Virtual Symposia

Imitation, Memory and Cultural Changes: Probing the Meme Hypothesis

The purpose of this symposium was to probe the epistemological value of the notion of meme conceived as a unit of cultural transmission or imitation that is subject to variations and selections similar to the processes observed in evolutionary biology.

Although it was not the first time that the notion of cultural units was construed in the framework of the Darwinian theory of natural selection, Richard Dawkins’ coining of the term meme in 1976 was met with extraordinary interest and its use spread rapidly among many disciplines such as anthropology, linguistics, philosophy, religious studies, psychology, sociology, media studies, economics, and even zoology. It soon became a popular topic in some high profile philosophical writings, and the above mentioned disciplines attempted to adapt this notion to their heuristics to the extent that memetic terminology is now commonly found in their literatures, albeit with a variety of conceptual nuances, and often with purely metaphorical values.

However, some thirty years after the publication of Dawkins’ landmark book, The Selfish Gene, in which the notion of meme was tentatively introduced, it is still debatable whether this notion is a fanciful fad on the wane or has some serious scientific legitimacy that holds robust epistemological promises. It remains the focus of many discussions that address the issue of cultural changes. For instance, a two-day session, which was a part of the recent congress of a major international archaeological association (UISPP, Sept. 4-10, 2006), was devoted to evolutionary archaeology and made extensive use of the notion of meme for conceptualizing the cultural changes that can be observed in the archaeological record. In view of the promises as well as frustrations generated by this concept, it seems that it would be extremely valuable to determine under which conditions the meme hypothesis could be empirically, if not experimentally tested. It seems that one of the current liabilities of this hypothesis is that precious little effort has been made to understand it in the context of what is known about imitation, learning, and memory in the cognitive neurosciences.

This state of affairs provided the impetus for the organization of the symposium whose proceedings will be put online in an open source website. The aim of this symposium was not to further speculate on the idea of the meme as a literary or philosophical metaphor but to consider the methodological constraints that can be put on its use in empirical investigations of psychological or cultural changes. Among the issues addressed are: on which level of analysis can the notion of meme be functional; what kind of operational definition can be produced that does not duplicate existing methodological concepts; how its usefulness could be comparatively assessed; and under which form and conditions could the memetic hypothesis be tested and whether it could be given a falsifiable form. The program consistied of eight position papers followed by in-depth discussions from the point of view of seven different disciplines: psychology, cognitive neurosciences, anthropology, archaeology, sociology, zoology and computer science. The participants have been selected for their proven ability to engage in pluri-disciplinary exchanges.

Information: Paul Bouissac

List of Speakers

Michael L. Best is a Fellow with the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School, and an Assistant Professor at the Georgia Institute of Technology (Sam Nunn School of International Affairs, and College of Computing). His research bears upon the engineering of new technologies, public policies interventions, as well as social and economic assessments. He is co-founder and Editor-in-Chief of Information Technologies and International Development (MIT Press).

Marion Blute is Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Toronto Mississauga, where she teaches social and cultural theory. Her research on evolutionary topics has been published in a variety of life and social science journals, such as Behavioural Science, Sociological Theory, The Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, and The Canadian Journal of Sociology.

Ethan E.Cochrane is Lecturer at the Institute of Archaeology, University College London, and Principal Investigator at the Arts and Humanities Research Council Centre for the Evolution of Cultural Diversity, University College London. His latest publication is a chapter on “Migration and Cultural Transmission: investigating human movement as an explanation for Fijian ceramic change” in Cultural Transmission in Archaeology: Issues and Case Studies, Michael O’Brien, Ed. (2007)

Michael Chazan is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, and President of the Toronto Semiotic Circle (2007-2008). He specializes in Paleolithic archaeology and lithic analysis, a domain in which he published numerous articles. He conducts fieldwork in France, Israel, and Jordan. He is the author of World Prehistory and Archaeology: Pathways through Time (2007

George van Driem is Professor of Linguistics at Leiden University, and Director of the Himalayan Languages Project, Trans-Himalayan Database Programme, Languages and Genes of the Greater Himalayan Region ( He is the author of Languages of the Himalayas: An Ethnolinguistic Handbook of the Greater Himalayan Region with an Introduction to the Symbiotic Theory of Language, 2 vols (2001), and “The language organism: The Leiden theory of language evolution” (2003).

Peter Jackson teaches in the Department of Religious Studies at Tromso/ University (Norway). He specializes in Indo-European myth and poetics, (Vedic India, Ancient Iran, Ancient Greece and pre-Christian Scandinavia). His numerous publications also address a broader theoretical scope, such as the construction and interpretation of prehistoric ideational culture, the theory of myth, and the mechanisms of cultural transmission.

Alejandro Lynch, a specialist of bird song, holds a PhD in Zoology (University of Toronto). He has published several articles based on his research on cultural evolution in Chaffinch song, including “The population memetics of birdsong” in Ecology and Evolution of Acoustic Communication in Birds edited by D.E. Kroodsma & E.H. Miller (1996). He is Project Director of the Semiotic Encyclopedia Online (

Keith E. Stanovich is Professor of Human Development and Applied Psychology at the University of Toronto. He is the author of over 150 scientific articles. He is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, and a Fellow of the Association for Psychological Science. His latest books include The Robot’s Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin (2004) and Who is Rational? Studies of Individual Differences in Reasoning (1999).

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