A meme, (rhymes with "dream" and comes from memetic and memory), is the term given to a unit of information that replicates from brains and inanimate stores of information, such as books and computers, to other brains or stores of information. The term meme was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his controversial bestselling book The Selfish Gene. Inanimate sources of information have been termed 'retention systems'.
In more specific terms, a meme is a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution, analogous to the gene (the unit of genetics). Memes can represent parts of ideas, languages, tunes, designs, skills, moral and aesthetic values and anything else that is commonly learned and passed on to others as a unit. The study of evolutionary models of information transfer is called memetics.
In casual use, the term meme is sometimes used to mean any piece of information passed from one mind to another. This is much closer to the analogy of "language as a virus" than it is to Dawkins's analogy of memes as replicating behaviors. Memes on the internet tend to proliferate for periods of time then quietly die off, and many start as obscure running jokes within net cliques which gradually lose their original meaning or otherwise become detached. Some people consider absurdist humor to be a good source of memes.
- "The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own."
- — Ralph Waldo Emerson
History of the meme concept
The concept of ideas that spread according to genetic rules predates the coining of the term; for example, William S. Burroughs asserted that "Language is a virus".
John Laurent in The Journal of Mimetics even suggested that the term meme itself may have come from the work of a little-known German biologist named Richard Semon . In 1904 Semon published Die Mneme (published in English as The Mneme in 1924). His book discussed the cultural transmission of experiences with insights parallel to those of Dawkins. Laurent found the use of the term mneme in The Soul of the White Ant (1927) by Maurice Maeterlinck and highlights its parallels to Dawkin's concept:
Now, the actual phrase that Maeterlinck uses - where he is discussing various theories which attempt to explain `memory' in termites as well as the other `social' insects (ants, bees etc.) - is "engrammata upon the individual mneme" (Maeterlinck, 1927, p.198), and according to my dictionary (Webster's Collegiate), an engram is "a memory trace; specif.: a protoplasmic change in neural tissue hypothesized to account for persistence of memory." For what it is worth, Maeterlinck explains that he obtained his phrase from the "German philosopher" Richard Semon.
Laurent suggests that the etymological roots of the term meme may come from mimneskesthai, the Greek term for memory rather than the more commonly accepted root of mimeisthai, or to imitate.
Everett Rogers pioneered the Diffusion of innovations theory, explaining how and why people adopt new ideas. Rogers was influenced by Gabriel Tarde, who set out "laws of imitation" that explained how people decided whether to imitate behaviour. Francis Heylighen of the Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies has come up with what he called Memetic Selection Criteria . These criteria opened the way to a specialized field of applied memetics to find out if these selection criteria could stand the test of quantitative analyses. In 2003 these tests were carried out by Klaas Chielens in a Masters thesis project on the testability of the selection criteria.
Memetics is the formal study of memes. Memetics can currently be regarded as either a field of sociology or a protoscience in its own right. It originated when Richard Dawkins reduced the process of biological genetic evolution to its most fundamental unit, the replicator (or gene). Dawkins, in a search for other things that might be classified as replicators, suggested that the information and ideas in brains, e.g. culture, could be replicators as well. Perhaps software is another replicator that evolution may eventually build grand things with.
Memetics takes concepts from the theory of evolution (especially population genetics) and applies them to human culture. It tries to explain many very controversial subjects, such as religion and political systems, using mathematical models.
Many thoughtful people wonder if the analogy of gene to culture will hold up and how the similarity would be tested.
Memetics must be distinguished from sociobiology which is concerned with the biological basis of human behavior. In sociobiology, the evolving entities are genes while in memetics they are memes. Memetics treats humans as products not only of biological evolution but of cultural evolution also.
Memetic association is the discovery that memes herd. For example, the meme for bluejeans includes memes for trouser flies, riveted clothing, blue dye, cotton clothing, belt loops, and double-sewn seams.
Memetic drift is the process of an idea or meme changing as it is replicated from one person to another. Memetic drift increases when the meme is transmitted in an awkward way. Very few memes show strong 'memetic inertia', which is the characteristic of a meme to be expressed in the same way and to have the same impact regardless of who is receiving or transmitting the meme. Memetic inertia increases when the meme is expressed using mnemonic devices, such as a rhyme, to preserve the memory of the meme prior to its transmission. See Murphy's law for one example of memetic drift.
