The view from memetics                                          Andrew Chesterman


[2009c.     Paradigmi 27, 2, 75-88.]



This essay outlines a memetic view of translation, as an alternative and perhaps more fruitful way of conceptualizing the issues involved. After a brief introduction to memetics as a theory of cultural transfer, we outline its relation to genetics and then consider its relevance for Translation Studies. Particular attention is given to a recent article by Maria Tymoczko which challenges some of the traditional presuppositions of Translation Studies. Can memetics offer a way to meet these challenges?  The essay closes with an assessment of some of the criticisms that have been directed against memetics: conceptual problems in the definitions of memes, its atomistic view of culture, the lack of causal power in memes, reductionism, materialism, a focus on competitin rather than cooperation, methodological problems, memes as merely metaphors, and the questionable explanatory value of memetics. Finally, some insights are drawn for philosophers of translation.


Keywords: meme, imitation, cultural evolution, transfer, modification, translation




I claim that Translation Studies is a branch of memetics.[1] Memetics is the study of memes. So what is a meme? The Oxford English Dictionary defines it like this:


Meme: an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by nongenetic means, esp. imitation.


The term was proposed and first used by Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). This was a popular book about genetics, about how the behaviour of organisms is influenced by the way genes seek to promote their own survival. Towards the end of the book, Dawkins introduced the notion of a meme as the cultural equivalent of the gene:


[A meme is] a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classical friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’ or to the French word mźme. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.

           Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. (1976: 206; p. 192 in the 1989 edition)


The term has since been taken up by many scholars. The philosopher Daniel Dennett uses it in his attempts to explain consciousness (1991), and to explain the natural emergence of religions (2006). The sociobiologist Edward O. Wilson uses it in his theory of gene-culture coevolution, to replace his original term “culturgen” (see Lumsden and Wilson 1981). One particularly interesting aspect of Wilson’s application of the meme concept is the way he links it to neurology. A meme, says Wilson, is “a node of semantic memory [as opposed to episodic memory] and its correlates in brain activity”. That is, a meme is both an “idea” and the corresponding set of “hierarchically arranged components of semantic memory, encoded by discrete neural circuits” (Wilson 1998: 149). This view suggests that memes exist not only in Popper’s World 2 (the subjective world) and World 3 (the world of objective ideas, expressed thoughts), but also in World 1 (the world of physical objects). (See e.g. Popper 1972.)

Since Dawkins introduced the term (although not the idea itself, which is older), the notion of the meme has become a powerful meme in its own right – a metameme, as some scholars put it. Memetics has become a theory of culture, in particular of cultural transfer, cultural evolution and cultural similarity. One of its fundamental research questions is: how can we explain the fact of cultural similarity, both within and across cultures? It could in principle be explained in at least three ways: as the result of similar genetic development in a similar environment, i.e. part of normal biological evolution (heredity); as the result of individual learning in a similar environment (i.e. not by heredity); or as the result of cultural transmission, the memetic way. What is the relation between these three processes, of biological evolution, individual learning and cultural transmission, and what roles are played by each process? How can we separate out the different causes?

The notion of cultural, memetic transmission raises other questions, too. How exactly do ideas spread anyway? Are there laws governing this spread, general regularities or tendencies? What happens cognitively or neurologically? How far is it useful to carry the analogy between genes and memes? Why do some ideas spread faster and more widely than others? Why do some ideas spread that are manifestly harmful to the human race? How could we learn best to spread ideas that are manifestly “useful”, good ideas? (Cf. Al Gore’s recent film An inconvenient truth, on the dangers of global warming.) How can we assess the evolutionary value of ideas? Why do we talk so much? Why are we usually so nice to each other? (In order to allow our memes to spread better?) Why can’t we stop thinking? (It’s the memes, clamouring and competing for space...)

In her provocative book The Meme Machine (1999), the psychologist Susan Blackmore suggests that both brains and language actually developed in order to spread memes: in other words, the cultural and even neural development of homo sapiens was to some extent meme-driven. From a meme’s-eye view, human beings are just convenient and rather efficient machines for spreading memes, as memes engage in their Darwinian struggle for space and survival. Some memes spread, and thus survive, better than others: this is the notion of memetic fitness (to be assessedonly  inthe very long term, presumably. One puzzle is why obviously bad memes seem to survive for so long!). Memes survive well if they are easily memorable, useful, sexy or emotive. Some memes tend to co-occur with others, in groups: these groups are called mememes or memeplexes. Examples are languages, religions, ideologies, scientific theories. Blackmore suggests that the very notion of a self may well be no more than a memeplex.

