found this new journal” (Szathmáry, 2000). The journal thus far appears
primarily rooted in Europe, and is currently being published in Hungary, and noted meme
proponents Robert Aunger and David Hull sit on the editorial board. As of early 2003 most of
the articles published in Selection were concerned with more germane topics in evolutionary
theory and biology rather than meme theory, save for a number of pieces dedicated to exploring
the evolution of human language. Nonetheless, the topical focus of the publication suggests that
meme theory is gaining ground in broader academic circles, and the editor even noted that “a
discourse on cultural evolution is becoming increasingly inconceivable without a discussion of
memes” (Szathmáry, 2000). The title of the journal also hints at the prevailing view among many
scholars that memes should be understood as replicators.
While the founding of journals is one indication that a disciplinary community is
forming, the organization of symposiums and conferences is another. The first such event in the
field of memetics was convened in 1998 at the 15th International Congress on Cybernetics, yet
another testament to the historical links between meme theory, biology, and technology. A
“Symposium on Memetics” was organized as a collaborative effort between the Principia
Cybernetica Project and the Journal of Memetics, and featured a bevy of prominent meme
theorists.32 Less than a year later, the first full conference dedicated to memetics, titled “Do
Memes Account For Culture?” was held at King’s College, Cambridge. The program for the
1999 event reads like a veritable who’s who of prominent meme scholars, including Aunger,
Blackmore, Dawkins, Dennett, and Hull, to name a few (Aunger, 1999a). The oft-referenced
volume edited by Aunger, titled Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science
(2000), is a compilation of papers that were originally presented at the conference. And while
recent trends suggest that memetics may be on the road to disciplinarity, the titles of this
conference and edited volume hint at the cautious stance still taken by many proponents of meme
theory. As additional illustration of both the organization of the field and the controversy that
surrounds it, I now turn to a more in-depth discussion of Aunger and Blackmore as authors who
have surfaced in recent years as important champions of meme theory. This will lead to a
detailed look at the themes and theoretical perspectives that appear most often in the articles and
books written by these and other academic meme theorists.
Controversial Careers
For some authors, pursing a controversial, niche research topic such as memetics is likely
made easier by a relative lack of institutional and academic ties. In a 1999 discussion list
message, for instance, Brodie stated that he was willing to publish the first book on memetics
because he “didn't have an academic career to risk” (Brodie, 1999). Lynch is in a similar
position. Much of his research in the field appears to have been supported by private sponsors,
32 The Principia Cybernetica project, launched in 1989, “aims to develop a complete philosophy or ‘world-view’,
based on the principles of evolutionary cybernetics, and supported by collaborative computer technologies”
(Heylighen and Turchin, 2002). The links between this project and meme theory go back to at least the early 1990s.
Two articles about the Principia Cybernetica project were published in the Journal of Ideas in 1991, and Glenn
Grant’s “Memetic Lexicon” (1990) appears to have been added to the project at an early date.
and one author has characterized Lynch as one of those rare researchers who enjoys the “luxury
of independence” (Mende, n.d.). But aligning oneself with the field of memetics may carry major
career implications for scholars who maintain ties to academe. Hull remarks, “[n]umerous
workers from a variety of backgrounds have devoted themselves to expanding on the notion of
memetic evolution and no standard higher than voting with one’s career exists in science”
(2000, p. 52). However, we might presume that Hull’s comment is not self-referential. His
involvement in the field, much like that of eminent figures such as Dawkins and Dennett,
represents a small fraction of a diverse body of work spanning many disciplines and decades. If
memetics proves a failure in the long run, these scholars will almost certainly remain well
known, both within and beyond their respective disciplines. So who are these “workers” to
whom Hull alludes, and what careers are they voting with? Robert Aunger and Susan Blackmore
stand out as prominent academics who have taken significant professional risks by pursuing
memetics. These two authors have recently published full-length texts on the topic, and both are
widely recognized and actively involved in the memetics community.
