Memes are ideas, tunes, inventions, retorts, ways of doing business, ways of asking for help, and ways of saying hello. (Palumbi 2001, p. 243)Over the past few decades there has been a shift in thought concerning the evolution of human culture. Ever since Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, coined the term “meme” as the selfish unit of societal evolution analogous to the gene’s role in the evolution of species, there’s been a groundswell of people focussing on the evolution culture via memes.
Dawkins suggested that memes, composed of memory and imagination, were the basic replicating units through which human culture evolved. Yet, memes simply do not fit the model of classic Darwinian evolution.
Ideas are not passed on from one generation to another in a linear fashion as are genes. Most often, each person adds their own slant to an idea or may simply not understand it properly and pass on some distortion of the original (Chinese whispers). Also, people’s values have a profound impact on the transference of ideas. Values filter what people give attention to—people don’t even notice, let alone pass on, ideas which would make no contribution to what they value. People may also deliberately make a conscious choice to pass on, or not to pass on, particular ideas—knowledge is power.
The main distinction is: Darwinian evolution is about the survival of the species which, by chance, have adapted to change in a way which avoids their extinction; whereas, the survival of ideas depends on complex values dynamics:
The impact of conscious selection at the stage of idea mutation and transmission blurs the distinction among the three elements of Darwin’s engine and suggests a very different way of looking at ideas than Dawkins’s notion of evolving memes. Picked over as carefully as meatballs at a cheap buffet, ideas are sorted by the finicky process of conscious selection. They are created, used, and discarded by active minds seeking their own advancement or their own comfort. What other element of our lives do we consciously improve for better function and pick carefully among to fill our cultural shopping carts? We can also consider ideas as tools.Q. If memes are not the mechanism by which culture changes, what is? A. Changes in the culture's values-system, i.e. changes t its strange attractor.
As tools, ideas may be practical or not. They may have general or specific uses. Others may shun them or adopt them with gusto. Sometimes they seem to have a life and independence of their own, like the wooden handle of an axe that becomes polished through use to fit the hands that wield it. But in the final analysis they remain tools, ways of manipulating the world or understanding it. They do not evolve like genes because like tools, they cannot really replicate themselves—they can be made only on demand by brains, and only by this agency can they spread through to other brains. This does not say they always benefit us—akin to the way many of us have tool boxes stuffed full of things not currently doing us any good—and it does not claim that they can never do damage—like an unchaperoned gun. But the function and rapid change of ideas does not require their independent evolution...(Palumbi 2001, p. 252)