Why is there still no science of memes?

Thacher Lecture 2004-5, Department of Philosophy, George Washington University, 4 March 2005

Dawkins’s idea of memes as cultural replicators held out the promise of integrating the social sciences with the biological sciences. It provides new explanations for human uniqueness, including the origins of language and culture; it explains the evolutionary processes that are shaping the web and driving the information explosion today; and it has fascinating implications for how we live our lives and for free will and responsibility. Research on imitation, the essential skill for memetic evolution, has been flourishing, much of it backing up memetic theory. And several of the key predictions from memetics have been confirmed in fields as disparate as robotics, neuroscience and animal behaviour. Why then, nearly thirty years after Dawkins coined the word “meme” and five years after I wrote “The Meme Machine” is there no thriving science of memetics? Why is there still no print journal of memetics and the only electronic journal seems to have failed.

Perhaps the idea is just plain wrong. Perhaps it is nothing more than an empty analogy or a “meaningless metaphor”, or is untestable or circular, as some have claimed. Or perhaps memetics is really going on but under other names. 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 this question, and explain why I remain incorrigibly optimistic about the explanatory power of the notion of memes.