Much of memetic terminology is created by prepending 'mem(e)-' to an existing, usually biological, term, or by putting 'mem(e)' in place of 'gen(e)' in various terms. Examples include: meme pool, memotype, memetic engineer, meme-complex.
- See also Memetic lexicon
Memetic evolution, like genetic evolution, cannot happen without mutation. Mutation produces the essential variations, of which those that are "better" at replication will become more common and therefore have a greater chance at replication again. However, unlike genetic evolution, memetic evolution has no separate underlying genotype. If, for example, a mouse loses its tail or a bodybuilder lifts weights the DNA information in their genotype will remain unchanged, and when replicating again will not pass on these acquired characteristics; however, in memetics the phenotype serves as the genotype and therefore changes in the former will accumulate and get passed on as they replicate. Therefore, memetics is said to be Lamarckian, which is somewhat ironic given that a great deal of effort and debate have gone into proving that genetic evolution is not. It is probable that through mutation language evolved into the modern wide array of dialects from just a handful of primitive syllables, let alone the wide array of symbolic meaning within individual dialects. Further mutations of language include writing, Braille, sign language, etc. Even the oft-cited All your base are belong to us meme produced variations such as "all your vote are belong to us". Other lines in the originating videogame's dialogue such as "Someone set up us the bomb" were also replicated on the Internet but with less success. Search engines can be used as an imperfect measure of the popularity of various memetic phrases.
Do cultures evolve?
Dawkins observed that cultures can evolve in much the same way that populations of organisms evolve. Various ideas are passed from one generation to the next which may either enhance or detract from the survival of the people who obtain those ideas. This process affects which of those ideas that will continue to be passed on to future generations. For example, a certain culture may have their own unique designs and methods of tool-building however the culture with the more effective methods will most likely prosper over the other culture. This leads to those methods being adopted by a higher proportion of the population as time passes. Each tool design thus acts somewhat similar to a biological gene in that some populations have it and others do not, and the presence of the design in future generations is directly affected by the meme's function.
Memes are propagated through imitation – a key characteristic. Imitation is a concept put forth by French sociologist Gabriel Tarde. To imitate basically means to take in information from the environment to the brain through any sense organ. The environment can be inanimate such as a book, or more typically another human from which information of a certain behavior is taken in and then performed. When imitation first evolved in humans it proved to be a good trick that increased an individual's ability to reproduce genetically. Perhaps sexual selection of the best imitators further drove the genetic increase in the ability of brains to imitate well. Memes propagate by imitation from one individual to another; therefore, they could not exist without brains that are powerful enough to assess the key aspects of the behavior to be imitated (what to copy and why) as well as its potential benefits. Memes (or behaviors acquired and propagated by imitation) have been observed in just a few species on Earth including hominids, dolphins, and birds which learn how to sing by imitating their parents. It is arguable however that there exists examples of less complex memes in other species — for example, imitative behavior has been artificially induced among cephalopods and rats.
Both genes and memes can survive much longer than the individual organisms that carry them. A successful gene (such as a gene for powerful teeth in a population of lions) can remain unchanged in the gene pool for hundreds of thousands of years. A successful meme can propagate itself from one individual to another long after it has first appeared.
In much the same way that the selfish gene concept can be used as a point of view from which to better understand and reason about biological evolution, the meme concept can be used to better understand some otherwise puzzling aspects of human culture (and learned behaviors of other animals as well). However, if "better" is not good enough to test empirically, the question will remain whether the meme concept is good enough for science. Memetics is thus a science in its infancy, a protoscience, although critics sometimes call it pseudoscience.
Evolution of memes
Evolution requires not only inheritance and natural selection but also mutation, and memes also exhibit this property. Ideas that are passed on may undergo changes which accumulate over time. These changes in the "phenotype" (the information in brains or retention systems) are passed on. In other words, unlike genetic evolution, they are both Darwinian and Lamarckian. For example, Folk tales and myths are often embellished in the retelling to make them more memorable — and therefore are more likely to be retold again. More modern examples can be found in the various urban legends and hoaxes that circulate on the Internet such as the Goodtimes virus warning.