I begin with Aunger, who stands out as one of the only anthropologists to argue for a
meme-centered approach to understanding human culture. Aunger received his Ph.D. in
biological anthropology from UCLA, and his other research interests include the history of
technology and ethnographic theory.33 While on a multi-year fellowship at Cambridge, Aunger
organized the memetics conference mentioned above, and acted as editor for the compilation
volume that followed soon thereafter (Aunger, 2000). In an acknowledgement included with the
introduction to that text, Aunger remarked, “I would like to thank the Fellowship of King’s
College for their tolerance and support of somewhat controversial intellectual interests,
evidenced by their admitting me into their Fellowship” (2000, p. 12). Aunger is currently
affiliated with the Department of Biological Anthropology at Cambridge, but the precise nature
of this affiliation is unclear.34 His most recent book, The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How
We Think (2002), was eagerly anticipated both within and beyond the memetics community, and
it may provide another boost for the continued growth and development of the field.35 However,
it is also clear that Aunger recognizes the risk and controversy associated with memetics. Only
33 Aunger currently claims to be writing texts on both of these subjects (Aunger, 2001).
34 It is worth noting that much of Aunger’s training and affiliations are connected with biological anthropology. This
is somewhat surprising given that social and cultural anthropology tend to have more in common with memetics.
35 Aunger’s book was published by Free Press, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.
time will tell if Aunger is able to juggle his commitment to memetics with not only his other
research interests, but also his position and reputation as an anthropologist.
Susan Blackmore is another prominent academic whose dedication to the meme concept
has involved significant professional risks. As early as 1999, Brodie remarked, “I applaud the
courage of people such as Dr. Blackmore who are literally staking their careers to endorse this
worldview as a fruitful one” (Brodie, 1999). Delving deeper into Blackmore’s background and
biography, however, reveals a more complicated story. For starters, her best-known work outside
of memetics is in parapsychology, a field that has gained much notoriety over the years as a
controversial domain of inquiry. Nonetheless, Blackmore built an impressive academic record in
the 1980s and 1990s, rising to Reader of Psychology at the University of West England, Bristol
and racking up an extensive portfolio of research results, academic publications, popular articles,
and books. And while her research on topics such as out-of-body experiences, psi, and ESP may
initially appear controversial, Blackmore’s academic reputation has been bolstered by her skill at
debunking rather than supporting paranormal claims. She has also lectured and published on
more conventional topics such as the nature of consciousness. In a 1996 interview, Blackmore
offered additional insight into her personal research philosophy:
Basically I have, for all of my life, done my research on my own money and by
myself, and that's how I like to do it. If you are part of an organization or are
doing your research as part of something else, you are inevitably constrained by
the needs, desires, political atmosphere etc. of that organisation or its people. I
have always done bizarre research and I have always followed my own interest
and questions. I like it that way and wish to keep it that way (Williams, 1996).36
Blackmore’s statement reveals an independent streak and willingness to pursue controversial
research topics. And while similar tendencies are evident in the work of Brodie and other meme
enthusiasts, Blackmore’s remark hints at a tension between her research interests and the
academic domain, a point to which I will return.
Blackmore admits that she first read about memes in The Selfish Gene, but initially
disregarded the idea as “nothing more than a bit of fun” (1999, p. xix). In 1995, she was
36 While this statement suggests that much of Blackmore’s research has been largely self-supported, her curriculum
vitae lists a long series of research, lecturer, and reader positions that she has held at a variety of British universities
(Blackmore, n.d.). Hence, it seems that only some of her research activities have been self-supported.
