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The term meme ([miːm] in the IPA; rhymes with "dream"; from the Greek word mimema for 'something imitated') first came into popular use with the publication of the book The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins in 1976. Though Dawkins defined the meme as "a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation," memeticists vary in their definitions of meme. The lack of a consistent, rigorous and precise definition of a meme remains one of the principal criticisms leveled at memetics, the study of memes.

The notion of a unit of social evolution, and a similar term (from Greek mneme, 'memory'), first appeared in 1904 in a work by the German evolutionary biologist Richard Semon: Die Mnemische Empfindungen in ihren Beziehungen zu den Originalenempfindungen, translated into English in 1921 as The Mneme.

Different definitions of meme generally agree, very roughly, that a meme consists of some sort of a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution having a resemblance to the gene (the unit of genetics). Dawkins introduced the term after writing that evolution depended not on the particular chemical basis of genetics, but only on the existence of a self-replicating unit of transmission — in the case of biological evolution, the gene. For Dawkins, the meme exemplifies another self-replicating unit, and most importantly, one which he thought would prove useful in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.

In casual use, the term meme often refers to any piece of information passed from one mind to another. This usage more closely resembles the analogy of "language as a virus" than Dawkins' analogy of memes as replicating units. This definition has come into popular use on the Internet to refer to phenomena such as Obey Giant, "All your base are belong to us", Blogebrity and Icy Hot Stuntaz.

Basic introduction

Though memeticists do not generally agree on a specific definition, one can roughly define 'meme' as any piece of information transferable from one mind to another. Examples might include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods.

Memes supposedly have, as their fundamental property, evolution via natural selection in a way very similar to Charles Darwin's ideas concerning biological evolution, on the premise that replication, mutation, survival and competition influence them. For example, while one idea may become extinct, others will survive, spread and mutate — for better or worse — through modification. Note an important fact, however: not only the memes most beneficial to their hosts will necessarily survive; rather, memes supposedly spread best by functioning as the most effective replicators, which allows for the possibility that successful memes might prove detrimental to their hosts.

History of the concept of the meme

The concept of ideas that spread according to genetic rules predates the coining by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene; for example William S. Burroughs asserted that "language is a virus."

John Laurent in The Journal of Memetics has suggested that the term 'meme' itself may have derived from the work of the little-known German biologist 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 Dawkins's concept:

Maeterlinck, in discussing theories which attempt to explain 'memory' in termites as well as the other social insects (ants, bees etc.), uses the phrase "engrammata upon the individual mneme" (Maeterlinck, 1927, p.198). Webster's Collegiate dictionary defines an engram as "a memory trace; specif.: a protoplasmic change in neural tissue hypothesized to account for persistence of memory". Note that Maeterlinck explains that he obtained his phrase from the "German philosopher" Richard Semon. [1]

Laurent suggests that the etymological roots of the term 'meme' may come from mimneskesthai, the Greek verb for 'to remember, to keep in mind' rather than from Dawkins' root of mimeisthai, "to imitate."

Everett Rogers pioneered the "Diffusion of innovations" theory (formalised in 1962) which explains how and why people adopt new ideas. Rogers reflected some of the influence of Gabriel Tarde, who set out "laws of imitation" in his book of 1890 that explained how people decided whether to imitate behavior. 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 Klaas Chielens carried out these tests in a Masters thesis project on the testability of the selection criteria.

"Ideas have a life of their own"

The old saying "Ideas have a life of their own" clearly encapsulates the "meme about memes". Keith Henson has traced this quote back to 1910 where an unknown interviewer of Gilbert Keith Chesterton used it - apparently as an old saying at that time. (Reported in alt.quotations [2])


Main article: Memetics

Memetics, the study of memes, remains a controversial field among many scientists and skeptics. Memetics 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 parallels and other things that he might classify as replicators, suggested that the information and ideas in brainsculture, for example — could function as replicators as well. Computer software may represent another form of replicator with which evolution may eventually build grand things, whether socially as in the open source movement, or through the use of evolutionary algorithms.

Memetics takes concepts from the theory of evolution (especially population genetics) and applies them to human culture. Memetics also uses mathematical models to try to explain many very controversial subjects such as religion and political systems. Principal criticisms of memetics include the claim that memetics ignores established advances in the fields (such as sociology, cognitive psychology, social psychology, etc.) most relevant to the claims and methodologies of memetics.

