I first encountered the term “memetics” in writings by Christiane Paul.1 Intrigued by the idea, tying together as it does my background in biology and interests in epistemology, I later found a more complete description at Principia Cybernetica Web. Here is their definition:2
Meme: An information pattern, held in an individual’s memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual’s memory.
Memetics: The theoretical and empirical science that studies the replication, spread, and evolution of memes.
Put another way, memetics is an evolutionary epistemology that treats information in an analogous way to genes. As with genes, units of information (called “memes”) replicate by being passed from one individual to another. Also as with genes, certain memes become reduced in frequency and eventually disappear altogether, while other memes are favored and propagate quickly, resulting in a net evolution of the information community. The theory was first proposed by Richard Dawkins in 1976, and has since become an important area of research. Instead of seeing knowledge as constructed by the social system, it sees social systems as constructed by knowledge processes. Indeed, a social group can be defined by the fact that all its members share common memes.
I must reiterate the important point that I am not saying, nor do I believe, that memetics is the correct and true theory of human culture. I am simply pointing out that this is one useful model through which to filter one’s experience of reality.
1 Paul, Christiane Digital Art (New York: Thames and Hudson, 2003)