reintroduced to memetics and began researching the topic in earnest while quite ironically
bedridden with a virus (1999, p. xix). When Blackmore eventually returned to health she went to
work on The Meme Machine, and it was published by Oxford University Press in 1999.37 Early
in the book, Blackmore summarized her general goal: “My aim in this book is to show that many
aspects of human nature are explained far better by a theory of memetics than by any rival theory
yet available” (p. 9). Following in Dennett’s footsteps, much of Blackmore’s text centered on the
development of a meme-based approach to the study of human consciousness and free will. She
also added this brief disclaimer for her ambitious project:
I shall try to be clear as I can in deriving predictions and showing how they follow
from memetic theory. I may speculate, and even, at times, leap wildly beyond the
evidence, but as long as the speculations can be tested then they can be helpful. In
the end, the success or failure of these predictions will decide whether memes are
just a meaningless metaphor or the grand new unifying theory we need to
understand human culture. (p. 9)
Apparently pitched to potentially skeptical audiences, Blackmore’s remark appears suspended
between the far-flung poles of cautious reservation and unbridled enthusiasm. But she also
appealed to the potential testability of her predictions, suggesting that memetics should
ultimately be verifiable and empirically supported according to widely accepted norms of
scientific work.
Looking beyond The Meme Machine, Blackmore has penned numerous articles on
memetics that have appeared in popular science magazines, edited volumes and peer-reviewed
journals. But her dedication to meme theory also goes well beyond a lengthy list of publications.
In 2000 she quite publicly announced that she was abandoning her research in parapsychology.
Blackmore called her work in this area a “fearsome addiction,” and she stated that she was quite
simply tired of debunking paranormal claims (Blackmore, 2000a). She gave up her university
position in 2001 as well, citing the increasingly difficult demands of the contemporary academic
environment, along with her desire to live a “true academic life” (Blackmore, 2002). Blackmore
37 Those within the field recognized the significance of having a somewhat academic treatment of memetics
published by a prestigious publisher such as Oxford University Press. Just before Blackmore’s book was released,
Heylighen remarked, “as a book [The Meme Machine] that will be published by Oxford University Press (which also
published Dawkins' The Selfish Gene), it is likely to further enhance the standing of memetics” (Heylighen, 1998).
remains a visiting university lecturer, and identifies herself as a freelance writer, lecturer and
broadcaster with interests in memetics, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation.
We can only speculate as to whether Blackmore’s movement out of the university was
caused in part by new pressures and tensions that resulted from her sudden and rather steadfast
pursuit of memes. However, there is little question that Blackmore left behind her career in
academe so that she could pursue memetics and other topics unfettered by institutional ties,
faculty duties, and other research interests. In one letter she noted, “And starting again as a baby
in a new field [memetics] is a daunting prospect. So is losing all the status and power of being an
expert. I have to confess I enjoyed my hard-won knowledge” (Blackmore, 2000a). But unlike
meme enthusiasts such as Brodie and Lynch, who lack extensive academic credentials,
Blackmore’s prior research and reputation remain important for her acceptance in the scholarly
sphere of memetics. Her earlier work in psychology and physiology has also shaped and
supported her research agenda, as evidenced by her emphasis on a meme-centered approach to
studying consciousness. Blackmore even included a chapter in her book titled “Memes of the
New Age,” in which she used a meme-centered framework to analyze topics such as alien
abduction, near-death experiences, and divination (1999, pp. 175-186).
In many ways, Dogan and Pahre’s “hybrid marginal” label appears an appropriate fit for
meme theorists such as Aunger and Blackmore. These two scholars have clearly worked at the
intersection of multiple subfields, and they are better known and more influential in the field of
memetics as compared to their respective parent disciplines. But exploring the background of
these authors raises important questions about the controversy that surrounds meme theory. We
might ponder, for instance, why the pursuit of memetics is viewed as a risky proposition for
academics. However, I have largely skirted the main themes and theoretical claims that typify
scholarly discussions of meme theory. Delving into these factors will reveal important schisms
between academic and popular authors and texts, while also leading to a more substantial
discussion of the controversies that have shaped both work in the field and the careers of the
meme theorists.