A behavior, idea, or usage distinguishes itself as a meme when the likelihood of adoption is influenced by some property of itself. For example, tool designs affect the efficacy of a tool independently of the habits of the different people using them. Legends and myths often teach a moral lesson or explain a mystery, so they are more likely to be retold to serve different speakers' purposes than other similar stories without those elements.
Evolutionary forces affecting memes
A gene or a meme's success is determined only by the number of copies (and where the copies reside) that are extant. There is a strong correlation between genes that do well and genes that have a positive effect on the organism which contains those genes. And if we restrict attention to memes that are normally interpreted as statements of fact then there is a correlation between those memes that do well and those that are true. However there are genes and memes whose success is due to other factors. Similarly there is a correlation between memes of a technological/economic nature that are successful and those that are helpful to the economy.
A gene's success in a body may be due to its attempt to bypass the normal sexual lottery by making itself present in more than 50% of zygotes in an organism. Alternatively some genes are selected for by sexual selection. Hence the evolution of genes is influenced by many factors other than just the success of the species as a whole. Similarly the evolutionary pressures on memes include much more than just truth and economic success. The evolutionary pressures include the following:
- Experience: If a meme does not correlate with an individual's experience then that individual is less likely to remember that meme.
- Happiness: If a meme makes people feel happier then they are more likely to remember it.
- Fear: If a meme constitutes a threat then people may be frightened into believing it. For example, "if you do not do this, you will burn in hell" and "do this and you will go to heaven".
- Censorship: If a corrupt organisation destroys any retention systems containing a particular meme or otherwise controls the usage of said meme, then that meme is put at a selective disadvantage. (Note that "Censorship is wrong" is a meme. It is interesting to speculate that this meme may have prospered by increasing the wealth of those nations that enforced it thus increasing the influence of that meme itself).
- Economics: If a particular meme is held by people or organisations that have economic influence, then the meme is likely to benefit from a greater audience. If a meme tends to increase the riches of an individual holding it then that meme is likely to spread because of imitation. Such memes would include "Hard work is good" and "Put number one first."
A meme, like a gene, does not purposely do or want anything — it either gets replicated or not.
Memetic virus exchange?
A controversial application of this "selfish meme" parallel is the idea that certain collections of memes can act as "memetic viruses": collections of ideas that behave like independent life forms, and continue to get passed on even at the expense of their hosts simply because they are good at getting passed on. It has been suggested that evangelical religions and cults behave this way; by including the act of passing on their beliefs as a moral virtue, other beliefs of the religion also get passed along even if they are not particularly valuable to the believer.
Others note that the wide prevalence of human adoption of religious ideas proves that they must have some ecological, sexual, ethical or moral value. For example, most religions urge peace and cooperation among their followers, i.e. "Thou shalt not kill", which may tend to promote the biological survival of social groups that carry these memes. Certainly religious promoters claim such value for following their rules or principles — but how is that related to what they feel is divine?
There is a tendency in memetics to disparage religious memes. However, some authorities speculate that traditional religions act as mental immune systems to suppress new memes that can be harmful. For example, Christianity forbids both murder and suicide, and its precise definitions of heresy assure that new religions that advocate such actions cannot be accepted by educated Christians.
It is surprising to many memetics advocates to learn of meme-like concepts described long ago, which are prevalent in Sufi teaching. Muwakkals are considered separate beings, elementals, that make up human thought.
How "natural" is this type of selection? Perhaps as natural as sexual attraction or ethical habits. The relationship of the meme to other ideas of evolution, e.g. those that separate ecological, sexual, ethical and moral factors and reserve no special or separate role for "culture" beyond these, seems to be as "pretender to the throne" - pretending to explain these more specific ideas of evolution and culture - but without any model to test. This causes quite a few scientists and others to scoff at culture as any kind of factor in human life.