The term memetic association refers to the idea that memes herd. For example, a meme for blue jeans includes memes for trouser-flies, riveted clothing, blue dye, cotton clothing, belt-loops and double-sewn seams. In this way, groups of memes can operate symbiotically (to use a biological analogy) in the sense that they act for their mutual benefit/survival.

The phrase memetic drift (formed by analogy to genetic drift) refers to the process of a meme changing as it replicates between one person to another. Memetic drift increases when meme transmission occurs in an awkward way. Very few memes show strong memetic inertia (the characteristic of a meme to manifest in the same way and to have the same impact regardless of who receives or transmits the meme). Memetic inertia increases when the meme transfers along with 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.

Memeticists generate much memetic terminology 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.

Memetic engineering

Memetic engineering consists of the process of developing memes, through meme-splicing and memetic synthesis, with the intent of altering the behavior of others. It is the process of creating and developing theories or ideologies based on an analytical study of societies, their ways of thinking and the evolution of the minds that comprise them. Memes are themselves morally neutral; not necessarily good or bad. However the application of memes can have moral implications, such as controlling the thinking of others in catastrophic ways. History furnishes many examples, such as the genocide that took place in Rwanda involving the Hutus and the Tutsis. Racism provides another example of a common meme: an ideology that has come to separate people. Once introduced into a culture, memes evolve and spread through society, sometimes becoming both harmful and attractive so that they spread like a virus. (Ref.: 1994 G. Burchett)

Memetic evolution

Memetic evolution, like genetic evolution, cannot happen without mutation. Mutation produces the essential variations, whereupon those variations that prove "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 genetic information in their genotype, stored on their DNA, will remain unchanged, and when that genetic information replicates it will not pass on these acquired superficial characteristics.

In memetics the phenotype serves as the genotype and therefore changes in the former will accumulate and get passed on as they replicate. Memetics therefore behaves in a Lamarckian manner, highlighting the apparent irony of a great deal of effort and debate devoted to proving that genetic evolution does not function in a Lamarckian manner.

Language most likely evolved by means of mutation from just a handful of primitive syllables (the original language phenotypes) into the modern wide array of 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", have also replicated on the Internet, but with less success. Researchers may employ search engines as an imperfect tool in measuring 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 pass from one generation to the next; such ideas may either enhance or detract from the survival of the people who obtain those ideas. This process affects which of those ideas will survive for passing on to future generations. For example, a certain culture may have unique designs and methods of tool-making that another culture may not have; therefore, the culture with the more effective methods may prosper more than the other culture, ceteris paribus. This leads to a higher proportion of the overall population adopting the more effective methods as time passes. Each tool design thus acts somewhat similarly to a biological gene in that some populations have it and others do not, and the meme's function directly affects the presence of the design in future generations.

Propagation of memes

Memes have as an important characteristic their propagation through imitation, a concept introduced by the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde. Imitation means to copy the observed behaviour of another individual. Typically imitators copy behaviour from observing other humans, but they may also copy from an inanimate source, such as from a book or from a musical score.

When imitation first evolved in the animal ancestors of humans, it proved itself a valuable skill for learning, which increased an individual's ability to reproduce genetically. Some have speculated that sexual selection of the best imitators further drove a genetic increase in the ability of brains to imitate well.

Memes propagate by imitation, direct or indirect, of one individual by another, and thus depend on brains sufficiently powerful to assess the key aspects of the imitated behavior (what to copy and why) as well as its potential benefits. Researchers have observed memetic copying in just a few species on Earth, including hominids, dolphins and birds which learn how to sing by imitating their parents. One could argue however that there exist examples of less complex memes in other species — for example, scientists have artificially induced imitative behavior in cephalopods and in rats. Zoopharmacognosy (the use of drugs by animals) may conceivably exemplify an animal meme. Observers have noticed that some species ingest non-foods, such as toxic plants or charcoal, to ward off parasitic infestation or poisoning, respectively (for an accessible description of several examples, see Template:Web reference 4).

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, or even millions of years. A successful meme can propagate itself from one individual to another long after the original form of the meme perished with its carrier.

