Memes as Fundamental Representations in Evolutionary Thought

by Pat Duffy Hutcheon

KEY TERMS: symbolic representations -- Plato -- Schopenhauer -- Herbert Spencer -- Emile Durkheim -- individual representations -- collective representations -- materialism -- Bertrand Russell -- Representative Realism -- Julian Huxley -- artifacts -- mentifacts -- socifacts -- Edward O. Wilson -- culturgens -- Richard Dawkins -- memes

The idea that it might be possible to analyze the process of cultural evolution in terms of systems of meaningful units conveyed by symbols can itself be considered a "meme" in Richard Dawkins' terms. It was the nineteenth century philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer who first pointed out that ideas are necessarily symbolic "representations" of experienced reality -- not "essential" aspects of the reality itself, as Plato had thought. To the extent that there is sufficient common agreement on the meaning of these "representations" that they are communicable -- and have thereby been rendered objective -- they become the basis of culture. As cultural objects they are thereby capable of affecting human behavior in a causal sense, just as are aspects of the physical and social environments. In other words, they have become "objectively real" phenomena. This is a key understanding that has still not been grasped by those philosophers of materialism who deny the reality of such social-scientific entities as society, values and ideals.

Herbert Spencer expanded on this insight in extremely fruitful ways when he incorporated the concept of "representation" into his evolutionary explanation of the process by which intellectual development occurs within the individual. Emile Durkheim, building on Spencer's work, distinguished between the "individual representations" studied by psychology and those "collective representations" which form the subject matter of sociology. Somewhat later, Bertrand Russell incorporated the term into his Representative Realism: a philosophical perspective based on the principle of "the analogy of structure". This involved the idea that what is experienced in the form of a precept is not the "essence" of a thing but the structure of an event as it originally occurred in nature -- due to the fact that the latter is connected by causal chains to that impact on the senses of the observers which has instigated their shared perception of it (Russell 1948:492). It would follow from this that such commonly experienced structures can be rendered communicable by being expressed in symbols and thus made part of the public world or culture.

Julian Huxley attempted, in his turn, to deal with the problem of how to conceptualize the constituent units of culture. He came up with three terms to correspond to the three types of entities capable of surviving the individual life span: "artifacts", "mentifacts" and "socifacts" -- representing basic units employable as the bases of analysis at each of three increasingly complex levels of emergence in the hierarchy of evolution. Then, over a half century later, Edward O. Wilson and Richard Dawkins simultaneously introduced their personal terminological candidates for the role of the cultural entity which might conceivably correspond to the gene in biological evolution -- "culturgen" being proposed by Wilson and "meme" by Dawkins. In the years since that intriguing convergence of thought it appears that the "meme" has won the struggle for survival among all these contending representations as the scientific term for the fundamental unit of culture.