A famous observation of this type was that of Margaret Thatcher, who bluntly stated "there is no such thing as society" - evidently she saw "it" as a set of survival, seduction and moral choice factors specific to individuals, couples and families, and not as a unified "culture" or "society" in any sense.
Reproductive isolation in meme 'speciation'
In traditional population genetics the normal genetic variation, selection, and drift do not lead to formation of a new species without some form of 'reproductive isolation '; i.e. in order to split a single species into two species, the two subpopulations of the original species must somehow be prevented from interbreeding, which would normally maintain their heterogeneity. However, once separated, natural selection and/or just genetic drift acting on the normal genetic variation in the two subspecies will eventually change enough characteristics of the two subgroups that they can no longer interbreed, which by definition means that they will comprise two different species. Examples of reproductive isolation include geographical isolation, where a 'suddenly' appearing mountain range or river separates the two subgroups; temporal isolation, where one subgroup becomes entirely diurnal in its habits while the other becomes entirely nocturnal; or even just 'behavioral' isolation, as seen in wolves and domestic dogs: they could interbreed, biologically speaking, but normally they do not.
A similar phenomenon can occur with memes. Normally, the population of individuals having a meme in their consciousness is heterogeneous and mixes enough to keep the meme intact although it covers a wide range of variations. Should that population be split however without sufficient contact for the two different subgroups of variations of the meme to equilibrate, eventually each group will evolve its own version of that meme, differing sufficiently from that of the other group to be considered a distinct entity.
One example of this occurring on the Internet is the Kellerman meme. A search of the web and/or Usenet for the word 'Kellerman' will turn up a large number of citations, describing at great length the dastardly behavior of a 'Dr. Arthur Kellerman', who, with the willing assistance of the Centers for Disease Control and the 'powerful public health lobby' fabricated false studies in order to implicate firearms (and by extension their owners) as a menace to public safety, for the purposes of statist control of the population which would otherwise be thwarted by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution, the right to keep and bear arms. The authors of these pages and postings tell a morality tale of transparent machinations, refutation of the junk science, desperate recantation by Dr. 'Kellerman' too late; the decline of his reputation, his career in a shambles, but nevertheless the brazen use of his long discredited work by 'gun-grabbers'.
In reality, of course, there is no 'Dr. Arthur Kellerman', at least not in any connection with the above description. There is, however, a Dr. Arthur Kellermann (with double n), who has indeed published several papers estimating the overall impact on the public health of firearm availability and various aspects of firearm storage etc., as part of a robust and healthy career in public health and emergency and trauma medicine. Like any such series of studies, there are strengths and weaknesses in Kellermann's work which are rigorously debated both in the literature and online; however, even after eliminating matters of opinion and statements which are not 100% supported, the remaining easily verifiable facts of Kellermann's publications, career, the details of each study, etc. are virtually unrecognizable in the description of the wicked Dr. Kellerman.
What has happened is an example of the original meme of Kellermann and his work on gun-related violent injury having generated a new meme, 'Dr. Kellerman lying evil gun-grabbing enemy of freedom', by the classic genetic phenomenon of a deletion mutation. The subpopulation involved was that with strongly negative attitudes towards Kellermann's work as well as a lack of first hand familiarity with his studies, career, etc.. Because of the 'reproductive isolation' caused by the total nonintersection of the results of searches for "Kellerman" and "Kellermann", the 'Kellerman' meme drifted even further in the direction of negativity, unchecked by reality. As this group encounters new individuals of similar general outlook, they are introduced to the 'Kellerman' lore only, and go on to produce their own websites and postings furthering the rapid progress of this meme over the interval of the Internet's existence.
This phenomenon also demonstrates two other features of memes; the 'meme-complex': a set of mutually-assisting 'co-memes' which have co-evolved a symbiotic relationship, and the 'Villain vs. Victim' infection strategy. 
Forms taken by memes in the brain
In 1981 biologists Charles J. Lumsden and Edward Osborne Wilson published a theory of gene-culture coevolution in the book Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process. They pointed out that the fundamental biological units of culture must correspond to neuronal networks that function as nodes of semantic memory. Wilson later adopted the term "meme" as the best existing name for the fundamental unit of cultural inheritance and elaborated upon the fundamental role of memes in unifying the natural and social sciences in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge.
