Dawkins’s Meme: Why is there still no science of memetics?

European Molecular Biology Laboratory, Heidleberg,October 2006

Dawkins’s meme is thirty years old this year – a brilliant idea that unifies biology with culture, provides a new understanding of human evolution, and accounts for human uniqueness, the large human brain, and the origins of language and consciousness. It also explains the evolutionary processes that are shaping the web and driving the information explosion today; and has fascinating implications for how we live our lives and for free will and responsibility. Yet thirty years on there is no thriving science of memetics. Why?

Perhaps the idea of the meme as a replicator is just plain wrong, or is an “empty analogy” or a “meaningless metaphor”. Perhaps memetics is in fact going on but under other names. Perhaps memetics has been so badly misunderstood that its advantages have been ignored. Or perhaps it is just too difficult at the moment. Or could it be that people are just too frightened by the implications to take it seriously?

I shall outline the basics of memetics, ponder these questions, and explain why I remain incorrigibly optimistic about the explanatory power of the notion of memes.