In his classic book from 1976, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins introduced the concept of the meme. Basically, a meme can be thought of as a cultural gene — an idea that is transmitted in a population.
This being Dawkins, memetics has a certain adaptationist flavor to it. The Selfish Gene introduces evolution from the gene’s eye view. But Dawkins is a staunch advocate of natural selection as the primary driving force behind evolution. The debate over the role of natural selection in evolution has been carried out using empirical data, theoretical modeling, and philosophical arguments. I won’t get into any details of it here.
What I am interested in is the adaptationist nature of memetics. From what I have seen, memeticists argue that memes survive or fail based on their ability to propagate through a culture. Memes that are good at infecting new individuals persists, while those that are not go extinct. The probability of extinction depends on some properties inherent to the memes and the culture they inhabit.
Daniel Dennett has taken a prominent role as an advocate for memetics. I spoke with him a few weeks ago and asked if there was a neutral theory for memetics. In his reply, he suggested that neutral evolution is pretty irrelevant. With such a position, it’s hard to imagine that he doesn’t spend much time thinking about neutral memes.
Memetics itself is a controversial field of study — in the sense that some people don’t think it’s worth studying at all. But, assuming the idea of the meme is a valid one, does it make sense to consider neutral dynamics of memes? That is, propagation of ideas merely because of their historical contingencies, and not because they are good at propagating themselves. For example, consider a cultural practice that is common because it happened to spread merely by chance. Perhaps it hitchhiked along with an adaptive meme (prayer with religion?). Or maybe it just got lucky.
On the other hand, there may be no need for a neutral theory. Perhaps coming along at the right point in time is the adaptive feature of that meme. So, are there neutral memes? Or does it not make sense to think of neutral memes?