Memetics: Key concepts for the evolution of religion

English: This is a pertinent image of Dawkins ...

Coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene, the concept of memes has become wildly popular


The next approach to the evolution of religion in our investigation is memetics, a controversial field that has drawn harsh criticism.




When Richard Dawkins wrote his influential work on sociobiology, The Selfish Gene, he included a chapter proposing that genes may not be the only objects of evolution by selection.  Theoretically, any replicator in an environment of differential success may evolve by the same process.  Units of cultural information, or memes as he called them, are such replicators (Dawkins, 1976).  Dawkins was not the first to propose this, as Darwin himself supposed that language evolved (Darwin, 1871).  Yet it was Dawkins’ term that caught on, and now there is a fledgling science of memetics.


A meme, according to Dawkins, is an idea or parcel of information that replicates itself by leaping from mind to mind, evolving under the selection pressures of limited mental capacity.  Examples are “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches” (Dawkins, 1976).  Like genes, memes have only one interest: their own replication.


The meme’s-eye view


Since Dawkins was a sociobiologist, it should come as no surprise that the procedure of memetics closely resembles that of sociobiology.  It is the role of the memeticist to take a meme’s-eye view, looking at how behaviors serve the interests of the unit of selection, which in this case is not the gene but the meme.  No longer is genetic reproduction the only factor to which behaviors must ultimately be traced, as it was with sociobiology.  Now they may be traced to memetic replication.  The implication is that some behaviors may serve the interests of memes only, and may in fact be detrimental to the interests of genes, let alone to the conscious desires of the individual people that are their hosts.


The next post will apply these concepts to the evolution of religion, and explore criticisms of memetics.



This post continues a series investigating methods in the study of religion from an evolutionary perspective.  Various approaches will be considered in turn, and evaluated for their strengths and weaknesses.


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3 thoughts on “Memetics: Key concepts for the evolution of religion

  1. tmtyler says:

    Memetics was also created as a form of reaction against sociobiology. Wilson’s sociobiology seemed to be saying that human goal-directed behaviour ultimately all boiled down to the ‘interests’ of genes. The point of memetics was to say that: no, culture had its own equivalents of genes and adaptations – and culture’s optimisation targets were not necessaily aligned with those of its hosts.

    • That makes sense. And current co-evolutionary models that account for the influence of both genes and culture seem like the next step beyond.

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