Memetics may be seen more as part of philosophy than empirical science, and this may also be a valid criticism of its contribution to date. Its oldest roots are indeed in philosophy, perhaps beginning with Plato’s disembodied Ideas, and including ancestors such as Hume’s laws concerning the way ideas are connected to each other: by resemblance, contiguity and causation.  I already mentioned Popper’s World 3 entities.

Outside philosophy, research on cultural transmission and evolution includes many streams of thought that play a role in the background of memetics. One influential example was Wilson’s book Sociobiology (1975), which explored the similarities between sociocultural and biological evolution. Empirical work in a memetic framework has dealt with such varied topics as mathematical models of meme transmission, the memetics of birdsong, religion, architecture, suicide, and business mergers and takeovers.


The parallel with genetics


The memetic theory of culture looks for parallels between genetic and cultural evolution. Some scholars, such as E.O. Wilson, prefer to speak of “coevolution”, covering both the biological and the cultural.

At the core of memetics there is the belief that it makes sense to apply Darwin’s theory of biological evolution to the realm of culture. It might be useful to recall some of the main principles of Darwinism, with reference to their primary context of biology. We can then look at the parallel between the biological situation on the one hand (genes), and the cultural one on the other (memes). Note that we are in fact talking about neo-Darwinism, i.e. the contemporary version of the theory; Darwin himself did not have access to the concept of the gene, which was a later development. Modern Darwinism incorporates the original ideas about selection and variation with the findings of genetics.

           Darwin’s key notion is that of descent with modification. This takes place over time, within what Dennett (1995) calls “design space”. In this space we find populations of organisms, and within each population there is variation. These organisms have genes, and share a gene pool. Genes are replicators: they have the ability to pass on copies of themselves to future generations, via heredity. They thus retain some kind of identity as they are passed on – i.e. there is some kind of equivalence between different generations or versions of the same gene – but mutations do occur. Indeed, if there were no mutations there could be no genetic evolution. Differential pressures from the environment cause some genes to be more successful at replication than others: i.e. they tend to be selected more often, in a competitive situation. They may for instance be genes with a particular mutation, or genes without this particular mutation, depending on whether the mutation in question makes it easier or more difficult for these genes to survive and replicate further.

           Consider now how these propositions can be applied to cultural evolution. The key notion here is transfer with modification.  It takes place over time, in cultural space – call it semiotic space, if you like, or the ideosphere. (Compare Even-Zohar’s cultural repertoire, e.g. 1997.) The units that get transferred are memes. Memes exist in a meme pool, and from this meme pool some memes get selected for transfer more often than others. Some ideas spread fast, others do not. Memes are transferred by the communicative actions of human beings, e.g. in speech, writing, art, music, theory construction, science, social behaviour, via artefacts such as books and computers, etc. All memes have evolved, all have roots in humanity’s shared history and prehistory. As Dennett puts it (1995: 144), “no meme is an island”.

Memes are transferred under certain constraints, of which one is that of “equivalence”: for a meme to count as “transferred”, there must be some relevant similarity between the meme in its transferred form and the same meme in its original form. Equivalence here does not mean 100% identity. My idea of Darwinism bears, I hope, some resemblance to Darwin’s idea, which has somehow spread into my mind. You may have a slightly different idea of Darwinism, but I assume that your idea, my idea, and, say, Dennett’s idea nevertheless have something in common: something has been retained. If not, we do not share the same memes in this respect, and we are not taking about the same thing at all. With genes, mutation is unusual; but with memes, it is to be expected: memes are seldom transferred without modification. Modification may, or may not, be intentional (see Dennett 1995: 355). Memetic transfer plus modification equals memetic evolution.