The "be happy" and "make others happy" memes
Some spiritual practices, e.g. Buddhism, clearly promote ecological and moral goals recognizable to most people, i.e. The Noble Eightfold Path emphasizes limited consumption, reduced cruelty, no delegation of violence or participation in violent systems, and a withdrawal from sexual and ethical processes that have no clear ecological or moral value to the practitioner — regardless of the value they may have to others.
The Judeo-Christian-Islamic "Western" religions however focus more on devotion to a transcendent deity and moral codes of behavior, including social and ethical codes affecting every aspect of life from selfless love to commerce to sexual behavior. People are urged to devote themselves to the needs of others.
The contrast between "be happy" and "make others happy", although not as stark in practice or theory as the traditional debate suggests, may satisfy constraints of different ecological or sexual norms in some non-obvious way. But it seems entirely unlikely that "they aren't particularly valuable to the believer." At least, the majority of people on Earth clearly do not think so.
Some consider whether religion itself is a meme or to be more exact a group of associated memes - a memeplex. Some fundamentalist evangelical movements are notable for only acting to add to their own number. The movements in question devote almost one-hundred percent of their time to the activity of evangelism and therefore serve no other function. This makes it possible for them to be characterised as simply a self-serving, and in some cases particularly virulent, virus.
The American Religious Right has a unified message built around religious dogma. By attaching conservative political views to Christian religious evangelism (meme piggybacking) they have associated a set of political ideas/memeplexes with a set of religious ideas/memeplexes that throughout history has "replicated" itself very effectively. That is, Christianity has won converts for centuries; now in many cases a political conversion is part and parcel with the religious conversion.
Karl Popper advocated this in the strongest possible terms: "the survival value of intelligence is that it allows us to extinct a bad idea, before the idea extincts us."
Resistance to science and technology has been a common meme (or anti-meme or un-meme) that can guide human cultural and cognitive evolution away from disastrous paths - for instance the US and USSR stockpiled but did not use nuclear weapons in the Cold War period. Ignorance has been in some cultures considered a virtue - in particular ignorance of certain temptations that the culture believes would be disastrous if pursued by many individuals.
The Internet, perhaps the ultimate meme vector, seems to be hosting both sides of this debate. Although it would seem to a na´ve observer that no adult user of the Internet could oppose its use by other adults, that does in fact happen, based on any number of criteria from ethics to intent to ability to resist hacking or pornography.
Principia Cybernetica holds a lexicon of memetics concepts , comprising a list of different types of memes. It also refers to an essay by Jaron Lanier: The ideology of cybernetic totalist intellectuals which is very strongly critical of "meme totalist s" who assert memes over bodies.
Examples of memes
The following statements are crudely stated versions of some common memes:
- Technology is a major example, such as cars, paperclips etc. Technology clearly demonstrates mutation as well which is essential for memetic (or genetic) progress to be made. There have been many paperclip designs throughout history, for example with varying degrees of longevity, fecundity and copying fidelity (ie. memetic "success")
- Jingles; advertising slogans set to an engaging melody
- Earworms; A song that you can't stop humming or thinking. "It's a Small World After All" is commonly used as an example.
- Jokes; Or at least jokes that are popularly considered to be funny
- Proverbs and aphorisms (e.g., "You can't keep a good man down")
- Nursery rhymes; are propagated from parent to child over many generations, sometimes with associated actions and movements.
- Epic poems; used to be important memes for preserving oral history, although they have largely been killed off by writing.
- Chain letters; "You must send this message to five other people, or something bad will happen to you."
- Religions are complex memes, and religion, including folk religious beliefs, can even spread virally (such as The Prayer of Jabez).
- Conspiracy theories
- "I am a lucky person. Here are some stories of my luck. If you believe in good luck, you can become lucky like me." (and its obverse: see luck).
- Internet phenomena such as Internet slang and Internet humor (like All your base are belong to us)
- Susan Blackmore theorized that a "self" is merely a collection of memetic stories which she calls the selfplex.
