Foundations of Science 18 (4):791-807 (2013)

Mark Bedau
Reed College
The nature and status of cultural evolution and its connection with biological evolution are controversial in part because of Richard Dawkin’s suggestion that the scientific study of culture should include “memetics,” an analog of genetics in which genes are replaced by “memes”—the hypothetical units of cultural evolution. Memetics takes different forms; I focus on its minimal form, which claims merely that natural selection shapes to some extent the evolution of some aspects of culture. Advocates and critics of memetics disagree about the scientific status of memetics, but they agree that memetics must face the following fundamental problems. Problem 1: Cultural evolution differs too much from biological evolution. Problem 2: Culture is too complex. Problem 3: Memes are too difficult to identify and track. Problem 4: Memetics produces only trivial results. This paper examines these problems in the context of a minimal memetic analysis in one specific context: patented inventions. Technology is a special subset of culture, and patented inventions are a special subset of technology—not least because there is a detailed written record of every patent. I describe four recent empirical results on technological innovation derived from memetic analysis of the patent record. Result 1: Inkjet printing, PCR, and stents are key drivers of technological innovation. Result 2: Patent genealogies are tangled and incestuous. Result 3: Door-opening innovations drive the evolution of technology. Result 4: The evolving content of the drivers of innovation confirms the importance of inkjet printing, PCR, and stents, among other inventions. These results show that minimal memetics can provide a novel and illuminating analysis the evolution of patented technology. Furthermore, this memetic analysis can answer all of the main problems with memetics. Problem 1 can be dismissed because culture and biology can be quite disanalogous, provided that natural selection still operates in both. Problem 2 is a mirage, because memetic analysis of the patented inventions is consistent with the full richness and complexity of the evolution of technology. Problem 3 is easy to solve, because the patent record makes it trivial to identify and track patents and their key traits through lineages. Problem 4 can be fully answered only after memetic analysis becomes widespread, but the results reviewed here shows that minimal memetics does yield scientific results that are nontrivial and interesting
Keywords Meme  Memetics  Natural selection  Cultural evolution  Evolution of technology  Innovation  Invention  Patent
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DOI 10.1007/s10699-012-9306-7
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