Memetics is suffering growing pains. A dramatic fact demonstrating this is that on May 5, 2006, “memes” were mentioned in nearly 100 times as many Google pages as “memetics” while “genes” were mentioned less often than “genetics.” Furthermore, the Journal of Memetics has gone into hibernation, waiting for a new “incarnation.” Even the best memetics researchers (not the same as the best known advocates of memetics) are playing down their affiliation. Last month, I attended an invited workshop on memetics sponsored by the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the sponsors of the $2,000,000 robotic vehicles prizes). It ended with the organizer concluding that memetics had nothing to offer DARPA at the present time. Robert Aunger, the author of two well-known books on memetics who also attended the DARPA workshop, concurred with the organizer’s decision and suggested that my results on ecological modeling of children’s drawing, writing and developmental research methods might be just as well explained under the heading of “social conventions.”
These growth-retarding recent events of memetics are aggravated by the social agenda that some leading advocates of memetics have carved out. This social agenda includes the notion that memetics disproves the existence of “self” and “breaks the spell” of religion. Such a social agenda does not play well in the individualistic society of Unites States, especially in the colonial southeast where the churches, synagogues and mosques have not yet been emptied by competition with more modern conceptions of the world.
In view of all the negative outcomes I have given much thought to my own advocacy of memetics and sponsorship of this site. Should I just switch terms? When I began this interpretation of my research, the mentor for my James McKeen Cattell Fund Fellowship, Michael Cole, warned against connecting with the memetics community, arguing that cultural “evolution” is Lamarckian. My undergraduate advisor, Donald T. Campbell, is well known for referring to his work on the evolution of knowledge as “evolutionary epistemology.” Perhaps, there is a terminology there that would work.
But Campbell along with another mentor of mine, the great historian of psychology, Kurt Danziger, is also known for his advocacy of using multiple methods for arriving at a solid scientific understanding of social phenomena. My work was always methodological in purpose — to discover/create a unit of psychology that would allow psychologists to agree as much about species behavior as biologists do about species of organisms. The methodology I developed is deeply multifaceted, being based in best Campbellian fashion, not only on the machinations of laboratory scientists, but also on the expertise of those who have developed wisdom in human endeavors. It took me three and a half decades to find a theory rich enough to match the powerful mathematical models that fit my data. It will not hurt to add an examination of the implications and methods of sociological research on social conventions for my results. But any examination of the non-genetic evolution of social conventions will benefit from the memetics perspective.
As for the social agenda of the well-known memetics proponents, we can use and test memetic theory without buying into the favorite memes of its popularizers. There were some even more horrible social agendas in the early decades of genetics (though there were many, the one example than Nazism is sufficient demonstration), but fortunately for modern medicine and modern science they neither won nor ruined the science they distorted. The other pages in this section tell more about my background with memetics research.