Memetics A Potential New Science

Gary W. Strong and William Sims Bainbridge, National Science Foundation 2

In the "information society" of the twenty-first century, the most valuable resource will not be iron or oil but culture. However, the sciences of human culture have lacked a formal paradigm and a rigorous methodology. A fresh approach to culture, based on biological metaphors and information science methodologies, could vastly enhance the human and economic value of our cultural heritage and provide cognitive science with a host of new research tools. The fundamental concept is the meme, analogous to the gene in biological genetics, an element of culture that can be the basis of cultural variation, selection, and evolution.

The meme has been characterized both as a concept that could revolutionize the social sciences as the discovery of DNA and the genetic code did for biology, and as a concept that cannot produce a general

2 The views in this essay do not necessarily represent the views of the National Science Foundation.

theory of social evolution because requirements for Darwinian evolution do not map into the social domain (Aunger 2000). There is a lot we do not understand about human behavior in groups, its relation to learning, cognition, or culture. There is no general theory that situates cognition or culture in an evolutionary framework, Darwinian or otherwise. It is also hard to conduct science in the social domain, not just because it is difficult to conduct experiments, but also because it is difficult to be objective. Prior efforts to "Darwinize" culture have a long and ignoble history. The question naturally arises as to what is new that might allow progress this time around, or should discretion take the better part of valor?

While any debate tends to sharpen the debate issues, in this case it may prematurely close off a search for a scientific definition of important terms and of an appropriate contextual theory. For example, a strictly Darwinian approach to cultural or social evolution may not be appropriate since humans can learn concepts and, in the same generation, pass them on to their offspring. Because memes are passed from one individual to another through learning, characteristics an individual acquires during life can be transmitted to descendents. This is one of the reasons why memes may evolve more rapidly than genes. In the language of historical debates in biology, culture appears to be Lamarckian, rather than Darwinian (Strong 1990). This would imply a different set of requirements for an evolutionary system that are not yet well understood.

As another example, we are only now discovering that many of the genes of an organism code for "chaperone" proteins that do not have "meaning" in a particular biological function, but, rather, play a role in molecular recycling and enabling the proteomic networks of molecules to interact in an orderly fashion (Kim et al. 1998). We do not yet understand how a balance is kept within a cell between the evolutionary need for variety and the need to preserve order in systems. Nevertheless, it is likely that in a fast-changing Lamarckian system, such processes become even more important. On the socio-cultural level, religious ideologies appear to have chaperone roles that may help keep individuals focused on important daily activities rather than getting caught up in unsolvable dilemmas and becoming unable to act. Even so, such ideologies cannot become so strict as to eliminate important variety from an evolutionary system. This tradeoff between order and disorder may operate like a regulator for social change (Rappaport 1988).

While there is no known Federal grants program focused on memetics, nor any apparent, organized research community, there are likely a number of existing and completed research projects that impact on the domain. These probably are found in a variety of disciplines and do not use a common vocabulary. For example, a few archaeologists apply evolutionary theory in their work (Tschauner 1994; Lyman and O'Brien 1998), and some cultural anthropologists explore the evolution of culture in a context that is both social and biological (Rindos 1985; Cashdan 2001; Henrich 2001). However, most archaeologists avoid theoretical explanations altogether, and cultural anthropology is currently dominated by a humanist rather than scientific paradigm. So, even though starting a research program in this area would not have to begin from scratch, there would be much work to do. The biggest roadblock would be getting researchers from various disciplines to collaborate over a common set of interests.

At a first approximation, there are three different realms in which biological genetics is valuable to humanity. First, it contributes to the progress of medicine, because there is a genetic aspect to all illnesses, not only to those diseases that are commonly labeled "genetic" or "inherited." Second, it provides valuable tools for agriculture, most recently including powerful techniques of genetic engineering to design plants and animals that are hardier, more nutritious, and economically more profitable. Third, it answers many of the fundamental scientific questions about the nature and origins of biological diversity, thus contributing to human intellectual understanding of ourselves and the world we live in. Cultural memetics would have three similar realms of applications, as described below.

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