- The concept of memes is itself a meme. Even the idea that the concepts of memes is itself a meme has become a widely spread meme. However, the idea that the idea that the concepts of memes is itself a meme, is not yet particularly common as a meme.
- Movies are very memetic given their mass replication, causing people to imitate a huge number of things they observe in them such as saying "You can't handle the truth" from A Few Good Men or "Alllllllrighty then" from Ace Ventura, even if they have not seen the movies themselves.
- Longstanding political memes such as "mob rule" and "republic, not a democracy".
- All sorts of group-based biases, from antisemitism and racism to cargo cults.
- Programming paradigms, from structured programming to extreme programming.
- Moore's Law has a particularly interesting form of self-replication. The conviction that "semiconductor complexity doubles every 18 months" became more than a predictive observation but a performance target for an entire industry once it was extensively believed. Manufacters now strive to make the next generation of semiconductor technology recreate the performance growth of the previous generation and so maintain belief in Moore's Law.
- Wikis: the proliferation of the collaborative editing systems following the Wiki example in their multiple incarnations. Wikipedia, Wiktionary etc.
- Concepts like Freedom, Justice, Ownership, Open Source or Altruism
The Memetic Lexicon is a list of attributes concerning memes that was compiled by Glenn Grant under a "share-alike" license. The thoughtful examples it offers help focus the concept, for a reader for whom "meme" is unfamiliar. The Lexicon has been circulating since the early 90s, and is currently on its third incarnation.
- A Memetic Lexicon
- The Meme Machine by Susan Blackmore, Oxford University Press , 1999, hardcover ISBN 0198503652, trade paperback ISBN 0965881784, May 2000, ISBN 019286212X
- The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, Oxford University Press , 1976, 2nd edition, December 1989, hardcover, 352 pages, ISBN 0192177737; April 1992, ISBN 019857519X; trade paperback, September 1990, 352 pages, ISBN 0192860925
- Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society by Aaron Lynch, Basic Books, 1999, ISBN 0465084672
- Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme by Richard Brodie, Integral Pr, September 1995, 251 Pages, ISBN 0963600117
- The Lucifer Principle: A Scientific Expedition into the Forces of History by Howard Bloom, Atlantic Monthly Press, February 1997, 480 pages, ISBN 0871136643
- The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think by Robert Aunger , Free Press, 2002, hardcover ISBN 0743201507
- Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, Bantam Doubleday Dell, reprint, 2000, trade paperback: 440 pages, ISBN 0553380958 (science fiction novel about a metavirus which can penetrate and take over any information system, and thus can spread as gene, meme, or biological virus)
- The Ideology of Cybernetic Totalist Intellectuals an essay by Jaron Lanier which is very strongly critical of "meme totalists " who assert memes over bodies.
- The Music of Life, Pir Hazrat Inayat Khan , Omega Uniform Edition, 2nd edition, 1993, trade paperback: 353 pages, ISBN 093087238X. An introduction to the muwakkals, the Eastern memes.
- Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
- Principia Cybernetica holds a lexicon of memetics concepts , comprising a list of different types of memes.
- A list of memetics publications on the web
- Cultural Selection by Agner Fog. Dordrecht: Kluwer 1999. ISBN 0-7923-5579-2.
- The Masculist Meme by Alan Carr. Lulu Publishing, Content .58184 Examines political correctness as a mind virus.
- Memeiosis by Steven Ericsson-Zenith - a formal characterization of Memes.
- Culture as Complex Adaptive System by Hokky Situngkir - formal interplays between memetics and cultural analysis.
- "Eyes at the back of your head: How Richard Semon's memes gave way to Richard Dawkins's memes" by Tim Flannery , Times Literary Supplement, October 19, 2001.
- The Viral Aspects of Language: A Quantitative Research of Memetic Selection Criteria by Klaas Chielens
- Chain letter
- Diffusion of innovations
- Everett Rogers
- Exploding sheep
- Gabriel Tarde
- Meme pool
- Metal Gear Solid 2 - a computer game which centres on the concept that history itself is memetic
- Paradigm shift
- Urban myth
- Meme Designed to Help Make Blogs More Visible! (GoMeme 4.0)
- Meme List