In The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins introduced the word ‘meme’ (derived from the Greek word mimema, roughly translates as ‘something imitated’) to denote “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.”
It turned out to be a good meme itself. Since its introduction, it has spread quickly, and, by now, most people have been exposed to the term somewhere, from newspapers to conversations with friends and relatives to academic publications. In the past few decades, memes have become a field of study.
Increasingly, phylogenetic methods and techniques, originally exclusively reserved to genetics, are being used in the study of memes, spurring Howe and Windram (2011) to “propose the adoption of the word ‘phylomemetics’ for phylogenetic analysis of reproducing non-genetic elements."
In their article, they discuss three fields of study where such methods have been used and can prove increasingly useful: the analysis of manuscripts, languages and cultural artefacts. Not only vertical meme transfer (replication with the possibility of an error) can be studies with these methods, but horizontal meme transfer (the introduction of a new meme from another ‘meme pool’) is also included.
In manuscripts, the texts are aligned and encoded in strings of characters which can be used by phylogenetic tree building programs. The resulting trees have been compared to the results obtained by ‘regular’ manuscript analysis and they compare well. In languages, the same approach is used with sets of words from two or more languages. Artefacts pose more of a challenge as their features are more difficult to code. Nevertheless, some studies have used phylogenetic methods in the investigation of artefacts and the overall fit of the tree was found to be good.
These three fields of study are only examples as, in principle, these methods could be used on any system in which there are elements that can be reproduced with potential errors, and where such errors are transmitted in following generations.
As phylomemetics is still a ‘young’ approach, in my opinion additional research is required to establish its accuracy in different fields, but it can already provide a great tool for a quick first analysis, which might help in refining hypotheses or establishing research question. However, for now, I think the best approach is to combine it with conventional methods. This, of course, doesn’t mean that it might not become a widely accepted and successful approach, which, in time, could be able to stand on its own two feet.
Howe, C.J.&Windram, H.F. (2011). Phylomemetics – Evolutionary Analysis beyond the Gene. PLoS Biology. 9(5), e1001069. doi:10.1371/journal.pbio.1001069. (click here for the original article)