Interestingly, memetics suggests that memes have the potential for a much more lasting effect than genes. Most organisms pass their genes on to their offspring sexually, but with every generation the genetic contribution of a given ancestor halves - so that a person only has 1/4 of their grandfather's personal genes, for example (of course most genes are inherited in common). Susan Blackmore has poignantly evaluated the legacy of Socrates. Since the 5th century BC Socrates' genes have become thoroughly diluted (dispersed); however, his memes still have a profound effect on modern thought and on contemporary philosophical discourse.

Biological analogies

In much the same way that the selfish gene concept offers a fruitful way of understanding and reasoning about aspects of biological evolution, the meme concept allegedly can conceivably assist in the better understanding of some otherwise puzzling aspects of human culture (and learned behaviors of other animals as well). However, if one cannot test for "better" empirically, the question will remain whether or not the meme concept counts as a valid scientific theory. Memetics thus remains a science in its infancy, a protoscience (although critics sometimes label it a pseudoscience).

Thoughts as discrete units

Although memeticists speak of memes as discrete units, this need not imply that thoughts somehow become quantized or that "atomic" ideas exist which one cannot break down into smaller pieces. The meme as a unit simply provides a convenient way of discussing "a piece of thought copied from person to person", regardless of whether that thought contains others inside it, or forms part of a larger meme. A meme could consist of a single newly-coined word, or a meme could consist of the entire speech in which that word was first uttered. The "word itself" meme will most likely survive many more generations (after transmission alone or in other sentences) than the "speech in its entirety" meme will survive (due to errors of memory, abridged versions, etc.)

This forms an analogy to the idea of a gene as a self-replicating set of code. The gene in this definition does not consist of a set number of nucleotides, but simply a collection of nucleotides (possibly in many different locations on the DNA) that replicate together and code for some set of behaviors or body parts.

Evolution of memes

Evolution requires not only inheritance and natural selection but also mutation, and memes also exhibit this property. Ideas may undergo changes in transmission which accumulate over time. Generations of hosts pass on these changes in the "phenotype" (the information in brains or retention systems). In other words, unlike genetic evolution, memetic evolution can show both Darwinian and Lamarckian traits. For example, folk tales and myths often become embellished in the retelling to make them more memorable or more appropriate and therefore more impressed listeners have a greater likelihood of retelling them, complete with embellishments. More modern examples appear in the various urban legends and hoaxes — such as the Goodtimes virus warning — that circulate on the Internet.

A behavior, idea or usage distinguishes itself as a meme when some property of itself influences the likelihood of adoption. 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 (but not complete) 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 normally interpreted as statements of fact, then a correlation emerges between those memes that do well and those that reflect reality. However, some genes and memes do survive which owe their success to other factors. Similarly, a correlation exists between successful memes of a technological/ economic nature and those that help the economy.

A gene's success in a body may stem from its attempt to bypass the normal sexual lottery by making itself present in more than 50% of zygotes in an organism. Some genes find other ways of having themselves transmitted between cells. Hence multiple factors influence the evolution of genes — not just the success of the species as a whole. Similarly the evolutionary pressures on memes include much more than just truth and economic success. Evolutionary pressures may include the following:

  1. Experience: If a meme does not correlate with an individual's experience, then that individual has a reduced likelihood of remembering that meme
  2. Happiness: If a meme makes people feel happier then they have a greater likelihood of remembering it
  3. Fear: If a meme constitutes a threat then people may become frightened into believing it. The memes "if you do this you will burn in hell" and "do this and you will go to heaven" provide common examples. On the other hand, examples of memes which pass on the fear of a threat, of the likelihood or effectiveness of a threat, that "something will happen if you do such and such a thing", have a high likelihood of success, and may therefore replicate and remain in the meme pool. They may serve in this way for the survival of a thought, a theme or a philosophy within a community.
  4. Censorship: If an organisation destroys any retention systems containing a particular meme or otherwise controls the usage of said meme, then that meme suffers a selective disadvantage. (Note the "Censorship is wrong" meme. One can 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.)
  5. Economics: If people or organisations with economic influence exhibit a particular meme, then the meme has a greater likelihood of benefitting from a greater audience. If a meme tends to increase the riches of an individual holding it, then that meme may spread because of imitation. Such memes might include "Hard work is good" and "Put number one first".
  6. Distinction: If the meme enables hearers to recognize and respect tellers (as leaders, intelligent people, insightful, etc.), then the meme has a greater chance of spreading. The erstwhile receivers will want to become themselves tellers of the same meme (or an evolved/mutated version). Thus élite knowledge can provide a promotion to élite status.