The second constraint on memetic transfer is the environment, just as it is for genes. The memetic environment is the cultural context (the meme pool). It comprises all the ideas, norms, values and expectations etc. which contribute to the process of memetic selection: which memes are deemed valuable enough to be passed on. A given meme (the Barbie image of female beauty, say) may trigger different reactions in different cultures, and of course in different people.  Personally, I find the notion of the meme itself very exciting – for me, it has added value, it helps me to make sense of things, to understand some aspects of life – and I am doing my best to pass it on to you. If you find it valuable, you may pass it on in turn, and so the idea will spread. Unhelpful memes will be criticized, and eventually they will fade away, although this may take some time. We need to recall that memetic evolution is a very recent phenomenon in the total history of the planet, dating from a mere second or two ago, relatively speaking. Memetic evolution nevertheless proceeds much faster than genetic evolution, partly because memetic mutation is normal, not exceptional.

How good is this analogy with genetics? Are memes replicators in the same sense as genes are? Sperber (2000) states three minimal conditions that genuine replicators must meet. For B to be a replication of A,


1. B must be caused by A (together with background conditions)

2. B must be similar in relevant respects to A

3. The process that generates B must obtain the information that makes B similar to A from A.


Condition (1) concerns the causality of B in general; condition (3) refers specifically to the origin of the similarity between A and B. Another way to express this third condition is to say that B must inherit from A the properties that make it relevantly similar to A: this is thus a more specific constraint than the general condition (1). Sperber argues that very few alleged memes actually meet this third condition. In his view, the role played in cultural learning by imitation is thus less than memetics assumes. Other scholars take a different view, perhaps because they have a looser concept of a replicator (see e.g. Dennett 1995). I suspect that the debate about the appropriateness of the analogy with genetics is far from over.

           However, it is interesting in passing to note that Sperber’s three criteria closely match Toury’s three postulates (1995: 33-35) for assuming that a given text is a translation. That is: if there exists a source text, if there has been a transfer process, and if there remains a relationship (of relevant similarity, I would say) between the two texts. Translations themselves are not memes, true; but they are vehicles for the spread of memes: see below.

Memes that spread widely and fast are those that have high fecundity, good copying fidelity, longevity, and are supported by other memes in a “meme complex” – such as an ideology, or a religion. Such meme complexes often have built-in “immunity memes” that fight off counter-memes. Successful memes also promise benefits to their hosts, or threats to those who refuse to pass them on (think of pyramid selling, or those irritating letters that ask you to make 20 copies to send to your friends or else...)

           Conflicts may arise between memes, between meme-complexes,  or between whole meme pools, as rivals compete for space. To cope with such conflicts, we presumably need to learn to weed out harmful memes, to alter our memetic environment, and to communicate better.


Relevance for Translation Studies in general


Memetics was explictly brought into Translation Studies by Chesterman (1996, 1997), and independently by Vermeer (1997). I have applied memetics in two ways: seeing translation itself as a memetic process, and proposing an analysis of translation theory and history in terms of clusters of memes (i.e. received ideas) about translation. One of the ways in which memes spread is via translations, of course. In fact, this is really what the whole translation business is about: spreading memes from one place to another, making sure that they get safely across linguistic borders. So Translation Studies is a way of studying memes and their transmission under particular circumstances.  Translators are agents of memetic evolution.

Most obviously, memetics appears eminently relevant to the whole of the cultural turn that has taken place in Translation Studies over the past twenty years or so (see e.g. Bassnett and Lefevere 1990). This was in part a reaction against linguistic approaches that were thought to be too narrow and to neglect the wider cultural and social aspects of translation. As a result of this turn towards a cultural dimension, scholars have looked at translation increasingly as a way of transmitting ideas from one culture to another, and thus as a way of influencing other cultures.

           One of the fashionable concepts has been that of manipulation (Hermans 1985). This can be understood in two senses. Translators and their clients manipulate the target culture by introducing and spreading new memes there; and translators manipulate the source text itself as they translate, so that the memes they express in the target text are mutations of those in the original – for instance, they may be ideologically coloured. This assumption of inevitable manipulation of course goes against naive beliefs in the preservation of objective samenes.

           Another kind of research which appears to be manifestly memetic is the study of what is known as the comet’s tail phenomenon. This means looking at the way a given work, or the work of a particular author, spreads through a series of cultures, via translation (direct or indirect). Studies of Shakespeare translation, for instance, have followed his progress through Europe in this way. One translation sparks off another, and then another, so that a whole trail of translations is created – and the memes are spread. (See e.g. work by the Göttingen research group, such as Kittel 1992.)

