Gladwell’s primary thesis is that ideas or behavior can, under the right circumstances, spread like an epidemic. What precisely this means is not clear. However, there is another, serious problem with this book, a glaring omission. People sometimes talk about something being “blindingly obvious.” In this case, the omission is so obvious that it is more akin to staring at the sun at high noon. This omission can be summarized by a single word that appears nowhere in the text: Meme.
In his 1976 book, “The Selfish Gene,” Richard Dawkins, coined the term “meme” to mean, in essence, a unit of cultural transmission that reproduces and is selected for, akin to how genes are selected for by natural selection. Since 1976, “meme” has been used more loosely to mean an idea or behavior that spreads in a viral fashion. The idea of a meme is similar, if not identical, to what Gladwell discusses. Despite that, the word “meme” never appears once in Gladwell’s book. Nor is Dawkins mentioned or referenced once in the text.
Gladwell’s book was first published in 2000, many years after Dawkins’s coinage. This is not a case of two minds independently and simultaneously arriving at the same idea, like Leibniz and Newton. This is one mind, presenting an idea and then another mind publishing a similar idea while failing to acknowledge prior work. By academic standards, this is completely unacceptable.
One might think that, possibly, Gladwell’s research was sloppy, and so he never learned about Dawkins’s term “meme.” However, I read Gladwell’s book on Kindle, which includes many updates since the original book was published. It is implausible that, in the last nine years, Gladwell has never heard the term “meme.” And yet, he felt no need to add even a footnote or a sentence about Dawkins’s important prior work.
Most damningly: Gladwell does mention the word “meme” in passing on his website in the FAQ about the book:
5. Are you talking about the idea of memes, that has become so popular in academic circles recently?
It's very similar. A meme is a idea that behaves like a virus--that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects. I must say, though, that I don't much like that term. The thing that bothers me about the discussion of memes is that no one ever tries to define exactly what they are, and what makes a meme so contagious. I mean, you can put a virus under a microscope and point to all the genes on its surface that are responsible for making it so dangerous. So what happens when you look at an infectious idea under a microscope? I have a chapter where I try to do that. I use the example of children's television shows like Sesame Street and the new Nickelodeon program called Blues Clues. Both those are examples of shows that started learning epidemics in preschoolers, that turned kids onto reading and "infected" them with literacy. We sometimes think of Sesame Street as purely the result of the creative genius of people like Jim Henson and Frank Oz. But the truth is that it is carefully and painstaking engineered, down to the smallest details.
So an idea “very similar” to his doesn’t deserve a single mention in the entire book. Furthermore, the claim that the idea of a meme isn’t well-defined is simply false, as one can see from actually reading “The Selfish Gene.” Gladwell’s claim that individual memes have not been examined in detail is also false. Indeed, there was a Journal of Memetics for almost a decade that examined memes in detail. And if one accepts Dawkins notion that religion is inherently memetic, then all of religious studies is essentially an examination of memes. Some modern scholars have specifically examined religion in that context. In fact, Gladwell himself examines the rise of Methodism in the United States as an example.
Gladwell comes across as a child trying to explain why his hand was in the cookie jar. He advances a series of unconvincing, somewhat contradictory explanations, hoping that we will ignore the larger problem. So far as I can tell from Google searching, this strategy has worked; people have noted that Gladwell is talking about memes but no one has called him out for his failure to acknowledge this prior work. This isn’t acceptable. Gladwell’s behavior is intellectually dishonest. His failure to credit Dawkins or others who have thought about these ideas before him does a disservice to those individuals and to honest intellectual discourse. I don’t think Gladwell’s behavior constitutes plagiarism, but it certainly would be punished if it occurred in an academic setting. Failure to cite prior work results in a paper being rejected from any legitimate journal. If a student hands in an assignment that fails to cite prior work, the student receives a bad grade, if not outright failure. Gladwell owes his readers and Richard Dawkins an apology for his failure to acknowledge that Gladwell’s idea recycles Dawkins’s earlier work.