The modern memetics movement dates from the mid 1980s. A January 1983 Metamagical Themas column by Douglas Hofstadter in Scientific American was influential as was his 1985 book of the same name. "Arel Lucas suggested that the discipline that studies memes and their connections to human and other carriers of them be known as memetics by analogy with 'genetics.'" (This might not be the earliest use of "memetics.") Dawkins' The Selfish Gene has been a factor in drawing in people of disparate intellectual backgrounds. Another stimulus was the publication in 1992 of Consciousness Explained by Tufts University philosopher Daniel Dennett, which incorporated the meme concept into a theory of the mind. In his 1993 essay Viruses of the Mind, Richard Dawkins used memetics to explain the phenomenon of religious belief and the various characteristics of organised religions. By then, memetics were picked up by art as well and thus a popular concept (e.g. Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash).
However, the foundation of memetics in full modern incarnation originates in the publication in 1996, of two books by authors outside the academic mainstream: Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme by former Microsoft executive turned motivational speaker and professional poker player, Richard Brodie, and Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society by Aaron Lynch, a mathematician and philosopher who worked for many years as an engineer at Fermilab. Lynch claimed to have conceived his theory totally independently of any contact with academics in the cultural evolutionary sphere, and apparently was not even aware of Dawkins' The Selfish Gene until his book was very close to publication.
Around the same time as the publication of the books by Lynch and Brodie, a new e-journal appeared on the web, hosted by the Centre for Policy Modelling at Manchester Metropolitan University Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission. The journal has since then been taken over by Francis Heylighen of the CLEA research institute at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel. The e-journal soon became the central point for publication and debate within the nascent memetics community. (There had been a short-lived paper memetics publication starting in 1990, the Journal of Ideas edited by Elan Moritz. ) ) In 1999, Susan Blackmore, a psychologist at the University of the West of England, published The Meme Machine, which more fully worked out the ideas of Dennett, Lynch and Brodie and attempted to compare and contrast them with various approaches from the cultural evolutionary mainstream, as well as providing novel, and controversial, memetic-based theories for the evolution of language and the human sense of individual selfhood.
The term is a transliteration of the Ancient Greek μιμητής (mimētḗs), meaning "imitator, pretender", and was used in 1904 by the German evolutionary biologist Richard Semon, best known for his development of the engram theory of memory, in his work Die mnemischen Empfindungen in ihren Beziehungen zu den Originalempfindungen, translated into English in 1921 as The Mneme. Until Daniel Schacter published Forgotten Ideas, Neglected Pioneers: Richard Semon and the Story of Memory in 2000, Semon's work had little influence.
These two schools became known as the "internalists" and the "externalists." Prominent internalists included both Lynch and Brodie; the most vocal externalists included Derek Gatherer, a geneticist from Liverpool John Moores University and William Benzon, a writer on cultural evolution and music. The main rationale for externalism was that internal brain entities are not observable, and memetics cannot advance as a science, especially a quantitative science, unless it moves its emphasis onto the directly quantifiable aspects of culture. Internalists countered with various arguments: that brain states will eventually be directly observable with advanced technology, that most cultural anthropologists agree that culture is about beliefs and not artefacts, or that artefacts cannot be replicators in the same sense as mental entities (or DNA) are replicators. The debate became so heated that a 1998 Symposium on Memetics, organised as part of the 15th International Conference on Cybernetics, passed a motion calling for an end to definitional debates.
The most advanced statement of the internalist school came in 2002 with the publication of The Electric Meme, by Robert Aunger, an anthropologist from the University of Cambridge. Aunger also organised a conference in Cambridge in 1999, at which prominent sociologists and anthropologists were able to give their assessment of the progress made in memetics to that date. This resulted in the publication of Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science, edited by Aunger and with a foreword by Dennett, in 2000.
Susan Blackmore (2002) re-stated the meme definition as whatever is copied from one person to another person, whether habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information. Further she said that memes, like genes, are replicators. That is, they are information that is copied with variation and selection. Because only some of the variants survive, memes (and hence human cultures) evolve. Memes are copied by imitation, teaching and other methods, and they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again. Large groups of memes that are copied and passed on together are called co-adapted meme complexes, or memeplexes. In her definition, thus, the way that a meme replicates is through imitation. This requires brain capacity to generally imitate a model or selectively imitate the model. Since the process of social learning varies from one person to another, the imitation process cannot be said to be completely imitated. The sameness of an idea may be expressed with different memes supporting it. This is to say that the mutation rate in memetic evolution is extremely high, and mutations are even possible within each and every interaction of the imitation process. It becomes very interesting when we see that a social system composed of a complex network of microinteractions exists, but at the macro level an order emerges to create culture.
Benitez-Bribiesca, a critic to memetics, calls it "a pseudoscientific dogma" and "a dangerous idea that poses a threat to the serious study of conciousness and cultural evolution" among other things. As factual criticism, he refers to the lack of a code script for memes, as the DNA is for genes, and to the fact that the meme mutation mechanism (i.e., an idea going from one brain to another) is too unstable (low replication accuracy and high mutation rate), which would render the evolutionary process chaotic.