           The memetic view has wider implications for the whole way we see the translation process. First of all, it leads us to question the traditional transfer metaphor, as translations normally exist in addition to their source texts, not in place of them: translation is an additive activity, speading ideas, not one whereby ideas are “sent” from one place to another so that when they arrive they are no longer in their original place. The metaphor of movement is misleading, in this respect. The memetic view thus challenges the traditional source-target metaphor of translation.

           Meme management and transmission may well require meme editing. This emphasizes the importance of the translator’s revision strategies and editing strategies. It underlines the freedom – indeed, the responsibility – to edit, abbreviate, summarize, transedit... all motivated by the aim of better memetic transmission. The values of equivalence and fidelity are radically re-interpreted, and they are only valued to the extent that they serve a purpose. Mutations may also be valued.


Relevance for potential new developments in Translation Studies


Let us now consider some aspects of a memetic view of translation in the light of Maria Tymoczko’s recent argument (2006) that Translation Studies has been too eurocentric in its conceptual development, and needs radical revision. She lists eight dubious “western” presuppositions about translation which deserve to be reconsidered, and perhaps reformulated or rejected. These presuppositions could themselves be seen as memes about translation which seem to have a remarkable ablity to persist (for some reasons or other), even though better ones may be available.  I list the dubious presuppositions below together with a brief summary of Tymoczko’s objections to them, and offer comments from the memetic point of view.

(i) “Translators are necessary in interlingual and intercultural settings; they mediate between two lingustic and cultural groups.” Against this, Tymoczko points out that many groups are bilingual or multilingual; some translation is not for communication but to strengthen in-group identity; and some translation is within-group, e.g. to connect a people with their past. – The memetics position has no problem taking account of Tymoczko’s objection, as the memetic view is obviously not restricted to interlingual contexts.

(ii) “Translation involve (written texts).” There is a bias in Translation Studies towards literate cultures. Tymoczko would like to redress this imbalance and give more priority to oral culture. – Again, this is no problem for the memetic view.

(iii) “The primary text types with which translators work have been defined and categorized.” Tymoczko challenges this assumption. – In the memetics view “text type” is not a primitive concept; we might start instead from “meme types”.

(iv) “The process of translation is a sort of ‘black box’: an individual translator decodes a given message to be translated and recodes the same message in a second language.” Tymoczko draws attention to the importance of team rather than individual translation, for instance in early Chinese history. – From the memetics point of view, memes exist at the social level, in Popper’s World 3;  but they also are assumed to have a subjective existence in individual minds. There is no exclusive focus on individuals, although individuals are hosts for memes. Team translation would be an obvious locus for a memetic approach, as team members gradually approach consensus  (e.g. in Bible translation), or as each member edits and passes on a version. From the memetic point of view, one could say that the typical translator is a member of a group, a team, and rarely translates alone. (Cf. the new CEN standard EN 15038 Translation services – Service requirements, published in 2006, conerning translation quality.  It specifies that translations should be checked by someone other than the translator.) Networks of peers and contacts are all-important. Even the use of multiple drafts has memetic significance, as more variants may allow a superior choice to emerge eventually.

(v) Translators are trained professionals.  But, as Tymoczko points out, many translations are not professional, and many translations are of poor quality. – True, this does not stop them being translations, but there is a tough theoretical question here: how to deal with the fact that bad translations are nevertheless translations (up to a point...)? The memetics view, which rather avoids the difficult issue, would presumably be that we do not need a distinction between professional and non-professional meme-hosts or agents.

(vi) New challenges of globalization, diasporas and resulting hybridity are leading to new forms and concepts of translation. Tymoczko objects that these are not new trends, if we look at history. – In the memetics view, we can simply state that many “new” memes of translation have been around for a very long time (in non-western cultures).

(vii) “Translations can be identified as such: translation theory has defined the objects of its study.” I.e. we have agreed on a universal concept of “translation”.  This dubious presupposition is one that deserves closer attention. Tymoczko argues, first, that it is easy to find exceptions to current definitions, e.g. concerning the widespread assumption that a translation should be complete: after all, selective translation is often precisely what is required. And non-equivalent multilingual advertisements which exploit an unusual degree of freedom flout traditional norms of equivalence.

