High-end talking shop, TED, has a couple of video lectures on ‘memes‘ – the supposedly self-contained units of information, ideas or actions that replicate through human culture and are selected by a process akin to natural selection.
The first is by philosopher Daniel Dennett from 2002, while the second is from earlier this year and was presented by psychologist Susan Blackmore who updates the idea by proposing that new technology is having a unique effect on the cultural transmission of ideas.
The concept of memes is controversial, not least because it’s hard to see exactly what empirical predictions follow from the theory. Rather than a set of specific hypothesis, it’s really a different framework with which we can re-interpret aspects of culture.
What particularly annoys the critics is the idea that cultural ideas are subject to a Darwinian-style process of selection and (presumably) evolution.
In an exchange with Dennett, philosopher Michael Ruse defended his Darwinian credentials by saying to Dennett “[I am] more hardline than you are, because I don’t buy into this meme bullshit but put everything… in the language of genes”.