Thu, 10 Feb 1994 10:03:02 -0400

As far as I know, the originator of the concept of "meme"
Cloak, F. T. 1975. Is a cultural ethology possible? Human
Ecology 3:161-82.
Cloak, however, used the term "instructions." I don't have my copy of Dawkins'
(1976) Selfish Gene handy but
I am pretty sure he gives Cloak credit even while renaming the
notion "memes" by analogy with genes.

The idea of memes strikes a bell with evolutionary biologists (like
Dawkins) and population geneticists because it permits them to apply
the well-developed mathematics of population genetics to culture
transmission. The math assumes that culture is particulate. See
mathematically-inclined culture-transmission theorists like Boyd and
Richerson or Lumsden and Wilson for results that are rather
interesting, if abstract and somewhat difficult for non-math types
(like me) to follow.

Worrying how "real" memes are and whether they combine or not and such
is rather pointless -- they are a mathematical fiction, in my opinion
(though Lumsden and Wilson go to great lengths to find a
neurophysiological basis for them). One makes assumptions and then
sees how well one's math model tracks reality.

For a much longer discussion of memes and the particulateness of
culture see my 1989 book, Darwin, Sex, and Status (Univ of Toronto
Press). Here, I'll only remark that it is much more productive to
think of culture as being composed of different types of information
and of the brain having been selected for very different processing of
these information types. The approach is consistent with much of
modern cognitive science, which rejects the idea that "learning" is
any kind of explanation. (After all, what does the concept of
"learning" contrast with? "Innate" behavior is behavior that occurs
as a result of interaction with a very wide range of enviroments,
presumably due to strong selection pressure; "learned" behavior
requires very specific environmental interactions. Describing culture
or memes as "learned" therefore tells us almost nothing except that we
are not dealing with simple reflexes such as sneezing.)

Hope this helps,

Jerry Barkow