Tymoczko feels that there have been two important breakthroughs in recent translation theory which have forced us to challenge the assumption of a general and universal conception of translation : Toury’s norm-based a posteriori definition (e.g. Toury 1995), and Lefevere’s rewriting theory (1992). Both these proposals imply that we need a cluster concept of translation, like Wittgenstein’s games: the concept cannot be captured by a set of necessary and sufficient conditions. There is no universal, essential “core”, and variation seems inherent. Tymoczko’s conclusion is that we should consider other terms and concepts in other languages, and expand our data to include the related concepts of representation, transference and transculturation. Representation is a constructivist notion: it is not neutral, objective; hence the relevance of ideology,and of the power relations involved. Transference refers to physical or symbolic transfer more generally. Transculturation “goes far beyond the transfer of verbal materials and includes such things as the transfer of ideas about religion and government; the spread of artistic forms including music and the visual arts, and transfers having to do with material culture incuding clothing, food, housing, transportation and so forth, not to mention more recent cultural domains such as themodern media” (28-29). – This seems to be exactly the memetics view par excellence, although Tymoczko does not make this connection here. Memetics would provide precisely the kind of larger conceptual context Tymoczko is looking for.

(viii) We know how to define the relation between source text and translation, in terms of equivalence. Cf. the etymology of (English) “translation” as ‘carrying across’. But, Tymoczko argues, this view of strong equivalence is too restrictive, and too based on the transfer metaphor of preserving identity rather than one of creating relevant similarity (which entails also difference). In place of the figure of metaphor, that of metonymy would be more appropriate.

           – Now recall that in the memetic view, mutation or modification is normal, not exceptional. Memetics does not use a notion of strong equivalence. This dubious presupposition is what I have called “the sameness meme”: the idea that translations  are in some way “the same” as their originals; the idea that the job of the translator is to transfer something that remains the same, unchanged. Because this never occurs – that is, it never occurs exactly – translations are said to be impossible. They are, in fact, theoretically impossible. (Note the paradoxical appeal to theory in this kind of argument, in order to deny the existence of the object of the theory.) Hence the untranslatability meme. Despite centuries of evidence to the contrary, this meme is a persistent one, stressed by sceptics who wish to downplay the translator’s creativity, to reduce translation to something secondary, done by people who are not real writers, and so on. Do the supporters of the untranslatability meme see translation as some kind of threat, I wonder? Recall the reluctance in some cultures to have their sacred texts translated, or to admit that other-language versions are in fact translations; or the reluctance of at least some poets to have their work translated.

           In opposition to the parasitic (harmful) sameness meme I would set the mutualist (beneficial) meme of “relevant similarity”. This seems to me to be a much more positive and realistic way to conceive of the equivalence relationship between source and target texts. It is also more flexible: more than one similarity may exist between the same two texts, depending on what is relevant, i.e. depending on the point of view, on the purpose of the translation, the situation, and so on.   




The memetics enterprise has not gone without criticism; far from it. Here is a summary of some of the main criticisms of memetics, as made by philosopher Mary Midgely (e.g. in Rose and Rose 2000), neuroscientist Steven Rose, sociologist Hilary Rose, and others. I add brief comments to illustrate my own assessments of these criticisms. Some of the points raised are philosophical, others are ideological or methodological.

           Conceptual problems. Definitions of memes are varied, and slippery. Alongside Dawkins’ and the OED definitions given above we find e.g.:


A meme is an informational replicator whose principal attributes are pattern and meaning. (Moritz 1990)

A meme is a node of semantic memory and its correlates in brain activity. (Wilson 1998: 149)


There are thus disagreements about precisely what kinds of units memes are understood to be: units of culture, of information, of memory, of the brain? All of these, or some of them? – This conceptual confusion is undeniable, but not unusual in a new field. A further issue has been the fuzziness of the meme concept: how big is a meme? Just the first four notes of Beethoven’s Fifth, or the whole symphony? Maybe both? It is true that the concept needs to be made sharper. Atoms, too, needed to be redefined after it became possible to split them, they could no longer be defined as “unsplittable” elements. And recall the recent argument about the definition of a planet: is Pluto one or not? Definitions can always be refined.

           Atomism. Critics argue that culture cannot be reduced to units: culture is not granular, but holistic. Culture is not a “stuff” that can be described in terms of atom-like minimal components. – This argument is, I think, not a particularly strong one. Memes can also be seen as fuzzy clusters, even norms, at different levels of generality: shifting patterns rather than stable particles.

