Quelques idées sur la théorie des "memes"

A propos de l'article de Scientific American

The Theory of Memes

Voici deux textes sur la théorie des memes que j'ai rédigés plus pour m'aider à clarifier mes idées que pour être publiés, au moins dans l'état actuel de leur avancement. Touts commentaires et suggestions seront les bienvenus... 

Ces textes sont écrits en anglais car extraits de communications avec des chercheurs anglais et je n'ai pas encore eu le temps de les traduire en français...

Pour en savoir plus sur les "memes" voir l'excellent site  de La Société Francophone de Mémétique :


Some Ideas about the "Memes" theory

Concerning the Scientific American article

The Theory of Memes

Here are two texts about the memes theory which I wrote in order to help myself to clarify my own thoughts more than to be published, at least in their present state. All comments and suggestions will be welcomed... 


A propos de l'article de Scientific American

Suzan Blackmore, "The Power of Memes"

Lee Alan Dugatkin , "Animals Imitate, too"

Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson , "Memes Theory Oversimplifies how culture changes"

Henry Plotkin , "People do more than imitate"

Scientific American, Volume 283, Number 4, October 2000,

I read the whole series of articles with the bias of a parent of an autistic son whose imitation skills, like those of most autistic people, are very different from those of ordinary people. They can be excellent in pure imitation, often called echolalia for language imitation, echopraxia for motor imitation but are generally mediocre or inexistent in imitation that can be generalised in order to be used in slightly different situations.

Before going further, I was struck by the word itself. "Même" with a circumflex accent on the first "e" means same, similar, in French. It is different from Identical (identique). This relates to and limits the critics of Henry Plotkin concerning the trivial value of imitation.  Taking imitation in a useful sense,  it can't be the echopraxic or echolalic imitation similar to that of the autistic child but only imitation skills that can lead to some generalisation can be considered a favourable evolutionary trait. It may not be imitation in as broad a sense as in Suzan Blackmore article, but in a larger sense than pure mimicking. It doesn’t however exonerate Suzan Blackmore from the rest of Henry Plotkin critics that "people do more than imitate".

Imitation is essential too, even in its basic form, for the development of procedural knowledge, that is knowing how to do things, even if one doesn't know why. This is a local knowledge that can be transferred as meme but which has limited potential for generalisation. Conceptual knowledge comes at a latter stage when one starts to understand why a technique works.

One point in favor of  Suzan Blackmore though, imitation is most likely a necessary skill to perpetuate some behavioural evolution, but most likely not sufficient. Even in the sense in which she uses the word, imitation would lead to endless repetition of essential skills. As a result, it would have been normal that human beings have continued to pick berries, chew wild roots since that was a proper survival set of skills.

I would propose that in order to have evolution, there must have been perturbations and a new adaptation through people acting outside pure past memes, As G.B. Shaw said "The reasonable man adapts himself to the world. The unreasonable man tries to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends upon the unreasonable man."

This is where I come back to autistic people in a more positive way. I have said that most autistic people have difficulties with imitation, except for total mimicking  : echopraxia exact reproduction of a movement and echolalia exact reproduction of a sound.

This indeed wouldn't be useful as a survival skill. I can witness though, that this as acted as an excellent mirror on our memes, showing us some of the things we were doing via echopraxia and echolalia, in an even more efficient way than a mirror, and helping us to escape our poorly adapted memes. In addition, not understanding very well how to imitate other people efficiently (regardless of their echopraxia capabilities), they tend to find their own solutions that work. We ordinary people (autistic people self advocates call us "Neuro typical") have then the ability to sometime realise that the "new" solution can be a better one than the one transmitted by previous memes. So influencial people may pick up this solution and transmit it through a new meme.

Henry Plotkin mentions one human skill that is essential to develop relationships with others "Theory of Mind". Theory of mind is developed by the human child around age three to three and a half.  A lot of autistic children do not develop such a theory of mind[1], or develop it in an inappropriate way. Even though higher functioning develop such a theory of mind, they develop it at a later time in their development, and like a foreign language learned later on in life, the theory of mind they have developed requires a lot more effort on their part and is not as natural to them as for ordinary people. As a result they suffer often much less from inhibitions to break social rules and can talk about new ways of doing things, even if the meme that has perpetuated the classical method was still strongly present in the population.


[1] U. Frith, "Autism", Scientific American, June 1993, volume 268, Number 6, pages 78-84



The Memes Theory :

contribution to clarification and generalisation

 The term memes was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins (Blackmore 2000). In Blackmore terms, ”Memes are stories, songs, habits, skills, inventions and ways of doing things that we copy from person to person by imitation” … ”It is tempting to consider memes as simply "ideas," but more properly memes are a form of information.”

The theory is based upon an analogy between genes replication and ”memes” replication. Successful memes survive, the other become extinct.  Memes can hence be considered as elements of personal and societal behaviours that enable the transmission and evolution of culture through time, simply by replication of attitudes and behaviours that are ”selected” for their own qualities and, like in Darwinian evolution, without preconceived direction.

I would like first to suggest that the definition of memes proposed by Blackmore needs to be refined, it is, as such, too lose to enable the construction of a more sturdy theory of human behaviour/culture evolution. What is the relation between ”stories, songs, habits, skills, inventions and ways of doing things” ? What is the quantity of information transmitted by memes ?