Academic Memetics
Outlets such as the Journal of Memetics and texts by authors such as Aunger and
Blackmore represent a growing body of scholarly work. But what differentiates the theorizing
advanced by academics from that of the popular science writers and meme enthusiasts discussed
in the preceding chapter? For starters, the formation of an academic community around meme
theory has spawned a collective body of literature that authors frequently draw upon as needed.
In contrast to earlier work which was often plagued by fragmentation, a lack of supporting
evidence and references, and a tendency toward anecdotal musings more recent discussions of
memes are increasingly intertwined with one another. The bibliographies included with the
papers published in the JoM-EMIT and Darwinizing Culture (2000), along with the references
listed in the books authored by Blackmore (1999) and Aunger (2002), reveal a growing web of
interconnected documents.38 Scholarly authors, who are often versed in a broad base of literature,
further supplement their theorizing by marshalling resources from other disciplines. Writing a
convincing academic or even popular science treatment of meme theory is almost
unthinkable today without a thorough knowledge of contemporary publications, both within and
beyond the memetics community. Looking closer at these texts also reveals that much recent
work by academic meme theorists touches on two important themes: definitional issues and an
awareness of the importance of empirical results.
Recognizing that the term “meme” has been given a multiplicity of meanings and
interpretations over roughly two decades of somewhat scattered and fragmented theorizing,
many authors have worked toward more rigorous definitions of the concept. This theme was
particularly evident in the early years of the Journal of Memetics. In an editorial included with
the third issue of the journal, for instance, Edmonds pointed out that “all three papers and the
letter in this issue have the definition of a ‘meme’ as one of their central themes” (1998a).
Around the same time, psychologist Nick Rose singled out the “ambiguity in the definition of a
meme” as a key controversy in the field (1998, Sec. 2). The authors who tackled this particular
issue often focused on a question long central to work in the field: whether memes exist in the
human mind (as patterns of neurons, perhaps), in tangible “cultural products” (such as tools,
38 The reading list included with Brodie’s text (1996), for instance, features a scant 21 sources, all of them books,
and many of them having no direct relation to memetics. Lynch’s Thought Contagion (1996) is somewhat better
documented with a total of 69 sources cited. Turning our attention to the more academic of the meme theorists,
Blackmore’s text (1999) clocks in at 237 sources, and Aunger’s (2002) at 279. On the one hand, the Blackmore and
Aunger books are longer and more thoroughly researched and documented than the Brodie and Lynch titles.
However, the extensive references provided by Blackmore and Aunger suggests that primary source material in
memetics and related fields has increased significantly in recent years. Additional categorization of sources would
offer better evidence for this thesis. And while beyond the scope of my analysis, citation analysis would yield a
more thorough depiction of the connections between various texts, both within and beyond the field.
books, or images), or some combination thereof. Lynch, for instance, promoted the former by
defining the term meme as a “memory item, or portion of an organism's neurally-stored
information” (1998a, Sec. 10). In another article, geneticist and meme theoriest Derek Gatherer
opted for the second approach by arguing that a meme should be understood as “an observable
cultural phenomenon, such as a behaviour, artefact or an objective piece of information, which is
copied, imitated or learned, and thus may replicate within a cultural system” (1998, Sec. 9).
Blackmore, on the other hand, placed emphasis on the transmission of memes to reach a
somewhat intermediate definition: “[O]nly those things that can be passed on by imitation should
count as memes” (1998, Sec. 7). Elsewhere she explained, “I shall use the term ‘meme’
indiscriminately to refer to memetic information in any of its many forms; including ideas, the
brain structures that instantiate those ideas, the behaviours these brain structures produce, and
their versions in books, recipes, maps and written music” (1999, p. 66).
The three perspectives outlined here only begin to reveal the complexities of definitional
debates in the field. My more immediate point, however, is that the efforts of various authors to
more rigorously define and clarify terminology and concepts is part of a larger effort to increase
the legitimacy of the field. Furthermore, these efforts frequently carry both theoretical and non-
theoretical implications, as a preference for one or another definition may include or exclude
large segments of the memetics community, or even entire swaths of the field’s history.