Another scientific critique comes from semiotics, (e.g., Deacon, Kull) stating that the concept of meme is a primitivized concept of sign. Meme is thus described in memetics as a sign without its triadic nature. In other words, meme is a degenerate sign, which includes only its ability of being copied. Accordingly, the objects of copying are memes, whereas the objects of translation (sensu lato) and interpretation are signs.
Another definition, given by Hokky Situngkir, tried to offer a more rigorous formalism for the meme, memeplexes, and the deme, seeing the meme as a cultural unit in a cultural complex system. It is based on the Darwinian genetic algorithm with some modifications to account for the different patterns of evolution seen in genes and memes. In the method of memetics as the way to see culture as a complex adaptive system, he describes a way to see memetics as an alternative methodology of cultural evolution. However, there are as many possible definitions that are credited to the word "meme". For example, in the sense of computer simulation the term memetic algorithm is used to define a particular computational viewpoint.
Memetics can be simply understood as a method for scientific analysis of cultural evolution. However, proponents of memetics as described in the Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission believe that 'memetics' has the potential to be an important and promising analysis of culture using the framework of evolutionary concepts. Keith Henson who wrote Memetics and the Modular-Mind (Analog Aug. 1987) makes the case that memetics needs to incorporate Evolutionary psychology to understand the psychological traits of a meme's host. This is especially true of time-varying, meme-amplification host-traits, such as those leading to wars.
Recently, Christopher diCarlo has developed the idea of 'memetic equilibrium' to describe a cultural compatible state with biological equilibrium. In "Problem Solving and Neurotransmission in the Upper Paleolithic" (in press), diCarlo argues that as human consciousness evolved and developed, so too did our ancestors' capacity to consider and attempt to solve environmental problems in more conceptually sophisticated ways. Understood in this way, problem solving amongst a particular group, when considered satisfactory, often produces a feeling of environmental control, stability, in short--memetic equilibrium. But the pay-off is not merely practical, providing purely functional utility--it is biochemical and it comes in the form of neurotransmitters. The relationship between a gradually emerging conscious awareness and sophisticated languages in which to formulate representations combined with the desire to maintain biological equilibrium, generated the necessity for memetic equilibrium to fill in conceptual gaps in terms of understanding three very important aspects in the Upper Paleolithic: causality, morality, and mortality. The desire to explain phenomena in relation to maintaining survival and reproductive stasis, generated a normative stance in the minds of our ancestors—Survival/Reproductive Value (or S-R Value).
The application of memetics to a difficult complex social system problem, environmental sustainability, has recently been attempted at thwink.org Using meme types and memetic infection in several stock and flow simulation models, Jack Harich has demonstrated several interesting phenomena that are best, and perhaps only, explained by memes. One model, The Dueling Loops of the Political Powerplace, argues that the fundamental reason corruption is the norm in politics is due to an inherent structural advantage of one feedback loop pitted against another. Another model, The Memetic Evolution of Solutions to Difficult Problems, uses memes, the evolutionary algorithm, and the scientific method to show how complex solutions evolve over time and how that process can be improved. The insights gained from these models are being used to engineer memetic solution elements to the sustainability problem.
Francis Heylighen of the Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies has postulated what he calls "memetic selection criteria". These criteria opened the way to a specialized field of applied memetics to find out if these selection criteria could stand the test of quantitative analyses. In 2003 Klaas Chielens carried out these tests in a Masters thesis project on the testability of the selection criteria.
In Selfish Sounds and Linguistic Evolution (2004, Cambridge University Press), Austrian linguist Nikolaus Ritt has attempted to operationalise memetic concepts and use them for the explanation of long term sound changes and change conspiracies in early English. It is argued that a generalised Darwinian framework for handling cultural change can provide explanations where established, speaker centred approaches fail to do so. The book makes comparatively concrete suggestions about the possible material structure of memes, and provides two empirically rich case studies.
Australian academic S.J. Whitty has argued that project management is a memeplex with the language and stories of its practitioners at its core. This radical, some say heretical approach requires project managers to consider that most of what they call a project and what it is to manage one is an illusion; a human construct about a collection of feelings, expectations, and sensations, cleverly conjured up, fashioned, and conveniently labelled by the human brain. It also requires project managers to consider that the reasons for using project management are not consciously driven to maximize profit. Project managers are required to consider project management as naturally occurring, self-serving, evolving and designing organizations for its own purpose.
Swedish political scientist Mikael Sandberg argues against "Lamarckian" interpretations of institutional and technological evolution and studies creative innovation of information technologies in governmental and private organizations in Sweden in the 1990s from a memetic perspective. Comparing the effects of active ("Lamarckian) IT strategy versus user–producer interactivity (Darwinian co-evolution), evidence from Swedish organizations shows that co-evolutionary interactivity is almost four times as strong a factor behind IT creativity as the ‘Lamarckian’ IT strategy.