Genetics, epigenetics, psychology, and anthropology investigate the multiple dimensions of evolution, in which the mechanisms of transmission of genetic or cultural information operate.

New studies in the field of epigenetics reveal that the experiences of our ancestors can influence our lives, in the form of “transgenerational transmission of environmental information.” Genes undergo mutations caused by environmental changes, and genetic inheritance changes with them. For example, a period of excessive stress can be added to the genome in the form of an additional layer of information that is placed above the DNA sequences.

Unlike the research in the field of epigenetics, that can be quantified by quantitative methods, the transmission of cultural information from one generation to another escapes rigor and becomes an intensely debated topic by professionals in various fields, who contribute to the theory of culture.

Almost half a century ago, the ethologist and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, in his controversial work “Selfish Gene”, popularized two theories: genetic “selfishness” and the concept of “meme” or memetic diffusion.

While the debate over the selfish gene has been settled by repudiating reductionism, seen as inappropriate for the complex world of biology, discussions generated by the topic of memetic diffusion have become productive, especially for the study of culture.

For Dawkins, memes are units of cultural transmission analogous to genes. In the case of memes, cultural information instead of genetic information is transmitted. Memes are not empirical entities but can be identified by the effects they produce. They are carried by vehicles such as books, works of art, tools, or stories, and depend on their embodiment in artifacts.

The perspectives later developed in the works of Daniel Dennett or Susan Blackmore completed the evolutionary approach of the information transmission from the subject to the world and back to the subject. The designated transmission mechanism is imitation.
“Mental representations are transmitted when an individual observes the behavior of another individual and tries to acquire the representation that conditioned that behavior. This process is not perfect, but most people have a psychological tendency towards compliant transmission. Such a transmission corrects errors in the process. By having a skill, success and prestige turns people into agents to copy and imitate.”

Susan Blackmore claims that memes, which undergo mutations from individual to individual, acquire the ability to turn individuals into “meme machines”, thus ensuring their perpetuation. Meme theory is highly valued by researchers who take an epidemiological approach to disseminating information, with some ideas becoming more “contagious” than others.

Dawkins pointed out at the end of the book that brought him notoriety that, in a society whose central pillar is culture, a person does not necessarily have to have descendants to influence the lives of other individuals, even after millennia after their death:

“But if you contribute to the culture of the world, if you have a good idea, compose a musical piece […], write a poem, they may live, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the genetic background. Socrates may not even have one or two living genes in today’s world, as G. C. Williams remarked, but who cares? The memetic complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus, and Marconi are still doing very well. “
Critics of the perspective proposed by memetic diffusion primarily attack the “nature” of these units of information as well as their efficiency or importance in the whole theory of culture. In their opinion memes are not efficient replicators, as cultural information is not transmitted intact like genes. In this respect, any other process of cultural transmission that determines the faithful or less faithful replication of knowledge will operate similarly.

Another critical approach questions the importance of sequential dependencies assumed by cultural acquisitions, as well as the variability of the transmission process.

The very idea of ​​meme evolved and underwent mutations. Today’s internet memes are a diversion from the original theory. They contain ironic messages about events or situations in everyday life, becoming a satire that amends the troubles of society. Instead of spreading in the spirit of Darwinian selection, they are deliberately altered by human creativity, the mutations being not accidental but designed.

Text & photo: Alexandra Rusu


  1. Susan Blackmore, On memes and “themes”, [


  • Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1976, Oxford University Press, Oxford.
  • Daniel Dennett, Darwin’s dangerous idea,  Sciences35. 3, May 1995.
  • Joseph Heinrich, Robert Boyd, Peter J. Richerson, Five misunderstanding about cultural evolution, Springer Science+ Business Media, LLC April 2008, 19:119-137.
  • A. Alvarez, Techne: Research in Philosophy and Technology, 2005, vol.9, nr.2.

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