The theory is also not precise enough with regard to the processes that trigger evolution of memes and how new memes are created. I will take those two points in that order.

Imitation as a continuum

It is the concept of imitation that in fact needs to be made more precise and through that a typology of memes (figure 1) according to their degree of closeness to the original act, pure imitation or adapted imitation, as well as the intrinsic complexity of the act, waving ”bye bye” as imitated by a young child isn't of the same degree of complexity as quoting a verse of Shakespeare .

We have hence a two axis that will categorise imitations according to their degree of freedom from the model and the complexity of the model.  

Figure 1 : Typology of Immitation




of model












    Using a recipe                         Adapting the recipe                Adding to the recipe

     Singing in tune                  singing in a different key           improvising on a theme

 Copying a behaviour                   Copying a method                   adapting a method

     Use of object                        Adapted use of object               adaptation of object

 Copying an attitude                  Copying a behaviour                adapting a behaviour



Pure   imitation                                                                               Adaptative imitation 


No modification                        Limited adaptation                       soft creativity


 At the lowest level of freedom, echopraxia and echolalia are two modes of imitation that reproduce in an purely identical way the behaviour of the model. This mode of imitation is activated early in infancy as a basic imitation skill. Through echopraxia the infant innately copies basic facial expressions such as open the mouth close the mouth, and progressively more complex facial expressions. Likewise for sounds through echolalia. These ”echo” modes of imitation evolve from immediate into differed echopraxia and echolalia, that is, the imitation takes place some time after the model stops acting. The infant repeating attitudes or sounds long after the parent has stopped providing the model. The next step in these modes of imitation is communicative or expressive echopraxia/echolalia. The infant starts to use these modes of imitation in context and for communicating basic needs.

In normal child development, echopraxia is usually replaced by a richer mode of imitation taking some distance from the model, it is however kept much longer through childhood and even adulthood in populations who have some developmental disorders such as autism and other pervasive development disorders (PDD). However, in that case the repertoire of attitudes and behaviours that are imitated through echopraxia/echolalia tend to become more complex given the motor and cognitive abilities generally available at that chronological age. Longer sequences of behaviours and or language are reproduced, but still with the same distinction between ”immediate”, ”differed” and ”communicative” use of echoing. Note also that when we are faced with very new and somewhat stressful situations  we often react in an automatic mode of imitation very similar to echopraxia or echolalia. 

Quantity of information transmitted by memes

The information content of memes depends upon their adaptive potential as well as their complexity, even though complexity in itself is no guaranty of information content… Information should be understood here in its scientific sense, that is the one taken from the ”Information theory” (Shanon 1949), extended from the communication domain to other scientific domains, in particular biology and social sciences, using the more accessible definition of information being the opposite of ”entropy”, Leon Brilloin invented the word ”neguentropy” (Brilloin 1962). Entropy is the natural tendency for physical elements to move in the direction of maximum uncertainty. So in this sense, ”Information is what reduces uncertainty”. Life in itself is an islet of information in a universe of ever increasing entropy. Evolution has brought ever increasing level of information among chemical elements through genetic replication/modification and selection. Can we say that, likewise, memes tend to convey more and more information through memetic evolution ?

Perturbations and ”exaptation”

Evolution in the genetic sense supposes that some perturbations do cause specific modifications in the genes of various species. Small variations occur through sexual based reproduction, but it is not enough to explain major changes in species. These perturbations are quite the result of chance. Through time, the natural selection will keep new genetic variations if they are more capable of reproducing themselves and less prone to elimination by competing species.

Those  genetic variations are caused by environmental factors such as natural radioactivity, chemical emissions or for any other error in the transmission of the genetic information, which trigger unpredictable genomic modifications. These modifications are not at all conditioned by a better adaptation to the environmental factor that originated them, which in most case was a transient phenomena.

Most genomic changes result in non viable modifications of the new phenotype, very few end up in stronger (genetically speaking) species which will be better adapted to the overall environment in which they occur. A few are neutral and go more or less un-noticed. If in a more or less distant future a change in environment occurs, then perhaps one or more of those un-noticed genomic changes may prove to be a useful survival one for the specie evolution. This phenomenon is called ”exaptation” (Tattersall 2002). Indeed genomic variations do not respond to environmental changes but precede them on a chance basis. The role environmental changes comes later, in the selection process : If the genes expression is creating a sturdier, more adaptable specie, then it will survive.

For evolution in the behavioural and cultural domains something equivalent to environmental perturbation must exist, otherwise, there would be very limited reasons to see changes in previously successful memes. But, except in very vague terms, the proposed theory of memes doesn't really explain what causes variations in memes and the nature of those variations. Only error of transmission are considered, not major changes such as those observed in genetic evolution.


S. Blackmore,The Power of Memes”, Scientific American, Vol 283 No 4, October 2000, p 52-61

L. Brilloin, "Science and Information Theory", NY Academic Press 1962                                                         

E. Shannon & W. Weaver, "The Mathematical Theory of Communication", The University of Illinois press, 1969 (1949 first ed)                         

I. Tattersall,  “The Monkey in the Mirror: Essays on the Science of What Makes Us Human”, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002