Meme pages such as Memebridge have seen a surge of popularity recentlyMemebridge

Memes currently dominate Facebook homepages and Twitter feeds. Indeed, even before their relatively recent rise to ubiquity, they had a home on niche sites for sharing image macros, early meme flagships, and other more popular platforms such as Tumblr. Recently, the rise of Memebridge has already prompted discussion on the pervasiveness and influence of memes on social media.

An interesting point is often overlooked however. There is an oft-omitted fact about the origin of internet memes: that they are not what the term was originally intended to mean. Tracing back the evolution of the term is a gateway to the surprisingly controversial field of science that inspired memes as we know them.

Dawkins at the University of TexasShane Pope

It was Richard Dawkins who coined the term meme, proposing to define it as the cultural version of a gene in his well-known book, The Selfish Gene. Understanding human cultural evolution as being comparable to the biological evolution of species, this makes the meme a “unit of culture”, just as the gene is a unit of genetic inheritance.

Like genes existing in individuals’ cells and being passed down through generations, memes reside in individuals and can replicate themselves. Memes are hosted in the mind and reproduce by jumping between individuals when one influences another to adopt a belief. What makes the meme such a useful idea is the framework it provides to describe cultural evolution.

“In the academic world, as well as across our Facebook feeds, the meme war rages on”

What counts as a meme? Almost anything, according to Dawkins. His examples include “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” and even the idea of God. The spin-off that we are more familiar with nowadays, internet memes, is clearly a rather more limited category.

The internet meme as a concept was first suggested by Mike Godwin in Wired in June 1993 and 20 years later, Dawkins made clear their distinction from his original. This distinction lies in their distribution, altered deliberately by human creativity as opposed to random mutation and selection processes.

However, the original version of the meme is still discussed in academia. It led to the creation of a whole field, that of memetics, where memes are used as an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer. Extending the analogy with genes, if the three conditions of variation, replication, and differential fitness are met, then meme evolution will naturally occur, and with it, cultural evolution.

Memetics is simply the study of this process, applied to culture: the analysis of the spread of ideas based on their success instead of the more traditional concern for their truth. However, it is a hotly-contested field, full of internal warring as well as external attacks.

‘Kilroy was Here’, a popular meme in the 1940sJ. -N. L.

Criticism of meme theory comes from many angles, ranging from quibbles about terminology to queries of the research status of the meme. It’s been labelled a pseudoscience by critics, with the concept of a meme being called into question at every stage. At the level of terminology, semiotic theorists claim the meme is a simplified version of the semiotic concept of the ‘sign’, and evolutionary biology Ernst Mayr declared it an “unnecessary synonym” for ‘concept’.

The usefulness of memetics has also been criticised. Mary Midgley, an English moral philosopher, argued that as culture is pattern-like, a reductionist approach is limited. It’s an interesting parallel to emerging criticism about internet memes, though many would reject this as taking them too seriously.

Not even the application of memes within the field itself is free from quarrelling. Some ‘memeticists’ see memes as a useful philosophical perspective to guide inquiry, whereas others focus on developing an empirical grounding for the field to be respected.

Not everyone is convinced this is possible, however. Midgley has highlighted the reliance of memetics on producing knowledge through metaphors, something she asserts is a “questionable research approach”. The use of metaphor, in this case the analogy between cultural phenomena and genes, can overlook effects that do not fit neatly into the comparison.

Memeticists defend their position, pointing to the ability of metaphors to reveal insights that would otherwise have been missed, but it’s a debate that is unlikely to be decisively concluded any time soon. The mirror criticism of the reliance of internet memes on relatability, and the corresponding alienation of individuals who do not identify with the subject of the memes, is currently just as unresolved.

It seems the criticism and confusion in the field of memetics is unlikely to abate any time soon. In the academic world, as well as across our Facebook feeds, the meme war rages on