I've not been convinced by memes thus far. To a great extent they seem like a judgemental short cut advanced by disapproving scientists to account for religion without viewing it in any broader social context. To quote an abstract by Susan Blackmore, 'Not only does the God meme satisfy minds that were not evolved to accurately assess the origins of the universe or the likelihood of life after death, but wraps itself up in religious memeplexes that use threats and promises to ensure their own propagation'.
There are a number of problems with this. For one, it doesn't really account for contrary theories held by minds presumably at exactly the same evolutionary disadvantage. As some critics have noted, there does not seem to be a tendency for bad memes to be countered by good ones. In the work of Richard Dawkins, for example, there is a tendency for bad memes to be countered by rational criticism, which doesn't seem to have memetic status. (1) Indeed, some scientists have pointed to this problem more generally. Lewis Wolpert has written 'Just what a meme is, and how it is distinguishable from beliefs, I find difficult. Is the word "bird" a meme, and is the second law of thermodynamics also one?' (2)
This tendency of memetics reveals a lack of familiarity with the study of traditional narrative and its transmission. Schrempp has pointed out that folklorists have long dealt with the transmission of traditional narrative elements - 'less ideologically and more scientifically', he notes archly - in trait and motif studies. (3)
A related problem, with more serious implications, is the implication that these motifs are themselves responsible for their own transmission. (This is clearer in Blackmore's writings than in Dawkins's). Folklorists' examination of motifs and types does not proceed from the assumption that the stories are transmitting themselves. What sounds like the ultimate in materialism from the memeticists is a way of removing human agency from cultural artefacts. It gives the idea supremacy in its philosophical framework. If you tell a myth, or believe in a god, this is evidence of your human failings in the face of quasi-genetic elements, rather than any cultural expression.
Distasteful though I may find it intellectually, however, the 'meme' has acquired a certain folk life as a way of representing transmitted ideas. You do find it in popular discussion, and in that respect it must be taken seriously. It exists as a popular and vague definition. (I don't like the popular use of 'folklore' to mean something false, but I recognise it exists, and has to be factored into any appraisal of emic analysis).
What's interesting about Mason's appeal to memes is that you see that process at work. Although he pays lip service to the notion of self-replication, in practice he actually abandons much of the contentious baggage because he sees it in terms of agent-driven communication: 'ideas arise, are very quickly "market tested" and either take off, bubble under, insinuate themselves or if they are deemed no good they disappear. Ideas self-replicate like genes. Prior to the internet this theory ... seemed an over-statement but you can now clearly trace the evolution of memes'.
I still find it a vague and unhelpful concept, in origin profoundly ignorant of any study of traditional communication, but there does seem to be some attempt to use memes now to express something closer to the items that people transmit between themselves. There seems to be some attempt to restore human matter to the transmission of non-material artefacts between people. To restore the folk to the folklore, maybe?
* * * * * * * * * *1: Gregory Schrempp, 'Taking the Dawkins Challenge, or, The Dark Side of the Meme', Journal of Folklore Research, 46.1 (2009), 91-100.
2: Lewis Wolpert, Six Impossible Things before Breakfast: The Evolutionary Origins of Belief (London: Faber and Faber, 2006), p. 30.
3: Schrempp, 'Dawkins', 98.