Memes, like genes, do not purposely do or want anything — they either get replicated or not. Some meme systems have negative effects on the host or on their host society, but we generally have a symbiotic relationship with these abstract entities.

Memes don't mutate in an exclusively passive way. The brain inhabited by a meme system performs a sort of active modification of a meme. One could draw an analogy with a cell's error-correction systems, but they clearly function quite differently. In essence, people create and modify memes almost continuously. One can modify, manipulate, and create meme systems in thought, for instance through internal dialogue. As soon as one opens one's mouth and says something (or does something) that one has not copied (but that others can copy), one has unleashed a novel meme. Thus, one could conclude that we all perform the role of a memetic engineer to some degree (even if not consciously).

This seems especially evident in modern society, more notably in the scientific and philosophical realms and in the entertainment industry. It has become standard practice for scientists and philosophers alike to assemble memetic systems and to question their philosophical and empirical integrity. On perceiving a flaw, one may seek philosophical (thought experiments/logic/analysis) or empirical (experimental/observational/[questionably] mathematical) resolution. This happens in large part due to the influence of some of the more "modern" philosophers of the past. Over the last few hundred (or thousand) years, a "philosophy" or paradigm has evolved and developed which benefits the societies in which many embrace it. That philosophy includes the ethical, moral, and scientific obligation to take nothing for granted and always to question any new information one perceives. People following this tradition have transformed the memetic base of modern science and philosophy. These people include (just to name a scant few) Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Benjamin Franklin and Karl Popper. Science accepts nothing as true unless empirical evidence and observation suggests such “truth” strongly and consistently. This entire procedure adheres to a meme system that has evolved to the point of rejecting almost any absolute truth. This meme system now includes such novel analytical paradigms as the scientific method and Dewey's Decision-Making model (among many other meme-based systems) to help distinguish useful (or truthful) meme systems from "bad" ones.

Essentially, people modify and fabricate memes consciously, even intentionally (though some argue that the intention comes from the memes). This would help to explain how rapidly, extensively and usefully memetic evolution has functioned in and for culture. People apply many ever-evolving meme-based systems of analysis and error correction to all information flowing in and out. Just as genetic material has developed gene-based error-correction models, memetic systems have found it advantageous to associate with meme-based error-correction models. The entire process could appear as meme-based systemic complexes taking advantage (like a virus) of an extensive computational system (the human brain in this case), programming it to produce and modify memes, and thus to modify and expand the memotypic soup which largely dictates our thoughts and actions (and of course to build very useful - but still likely erroneous - memeplexes).

In early social development, people and memes influence each other just as with developed individuals. People later may become aware of this influence and begin to consciously filter what influence the meme systems have on them as well as what influence they have on meme systems (likely in response to memeplex programming). In later, possibly somewhat esoteric stages, people become more acutely aware of the meme systems flooding their existence, and many people have begun to reach a more complete comprehension of these memes through a novel memeplex which evolves to explain its own kind (though one does not necessarily need to know of meme theory to realize that the situation exists). Eventually, many see the potential to fabricate or modify meme systems consciously to specific ends, based on conscious plans and logical foresight (all aided by interacting memeplexes which arguably constitute thought), such that the memesphere becomes a cluttered canvas of interconnected variables which everyone influences. Enlightened, the memeticist (or the meme artist) manifests in society to expand symbolic culture at an ever-accelerating rate.

Many of the world's most successful religions (and arguably all religions) have become subject to conscious memetic modification over time. Judaism, Christianity, Mormonism and Islam (and their descendents) — just to name a few in that family — all arose (presumably) through variation, modification and memetic recombination from a common one or few ancestors. (Zoroastrianism appears to have functioned as an important and widely-shared memetic ancestor, contributing to Judaism, Christianity, Islam and their many derivative religions.) Those ancestors presumably resulted from extensive memetic engineering themselves, possibly more impressive than the modification of their descendants (as early religious meme systems had less to work with).

Cultural materialism holds that the evolutionary pressures of economy and ecology explain many aspects of human culture. For example, the food taboos sometimes enshrined in religions - like the concepts of sacred cows, kosher and halal - would have prospered because they allowed the believing population to (say) live more hygienically and thus survive longer than non-believers in environments possibly more hostile to survival. A migration or a change of the economic infrastructure could render the taboo neutral or even adverse.