Recognizing this point, Edmonds adds, “[T]he political subtext of these definitional disputes are
nothing more than the leadership and membership rights of the tribe of memeticists” (1998a). As
suggested by Edmonds’s remark, the assumed mode of conduct in the field is based on power
struggles between competing factions, with the victors able to not only decree acceptable
terminology and methodology, but also to determine who is or is not allowed to participate as a
full-fledged member of the memetics community.
More recently, however, an editorial authored by computer scientist David Hales and the
aforementioned Marsden who incidentally took over as co-ma naging editors for the JoM-EMIT
in 2002 declared that “pesky ‘definitional debates’ have subsided,” replaced by an increasing
emphasis on “doing memetics and demonstrating its relevance” (Hales and Marsden, 2002). This
trend is connected with the intensification of technical and empirical efforts in the field, and in
recent years the web pages of the JoM-EMIT have become littered with ever more equations,
data sets, diagrams, and graphs, with many articles dedicated to relatively narrow sets or subsets
of topics.39 As further evidence for this trend, a special issue of the journal published in early
2001 was dedicated to the topic of “computational memetics.” As implied by the title, this
branch of meme theory focuses on the modeling of real-world belief systems via agent-based
computer simulations. In an editorial included with the issue, MIT Media Lab researcher
Michael Best noted that “this type of research allows us to move beyond historical contingency,
to gain new and fundamental insights, and to ground our ideas in solid yet falsifiable
foundations” (Best, 2001). Best’s comment reveals an increasing emphasis in the field on
generating empirical results and following accepted scientific practices. Furthermore, it
highlights another way in which the apparent legitimacy of memetics is increased while the less
rigorous musings and speculations of the meme enthusiasts are implicitly and explicitly
excluded. As standards and expectations rise, it becomes increasingly difficult to publish articles
in the JoM-EMIT without discussing the complex varieties of modeling, simulation, and theory
that characterize much contemporary work in memetics. These barriers clearly reinforce the
control wielded by the more scholarly proponents of meme theory over work in the field. I now
turn to the competing metaphorical frameworks that undergird meme theory, with a particular
emphasis on how particular interpretations of memes are frequently tangled up with the politics
and strategies of discipline formation.
Memes, Genes, and Replicators
As discussed in the previous chapter, popular discussions of memetics have long
trafficked in epidemiological analogies and haphazard comparisons of memes with both germs
and genes. Clever neologisms such as “mind virus” and “thought contagion” resonated with
many authors and audiences, leading to a profusion of “meme-as-germ” rhetoric as the 1990s
wore on. Conversely, many popular science writers and academics have emphasized
evolutionary understandings of memetics, with memes either compared to genes or defined as
replicators. Many of these authors also invoke the replicator concept in attempting to dodge the
dangers of rampant analogizing. Dennett provides us with one early example of this tactic:
39 My analysis here is generally informed by Latour’s work on scientific controversies, particularly with respect to
the role of reference materials and technical details in the “fortification” of scientific texts (Latour, 1987, Ch. 1).
Meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genic evolution. It is not
just a process that can be metaphorically described in these evolutionary idioms,
but a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural selection exactly. The theory of
evolution by natural selection is neutral regarding the differences between memes
and genes (1990, p. 128) [my emphasis].
