Dennett on memetics: basics for 3rd generation social sciences

While preparing our work plan for the next step of our meme tracker, we revisited some literatue and one lecture from Dennett came out as an interesting landmark. He clearly advocated the agency of memes, of elementary cultural units, and one expression may sum up all the consequences of this change in point of view:

« A scholar is just a library’s way of making another library. »

Of course, it echoes many expressions from Tarde who is not even mentioned in memetics literature! Must read!

Memes and the Exploitation of Imagination

Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 48, 127-35, Spring 1990.

The David and Miriam Mandel Lecture, American Society for Aesthetics, October 27, 1989, 47th Annual Meeting, New York, NY

The general issue to be addressed in a Mandel Lecture is how (or whether) art promotes human evolution or development. I shall understand the term « art » in its broadest connotations–perhaps broader than the American Society for Aesthetics would normally recognize: I shall understand art to include all artifice, all human invention. What I shall say will a fortiori include art in the narrower sense, but I don’t intend to draw particular attention to the way my thesis applies to it.

There are few ideas more hackneyed than the idea of the evolution of ideas. It is often said that schools of thought evolve into their successors; in the struggle for attention, the best ideas win, according to the principle of the survival of the fittest, which ruthlessly winnows out the banale, the unimaginative, the false. Few ideas are more hackneyed–or more abused; almost no one writing about the evolution of ideas or cultural evolution treats the underlying Darwinian ideas with the care they deserve. I propose to begin to remedy that.

The outlines of the theory of evolution by natural selection are now clear: evolution occurs whenever the following conditions exist:

  1. variation: a continuing abundance of different elements
  2. heredity or replication: the elements have the capacity to create copies or replicas of themselves
  3. differential « fitness »: the number of copies of an element that are created in a given time varies, depending on interactions between the features of that element (whatever it is that makes it different from other elements) and features of the environment in which it persists.Endnote 1

Notice that this definition, drawn from biology, says nothing specific about organic molecules, nutrition, or even life. It is a more general and abstract characterization of evolution by natural selection. As the zoologist Richard Dawkins has pointed out, the fundamental principle is « that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities »Endnote 2.

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