Memetic virus exchange?

One controversial application of this "selfish meme" parallel (cf. selfish gene) results in the idea that certain collections of memes can act as "memetic viruses": collections of ideas that behave as independent life forms which continue to get passed on — even at the expense of their hosts — simply because of their success at getting passed on. Some observers have suggested that evangelical religions and cults behave this way; so 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 do not provide particular benefits to the believer.

Others maintain that the wide prevalence of human adoption of religious ideas provides evidence to suggest that such ideas offer some ecological, sexual, ethical or moral value; otherwise memetic evolution would long ago have selected against such ideas. For example, most religions urge peace and cooperation among their followers ("Thou shalt not kill") which may possibly tend to promote the biological survival of the social groups that carry these memes.

A tendency exists in memetics to disparage religious memes. However, some speculate that traditional religions act as mental immune systems to suppress new and potentially harmful memes. Interestingly, we can compare this scenario with the action of a virus (here a religion or a "bundle" of religious memes) proving ineffective and maladaptive if it kills its host(s). For example, popular Christianity forbids both murder and suicide (an idea from Augustine of Hippo's The City of God), and its precise definitions of heresy ensure that "properly" educated Christians cannot accept new religions which advocate such actions.

One could make a case (as Susan Blackmore has done) that the study of Zen meditation in itself comprises a process of meme "pruning," i.e., a means to remove experiential clichés that reduce the value of life. This has not exempted Zen itself from serving as a source of highly mobile memes, such as "the sound of one hand clapping" koan or exclaiming "mu".

It may surprise many memetics advocates to learn of meme-like concepts described long ago, and prevalent in Sufi teaching. Muwakkals rank as separate beings, elementals, that make up human thought (compare Leibniz's monads).

(Note that the framing of this whole discussion may mislead. If humans, as seen rigorously from Richard Dawkins' perspective, comprise a collection of the extended effects of our various genes and memes, then the question of what counts as "valuable to the individual" cannot readily become separated from what benefits their genes and/or memes. Since one cannot easily determine the "ecological, sexual, ethical or moral value" of a meme outside of the context of the memes of the determiner, memeticists can easily misuse the idea of "meme" or of a "meme virus" to reject others' positions in a pseudo-scientific way. For example, insofar as you agree with me — i.e., we carry the same memes — I call your ideas "ideas"; insofar as I find your ideas wrong — i.e., you fail to transmit your memes to me — I can call them "memes" and brand you as "infected with a meme virus".)

Dawkins notes that one can distinguish a biological virus from its host's normal genetic material by the fact that it can propagate alone, without the entire genetic corpus of the host being propagated — or half of it, in the case of diploid sexual reproduction; thus, a virus can "sabotage" the host's other genes. This applies to memes in the sense that a meme that requires the success of its hosts has a greater likelihood of favouring the interests of these hosts than does a meme capable of succeeding even if each host quickly dies. For example, the commonplace meme encouraging people to wash their hands after they use the toilet or before handling food, and to remind others to do the same, is not at all harmful. In contrast, a cultish meme telling people to quit their jobs, abandon their families, and run around spreading the meme seems quite virulent.

Memetics offers maximum explanatory value in cases where one cannot demonstrate the truth of the contents of the meme. For example, one can readily show that washing hands helps to prevent illness, so the best explanation for the widespread popularity of this practice is that "it works," though memetics still helps explain the rate of spread, and details such as why the practice of washing hands before surgery took so long to catch on. Memetics though excels in explaining the spread of certain value judgements ("chastity is important"), preferences ("pork is repulsive"), superstitions ("black cats bring bad luck") and other scientifically unverifiable beliefs ("Allah is the one true God"), since one cannot easily account for any of these phenomena in terms of their truth-value. Calling someone's ideas/beliefs/action a "meme" therefore does not constitute an insult, but saying that it is "just a meme" does.

Non-natural selection

How "naturally" does this type of selection occur? Perhaps as naturally as sexual attraction or as 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 resemble that of a "pretender to the throne" — pretending to explain these more specific ideas of evolution and culture — but without any model to test. This causes some scientists and others to scoff at culture as any kind of factor in human life.