According to Dennett’s argument, we need not dwell on the similarities or differences between
memes and genes as long as we can show that they both function as replicators. Blackmore
traces this approach back to evolutionary epistemologist Donald Campbell, who as early as the
1960s argued that “the analogy to cultural accumulations [is not] from organic evolutions per se;
but rather from a general mode of evolutionary change for which organic evolution is but one
instance” (Blackmore, 1999, p. 17; Campbell, 1965, p. 26). Applying this argument to the field
of memetics, Blackmore points out that “genes may be just one example of many potential
replicators,” and she added that “we only have one other well-known replicator with which to
compare the meme. … [T]his tends to make us think that all replicators must be like genes”
(1996). Hence, the “meme-as-gene” analogy might be viewed more accurately as two distinct
correlations, “meme-as-replicator” and “gene-as-replicator,” with the laws of natural selection
applying equally to both. In his most recent text, Aunger followed a similar line of reasoning
(2002). He argued at length that, in addition to genes and memes, computer viruses and prions
can also be categorized and analyzed as replicators.40 In light of this argument, the gene is
dethroned as the ultimate replicator, while memes and perhaps prions and computer viruses too
rise in relative prominence as legitimate topics for further analysis and inquiry.
Many of the scholars who favor the replicator approach also offer forceful arguments
against epidemiological interpretations of memes. These authors claim that even if some memes
can be viewed as contagious, they nonetheless remain replicators subject to the laws of
evolution. Blackmore pointed out that viral depictions of memes may be fitting for those
“particularly useless and self-serving replicators” (1999, p. 22). But she added that “viruses are
not the only memes, and memetics should not become a science of mind viruses. Indeed, the vast
majority of memes (like the vast majority of genes) cannot be considered viral at all” (p. 22).
Jeffreys followed a similar tack and concluded, “It is impossible to theorize a distinct process of
40 Aunger also contends that both Dawkins and Dennett originally identified memes as replicators (2002, p. 20), but
as the previous chapter reveals, these two authors clearly dabbled with immunology analogies as well.
selection by making reference to parasitism” (2000, p. 230). According to these statements,
memes either follow the tenets of natural selection or they do not, and invoking parasitism does
little more than muddy the waters. But Jeffreys drawing on his literary background pushed
this argument into new territory by critiquing the rhetorical nuances of immunology metaphors:
The social connotations of “parasite” and “virus” are negative, and of all the life
forms on earth, only the disease-causing microorganisms are still targets of
unrestrained, guilt-free commitments to extermination, eradication, even
extinction. … The meme-virus and meme-symbiont analogies need to be dropped
altogether (2000, p. 230).
Thomas extended similar reasoning as she surveyed viral metaphors in the realm of meme
theory. She concluded that “a ‘viral’ meme as opposed to an apparently non-viral meme has
decidedly negative connotations, constituting its own epidemiology” (2002, p.169). Thomas
added that in looking for particularly useless and pernicious memes or complexes of memes,
such as in the realm of religion, “[T]he meme continues to be subject to the virus’s (mostly
negative) metaphorical attachments” (2002, p. 172).41
Lynch, however, anticipated such criticisms by declaring the neutrality of his preferred
terminology: “The belief that we should love our neighbors illustrates the benign nature of many
thought contagions. The terms thought contagion and epidemiology therefore carry neutral
connotations in the context of memetics theory” (1996, p. 10). But regardless of this sort of
claim, the selection of a preferred analogy is not a simple matter of decree or preference. Just as
Thomas has argued that computer viruses are inextricably linked to biological viruses (p. 149), it
is impossible to separate “meme-as-germ” metaphors from the larger social and cultural milieu
in which they exist. Support for this argument can be found in the work of historian James
Bono, who points out that “scientific metaphors adapt themselves to a larger ecology of
contesting social and cultural values, interests and ideologies” (1990, p. 81). Much to the chagrin
of meme enthusiasts such as Lynch, the larger ecology that Bono describes is not so easily
disregarded. However, the sorts of criticisms outlined above also allow the more academic
community of meme theorists to further monopolize their control of memetics via preferred
41 For a striking example of the interplay of memes with the rhetoric of combat and warfare, see media and culture
critic Kalle Lasn’s brief Adbusters article “Meme Warfare” (2000).
analogies and metaphors, while simultaneously expelling the various authors who fail to adopt
the “sanctioned” rhetoric that has come to define much work in the field. Simply stated, the
promotion of meme-as-replicator and meme-as-gene analogies tends to discredit and disregard
the meme enthusiasts who prefer to muse about “mind viruses” and “thought contagion.”
