Memes are a concept that keep popping up in discussions around contemporary media technologies and social relations. Within the field of media ecology, Matt Fuller devotes a large section of a chapter of his Media Ecologies: Materialist Energies in Technoculture book to memetics, contending that as a neo-darwinian cultural analogy the term may be a useful tool, though he does critique some aspects of the way the term is used. Elsewhere, such as in this article from Paul Mason on the BBC website, memes are identified as a key conceptual tool for understanding the wave of protests and mobilisations which have swept the globe over the past year.
Basically I disagree with both Fuller and Mason’s approach to the value of memes. Memetics is not a useful tool for analysing contemporary social practices and technological relations, nor is it key to grasping the way in which protesters have been fighting against the consequences of an economic crisis caused by the financial sector’s failure and the governmental decisions to bail out the banks and continue to let the bonuses flow while announcing austerity measures for everyone else. Memes are basically a failed analogy. In 1976, arch-reductionist Richard Dawkins penned the Selfish Gene, a book which sought to reduce complex social behaviours to genetic programming. Dawkins’s thesis was basically, that as the smallest unit of biological inheritance, genes were the basic building blocks of behavioural patterns. This of course is philosophy and not science, and a particular brand of reductionist philosophy which seeks to reduce all actions and events to the smallest quantifiable unit, just as atomism had done before we learned that atoms were not in fact the smallest units of matter. And just as we learned that you can’t tell everything about matter by looking at what atoms, subatomic particles or quarks it is composed of, we have come to learn that you can’t learn everything about a biological organism from studying its genome.
Since Dawkins’s wrote the selfish gene, neodarwinian evolutionary theory which posited that the processes of biological evolution were Mendelian inheritance and random mutation has been rocked by the discovery of several modes of evolutionary change which are neither. Horizontal gene transfer, endosymbiosis and co-evolutionary strategies (such as genes behaving in different ways according to environmental variables) all demonstrate that the neodarwinian position in the mid-70’s was only ever partially correct, as other evolutionary processes existed but were unknown back then. Indeed, many of these developments signal a move away from reductionism towards the kind of connective, contextual understandings evident in work in contemporary area of inquiry such as autopoiesis, complexity theory, and the ecology inspired perspective of another philosopher/scientist from the 1970’s, Gregory Bateson, who argued, ‘The unit of survival is not the breeding organism, or the family line or the society… The unit of survival is a flexible organism-in-its-environment.’ This kind of connective, ecologically informed, synthetic mode should be where media ecology generates its conceptual tools, not the reductionist (and it turns out erroneous) approach of neodarwinism.
Moving on to memes, Dawkins claims that these are the cultural analogue of genes. So while genes are the smallest unit of cultural inheritance, definite and quantifiable matter which exists in a complex sequence (the genome); memes must be the smallest quantifiable units of ideas. Except of course they aren’t. Even positing the smallest quantifiable unit of an idea seems ridiculous because ideas cannot be quantified according to scale. You cannot deconstruct ideas from a complex sequence to their basic units of being.
If memes are such a laughable concept, why then have they proved a popular one? My thinking around this is that alongside the ridiculous aspect of the analogy with genes, memes are used as a way of talking about the way that ideas evolve. The concept of cultural evolution has proved a controversial one with scientists (for example see Gould 1996 for a scathing critique), however if we approach culture and concepts as dynamic complex entities which resemble open physical systems in that they require a certain amount of intellectual energy to survive and propagate themselves, the comparison may seem somewhat more grounded. Gould criticises the notion of cultural evolution as reducing cultural change to neodarwinian principles, which would be bit as foolhardy as trying to ducing ideas to their basic building blocks.
What should be clear however in any discussion of cultural or technical evolution, is that the processes of cultural/technical evolution are not exact replicas of those found amongst living systems. Even within the category of living systems though, there are, as we have better grasped since Dawkins’s 1976 efforts, a range of evolutionary strategies which do not apply to all forms of life. Bacteria can swap genetic material (horizontal gene transfer) in ways which afford their particularly rapid mode of evolution, animals such as humans obviously do not display these properties. If I walk near you, we don’t swap genes and evolve. Just as there exist different evolutionary processes between different types of living system, you could quite reasonably expect there to be different evolutionary processes between living and non-living systems. Because cultural evolution depends on processes, such as the interventions of powerful commercial agents in their propagation, again the meme/gene analogy appears to be a poor and potentially obfuscatory one, whereas examining and analysing the various processes of cultural, technical or conceptual evolution, and exploring how, where, and under what conditions they occur seems a more productive approach which actually explores the complexity of non-living and non-organic forms of evolution.
Better understanding the processes of cultural evolution, the different dynamic factors which converge to form the attractors and phase space of concepts and technologies is a useful research aim for media ecology influenced research. Exploring what some of these processes are and how they work we can allow actors to better manage their interventions into the networks of mediated discourse, and reveal why certain ethically or factually dubious ideas, climate change denial, islamaphobia, extreme nationalisms etc are so well received. Appropriating poor analogies of dated, reductionist, scientific concepts such as the meme however contributes nothing towards this task, and merely makes media ecology appear to be a somewhat confused mish-mash of bastardised scientific concepts.