virus: Culturizing the Meme
Tue, 12 Jan 1999 11:14:49 EST

How do we go about making "meme" a working cultural concept instead of just a biological metaphor about culture? Dawkins himself has mused in his latest book about whether "meme" may just remain a bit of scientific poetry. I think it is going to take more culturally oriented thinkers to move the idea into the cultural arena successfully. I recently read a very good book by Gary Taylor called "Cultural Selection".

Gary Taylor is a renowned Shakespeare scholar who wrote "Reinventing Shakespeare". In it he did not at any point refer to "memes" but his ideas are ripe for just such a treatment. At first I was prejudiced against his book because it made no mention of meme-ideas or Dawkins or Dennet. I passed it up in the bookstore for several months just for that very reason. Thankfully I finally gave in.

In retrospect I am glad that he did not talk about memes, because while it is a fascinating metaphor, I think it has yet to be turned into a working concept. As long as we are stuck on "virus" thinking, nothing more than interesting analogies is likely to emerge. We need to start thinking - what is the best way to think about memes CULTURALLY? Not what are the best biological ways to think about memes culturally? Is there a "memotype" and a "phemotype" and are we looking in the right places for them? Is our biological metaphor now dropping red herrings in our paths, where it was so useful in the past?

Gary Taylor's book is refreshing because it is not prejudiced by this metaphor, and yet it is very evolutionary in its approach. He does seem to have a firm grasp on the basics of evolution while maintaining a professional sensitivity to cultural issues and mechanics. He develops the concept of representation, and discusses the roles and challenges of editors as only a cultural scholar and professional editor could. I would be interested one day to see somebody like Gary Taylor reinvent the meme.

If anybody else has read his book or has any thoughts on this, I would be interested to hear about it. I wrote a review for his book on Here is a direct link to that if anyone wants to see it or info on the book. ---->
">A Glance: Cultural Selection; Why Some Achievements Survive the Test of Time
-- and Others Don't</A>

Feel free to praise me for my writing skills! :-) Criticism accepted as well :-(

But seriously folks. These topics interest me, and where I was once very excited about Dawkin's metaphor, at times it (or its pattern of use) is starting to lose my interest. My interest in cultural evolution itself, however, never ceases to flag.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.