But might not the alternate “meme-as-gene” approach also carry significant, yet perhaps
more subtle, connotations? Authors such as Keller (1995) and Shea (2001) have demonstrated
that the meaning of the term “gene” is also historically and socially situated, both within and
beyond the domain of science. But for meme theorists, recourse to the higher-level “replicator”
seems to cleverly dodge any potential incongruities or questionable nuances that result from
direct meme-gene comparisons. Aunger, for instance, points out that “memes, even though they
are also replicators, need not be the same as genes in every respect” (2002, p. 21). Hence,
disanalogy need not be debilitating for the field as long as memes are understood in terms of
more general categories. But the apparent neutrality of the replicator category is also open to
critical analysis. As linguists such as Lakoff would likely argue, the replicator concept similarly
carries its own metaphorical baggage, rendering it far from a neutral concept.
The Geography of Meme Theorists
In light of the preceding analysis, the historical development of memetics appears
necessarily intertwined with a larger social and cultural milieu, making particular interpretations
of memes more or less palatable for specific authors and audiences. In addition, the ways in
which memes are defined, along with the metaphorical frameworks that are used to study them,
are largely inseparable from the politics of discipline formation. To further develop these themes,
I turn to what may appear a peculiar consideration: the geographic distribution of meme
theorists. Indeed, some readers may have noticed that Europe in general and the United Kingdom
in particular appear as focal points for the academic sphere of memetics. Many of the biggest
names in the field – Aunger, Blackmore, and Dawkins, to name a few have origins in or close
ties to renowned British universities. Furthermore, the advisory and editorial boards of both the
Journal of Memetics and Selection: Molecules, Genes, Memes are dominated by European
scholars. How can we explain this seemingly skewed distribution of meme theorists? Heylighen
offers this insightful account:
The number of memeticists from the USA seems relatively small compared to the
size of the country … . This is surprising if we note that the two authors who, in
addition to Dawkins, contributed most to popularizing the meme idea, Daniel
Dennett and Douglas Hofstadter, are American. One reason may be that young
researchers, unlike established authorities such as Hofstadter and Dennett, find it
difficult to get academic support for investigating such a speculative theory like
memetics. Another possible explanation is similar to the one suggested earlier for
the dearth of social scientists: the emphasis on individual responsibility and
freedom in American culture may make it more difficult for Americans to accept
the “memetic stance” (1998).
Heylighen’s first point is well taken, but the preceding analysis of Aunger and Blackmore
suggests that memetics remains a controversial and questionable pursuit for scholars everywhere,
both young and old, U.S. and British. His second argument, however, connects with a number of
larger themes in my analysis. As discussed above, popular authors and audiences have tended to
favor depictions of memes that draw on the rhetoric of epidemiology. In addition, understanding
memes as “mind viruses” or “thought contagion” does not necessarily challenge the agency of an
individual who encounters such a concept. In fact, this interpretation of the meme concept may
actually reinforce individualism. As Dawkins famously quipped, “We, alone on earth, can rebel
against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (1976, p. 201), and both Csikszentmihalyi and
Brodie later extended this general theme into the self-help realm. As all of these authors suggest,
there is a “self” that can resist particularly pernicious or useless memes.
But when taken in context, Heylighen’s reference to the “memetic stance” hints at a
stronger interpretation of memetics wherein memes are viewed as both constituting and
controlling human consciousness. According to this view, the “self” is a chimera created by a
complex of memes that has Blackmore calls the “selfplex” (1999, p. 231) and Dennett referred to
as the “benign user illusion” (1991). This theory has become increasingly influential among a
handful of academic meme proponents in recent years, and is most often associated with Dennett
and Blackmore. The incongruity between this unsettling theory and the dominant view of the
rational, autonomous subject, especially in particular contexts, may offer additional explanation
for why certain interpretations of memes have enjoyed only limited success in both the