Cultural evolution via mind-based memes

Principal Metaphors

  • Knowledge is … memeplex (a complex network of mutually supportive memes)
  • Knowing is … hosting memes
  • Learner is … culture
  • Learning is … creating or developing a meme; incorporating a meme into a memeplex
  • Teaching is … propagating memes




Memetics is a theory of cultural evolution that is focused on the creation, development, perpetuation, and propagation of “memes.” A meme is an idea, habit, song, or any other unit of culture that can be copied from one person to another. The word is derived from roots that have to do with imitation, intended to signal that a meme is analogous to a gene.


Memetics is subject to a broad array of criticisms from domains as varied as information science, evolutionary biology, and semiotics. Commentators typically assert that its principles are incorrect, underdeveloped, untested, and/or unsupported, and some describe Memetics as a pseudoscience as it conflates an analogy (i.e., “memes are like genes”) as an explanatory principle. Another, very different category of criticism is focused on the tendency to frame Memetics as a new idea. In fact, very similar notions are present in Cultural Psychology and Semiotics some versions of which predate Darwin. As well, the perspective actually has a fairly broad presence in modern culture, particularly evident in contemporary references to ideas as viruses (e.g., viral videos, viral marketing).

Authors and/or Prominent Influences

Richard Dawkins Douglas Hofstadter Susan Blackmore

Status as a Theory of Learning

It would not be completely appropriate to describe Memetics as a theory of learning, as it pays relatively little attention to the cognitive processes associated with memes. However, it does offer a well-theorized way to interpret the appeal Folk Theories, especially the Acquisition Metaphor, the Construction Metaphor, and the Attainment Metaphor. That is Memetics presents a way to think about the creation and propagation of ideas in ways that are reminiscent of those perspectives without resorting to object-based metaphors of knowledge.

Status as a Theory of Teaching

In Memetics, teaching is seen as the deliberate propagation of memes. The theory does not delve in to the means by which this occurs or the mechanisms that make it possible, and so it would not be appropriate to describe Memetics as a theory of teaching.

Status as a Scientific Theory

The status of Memetics as a scientific theory is up in the air, with proponents claiming an empirical evidence base and opponents accusing it of being poorly theorized and badly researched.

Map Location

Please cite this article as:
Davis, B., & Francis, K. (2020). “Memetics” in Discourses on Learning in Education.

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