Richard Dawkins first proposed the concept of memes, units of culture which replicate within human minds, some 30 years ago in his book The Selfish Gene. In that book, he showed how both individual-centric and gene-centric explanations of evolutionary processes make sense, and some aspects of evolution are only explainable from the selfish gene's point of view. He speculated that culture could be similarly described evolutionarily, and that two narratives, one of individuals, and one of culture units (memes) would similarly be necessary to explain cultural evolution. Various authors, including Dawkins, have had only limited success in elaborating on this concept over the years. But The Selfish Meme, by Kate Distin, finally does this idea justice.
Distin does a good job laying out the fundamentals of the meme hypothesis. She locates memes within a concept of consciousness as a representational process, and identifies memes with representational systems indicative of actual physical objects, actions, or relationships.
She expands a little on this theme, by distinguishing memes from representations - she instead limits them to Meta-representations, in what I consider a misguided effort to exclude animals from being able to host memes.
She further expands on the representation theme in a discussion of memes and language, noting that representational systems like music notation and language are memes themselves, and these meta-meta-representational systems host all our meta-representations.
She shows how memes can and do satisfy the basic conditions for evolutionary processes: stability, variation, replication, and competition/selection.
She notes that a significant difference between memes and genes is that genes build replicating machines around themselves (individuals) while memes in contrast follow a virus-like strategy of parasitizing somebody else's replicating machine (the minds created by human genes).
She addresses and shoots down several of the peculiar misuses which have characterized efforts to expand the meme hypothesis. Dawkins himself is the chief misuse, as he has used the concept as a vehicle to attack religion, labeling religion as a memetic virus. As Distin points out, ALL memes are virus-like, and science and logic and atheism all have the same features that Dawkins slanders religion as having.
As second major misuse is in the concept of consciousness, where an influential movement (Dennett, Blackmore, and others) asserts that our minds themselves are nothing but memes (self-deluding us to think that minds actually exist). Distin points out several logic flaws in the Dennett/Blackmore model:
* What gets parasitized? If minds could not exist without memes, there is nothing to have been parasitized by the first meme.
* Who is deluded? If minds do not exist without memes, there is no self-deception needed. Self-deception assumes there is an I to be deluded prior to the deception. But the existence of this I is what is also being denied.
* This model denies the possibility of an ego or consciousness directing selection between memes. Distin provides a detailed description of the engineering design process, showing how both conscious decisions, and memetic constraints, can simultaneously drive the process.
* Additionally she points out illogicalities in both Blackmore's definition of memes and replication (excludes obvious memes, and reproduction methods they use), and both Blackmore and Dennett's definitional error in identifying memes as equaling the content (they consider wagon wheels and birds to be copies of wagon-wheel and bird memes, when a wagon-wheel meme is instead a CONCEPT of supporting a cart with a spoked roller mounted on a axle, etc, and a bird meme is the CONCEPT of categorizing winged/feathered animals together - neither concept is present in the actual objects).
While presenting the most complete and useful expansion of the meme-hypothesis I have encountered, she does not successfully address one of the major difficulties of the hypothesis: how to distinguish what a meme is. She asserts that, say, violin playing, and reading music, are both memes, and that the presence/absence of these memes is definitively determinable within individuals.
This is good as far as it goes, but part of the problem is that both violin playing and music reading are subdividable. One can, for instance, have not learned how to read all music notations. This suggests that reading music is a meme-complex, which she has misidentified as a single unitary meme. While it may be possible to identify individual steps of music reading, the breakdown of violin playing is not particulate. One's fingering, and bow skills, are generally improveable over an analog continuum. While one can approximate these skills by arbitrarily declaring a certain skill level of a particular violin technique to be mastery of that technique, and any skill below that as not having mastery, this arbitrary categorizing does not capture the reality of the continuum of skills across a range of sub-techniques within violin playing.
I consider the meme-hypothesis to be a powerful and insightful reference-frame for understanding culture, and the competition of ideas within and between cultures. Distin's book is a very useful sanity-check to rein in the misuses, and add to the utility of this idea. Although her failure to solve the definitional problem of what is and is not a meme is a major obstacle to memetics becoming anything like a formal discipline.
But I strongly recommend this book as an important step in fleshing out this interesting hypothesis.