Video: Memes all the way down

Memes are everywhere. But the term was coined only a few decades ago by Richard Dawkins to describe ideas and cultural behaviours that can be passed on from one individual to another. He argued that memes are a stage in evolution, and just as humans are carriers for genes, we are also carriers for memes.

We don’t so much choose our memes as they choose us. Its critics however argue that meme theory upends all human agency and thought. Is meme theory an exciting new framework that moves evolution forward to account for concepts and culture? Or is the very idea of a meme a misguided and reductionist account of what it is to be human?

Watch a discussion featuring “post-postmodern” philosopher Hilary Lawson, Professor of Ethics and Technology at Hertie School Joanna Bryson, and Professor of Philosophy at City College of New York Massimo Pigliucci. They argue about whether or not it is useful to think about sharing mimetic information like genetic information. Hosted by Gunes Taylor. (watch at IAI TV)

Published by Massimo

Massimo is the K.D. Irani Professor of Philosophy at the City College of New York. He blogs at and He is the author of How to Be a Stoic: Using Ancient Philosophy to Live a Modern Life.

3 thoughts on “Video: Memes all the way down

  1. I haven’t heard much about memetic science or memes as a serious theory of a mechanism of cultural evolution in recent years, I had the impression it had become an uninteresting line or that as Collins and Pinch memorably phrase such shifts, the “Golem” of science had turned its face away from that thinking. I remember best Sue Blackmore’s popular defense and Dan Dennett’s placement of memes in the context of a universal Darwinism. Thanks for resurrecting this interesting topic. I wonder if the somewhat different popular usage of “meme” might warrant us using a different term or at least a qualifier for Dawkins original thinking and the developments by folks like Blackmore and Dennett.

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    1. Todd, well, in the video I argue that we would actually better off *not* resurrecting memes as a serious scientific hypothesis, because it ain’t. But I have no problem using the word in the current vernacular sense.

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    2. Yes, I suspect you and I are in rough agreement in that respect. I especially want to preserve the distinctions between the different kinds of theories of cultural evolution because that’s a topic that’s easy to become either taken for granted or turned into a dogma to serve some other purpose as I think happens in some lines under the umbrella of Marxism for example. If I had to guess at whether the meme is itself and its “memetic” qualities affecting its own propagation is well suited as a crucial driver of culture, I have a lot of reservations granting it that power. Thank you.

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