           Causality, agency. There are two critical points here. One is the criticism that memes surely cannot really “cause” anything, although they are often described as “wanting” or “seeking” to replicate themselves, “selfishly”. But memes cannot really have “volition”. The second point is that, to the extent that memes are assumed to have causal influence at all, the memetic position seems unpleasantly deterministic. – To the first point, one must acknowledge that the metaphorical language sometimes used in discussing memes can certainly be misleading. In response to the second, I would argue that causation (with respect to human cognition and behaviour) should be understood as a very wide concept, covering vague influences and motivations as well as more specific stimuli. In the evolutionary context, furthermore, causation is not one-way: environments affect organisms, yes, but organisms also affect environments. Memetics is in principle no more deterministic than any other human science.

           Reductionism. Critics attack the view that a “lower” level of explanation (genes, memes) is somehow more real than higher levels, e.g. at the level of the organism or the culture as a whole. – One can reply that different explanations may be valid at different levels, depending on what exactly one wishes to explain. One level of explanation need not be taken as somehow “more basic” than another. (See Wilson 1998.)

           Materialism. Some critics argue that memetics neglects subjective experience and personality. This leads to a preference for reductive, materialistic explanations, rather than the kinds of holistic explanations that increase understanding by contextualizing and making connections. – This criticism, I think, is a straw man: different explanations can of course be proposed for different kinds of problems. Memetics is not bound to reductive explanations alone. Underlining the similarities between genetic and cultural evolution does not mean denying that there are also differences between the two.

           Competition rather than cooperation. It is unethical, and counter-productive, say left-wing critics in particular, to give so much attention to memes as competing for space and influence. Instead, we should encourage more holistic values such as cooperation. – I agree that, if we wish to apply insights from memetics to endeavours to improve the world somehow, we might do better to focus on memetic cooperation, the behaviour of co-memes and meme complexes, for instance.

           Methodological. Critics claim that memetics can never become a proper empirical science, that it will remain a matter of conceptual speculation. They doubt whether it will ever be possible to show that memes are psychologically or neurologically real, identifiable and observable. They doubt whether Darwinism can ever be a fruitful framework for culture studies. – True, there has been much more conceptual analysis than empirical analysis in memetics so far, but this characteristic need not be a permanent one. For some ways of using quantitative methods to study memes, for instance, see Moritz (1990). On the other hand, genes, too, were not observable when they were first thought of. Nor were atoms. Some sub-atomic particles are not yet observable, apparently. And what about the strings of string theory, of which some say the universe ultimately consists?  Memes might be observable one day, who knows?

           Merely metaphors. Memes are no more than metaphors, so they are not properly scientific. – One might reply that all science involves metaphors to some extent, that this is the way we understand a great many things. We understand light, for instance, by seeing it as particles, or as waves, or as both at the same time.

           Added value? Critics, particularly from social and cultural anthropology, claim that memetics offers nothing that cannot already be adequately taken care of by their own disciplines; it does nothing more than introduce a new terminology.  – This criticism is a real challenge to memetics. I would argue that new advances in understanding are often made by means of what Pierce called abduction, by which we posit a hypothesis that, if it were true, would help us to understand a given phenomenon. Memes are such hypotheses. The notion offers us a way of seeing, of relating cultural evolution to genetic evolution, which may bring new insights, and these in turn may bring different kinds of hypotheses that can be tested empirically. Claims made via abduction are weaker than those based on induction or deduction, but they are essential for progress towards greater understanding. For a useful evaluative survey of different evolutionary perspectives on human behaviour, including memetics, see Laland and Brown (2002).




For philosophers of translation, I think the memetics view offers a number of challenges and perhaps some useful conceptual tools. It assumes that we translate ideas, not languages. It assumes that modification is an inherent aspect of this process, that equivalence in translation is not identity but more like continuity, that metonymy is a more appropriate descriptive figure for translation than metaphor. It sees translation as a process of dissemination, of sharing, rather than as a movement from A to B. It does not assume that languages are water-tight boxes, enclosed systems posing Quine’s problem of radical translation; but rather that they are open, permeable and fuzzy repertoires between which exchange and mutual interaction is normal and permanent. It assumes that there are parallels  between biological and cultural evolution, and that translation is a natural evolutionary phenomenon rather than an exceptional case. And it implicitly assumes that translation, like all communication, is always relative, never absolute. So translatability is not a problem.





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[1] The introductory sections of this essay come largely from Chesterman 2001.