Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

What's in a Meme?

Magazine article The Wilson Quarterly

What's in a Meme?

Article excerpt

"The Meme Metaphor" by Mark Jeffreys, in Perspectives in Biology and Medicine (Winter 2000), Johns Hopkins Univ. Press, Journals Div., 2715 N. Charles St., Baltimore, Md. 21218-4363.

Darwinist Richard Dawkins's speculative concept of a meme--a replicating cultural entity analogous to a gene, that might explain how human culture evolves--has caught on in recent years. There's even a three-year-old academic journal devoted to the fledgling science of memetics. Unlike some prominent scientists, Jeffreys, an English professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, does not dismiss memetics out of hand, but he says much work is needed to make the meme metaphor scientifically useful.

What is a meme? A lexicon on the Journal of Memetics website (www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit) gives this definition: "A contagious information pattern that replicates by parasitically infecting human minds and altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the pattern. . . . Individual slogans, catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions are typical memes."

Jeffreys, however, contends that memeticists are mixing metaphors-ones drawn from virology, such as hosts and parasites, with the basic metaphor drawn from genetics. That metaphor asserts "that memes parallel genes" and form an independent, cultural system of natural selection. Researchers should stick with it, he maintains. "If memetic replication is not based on genetic replication and is truly part of a new selection process," he says, "it cannot be considered parasitic, nor can humans be called hosts. …

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