A famous observation of this type came from 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, genetic selection, and genetic 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 ultimately lose their ability to interbreed, 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 (isolation by time), 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 become 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 appear as a distinct entity.

The Kellerman meme provides an example of this occurring on the Internet. A search of the web and/or Usenet for the word 'Kellerman' will turn up many citations, describing at great length the behavior of a 'Dr. Arthur Kellerman', who, with the willing assistance of the Centers for Disease Control and the public health lobby, purportedly fabricated 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. The authors of these pages and postings describe purported machinations, "junk science," a subsequent recantation by Dr. 'Kellerman', and the use of his work by gun control proponents.

In reality, no "Dr. Arthur Kellerman" exists, 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, as part of a career in public health and emergency and trauma medicine. As in any such series of studies, Kellermann's work has strengths and weaknesses, which pundits rigorously debate both in the literature and online. However, even after eliminating matters of opinion and statements which are not fully supported, the remaining verifiable facts of Kellermann's studies and career remain virtually unrecognizable in the negative descriptions of 'Kellerman.'

The original meme of Kellermann and his work on gun-related violent injury has generated a new meme, "Dr. Kellerman is a evil lying gun-grabbing enemy of freedom," by the classic genetic phenomenon of a deletion mutation. The sub-population involved had strongly negative attitudes towards Kellermann's work as well as a lack of first-hand familiarity with his studies and career. Because of the "reproductive isolation" caused by the total non-intersection of the results of searches for "Kellerman" and "Kellermann," the 'Kellerman' meme drifted even further in the direction of negativity, unchecked by facts related to the real Kellermann. As this group encounters new individuals of similar general outlook, they introduce new recruits to the 'Kellerman' lore only, and go on to produce their own websites and postings furthering the rapid progress of this meme.

This phenomenon also demonstrates two other features of memes — the "meme-complex" (memeplex), 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 such as Buddhism clearly promote ecological and moral goals recognizable to most people. For example, 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 to moral codes of behavior, including social and ethical codes affecting every aspect of life from public behavior to commerce to sexual expression. Such religions strongly encourage people 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.)


Some (such as Dawkins himself, see [3]) consider religion itself a meme — or, more exactly, a memeplex or group of memes. To observers infected by a different set of memes, it appears that some fundamentalist evangelical movements act only to add to their own numbers. The movements in question devote what appears to their opponents as an inordinate amount of time to evangelical activity, and therefore may seem to unsympathetic observers to serve no other function. This makes it possible to characterize them as self-serving if one does not accept their premises (such as postulating a Hell). On the other hand, for the meme to continue to propagate, it must provide some spiritual or emotional good: catharsis, a release from worry and guilt, a sense of salvation, happiness, moral energy, etc.

The Religious Right in the United States of America has a unified message built around religious dogma. By attaching conservative political views to Christian religious evangelism (meme piggybacking), they have associated a particular set of political ideas/memeplexes with a separate set of religious ideas/memeplexes that have "replicated" very effectively for many centuries. Thus Christianity has won converts for centuries; now in many cases a religious conversion also becomes a political conversion. Compare cultural hegemony.

Note, however, that Christianity makes some core-truth claims which have existed far longer than any single culture's political realities. In fact, much early persecution of Christianity resulted from its adherents' refusal to adopt an enforced political ritual/view ( Emperor-worship). Synergy between value-systems does not necessarily equal values expressed in the political arena.

Note, contrariwise, that some perennial political issues have existed far longer than any single culture's religious system. Politico-religious memplexes form and re-form, evolve and decay.


Similarly, the scientific method offers a body of social and experimental techniques which, given certain preconditions — a free press for the circulation of information, a large number of people predisposed to see the world as a mechanism subject to general rules which can be discovered through repeatable experiments — acts highly virulently, spreading quickly through an educated population. By demonstrating its success at making predictions, science as a practice can make itself more attractive to converts. Whether or not experimenters can necessarily verify them, ideas and attitudes which scientists tend to hold or which "feel" aesthetically pleasing in combination with scientific discoveries, can propagate themselves in societies where science has a high status by the same process of "meme piggybacking".

Meme resistance

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 formed a common 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. Some cultures can consider ignorance a virtue — in particular, ignorance of certain temptations that the culture believes would prove disastrous if pursued by many individuals.

The Internet, perhaps the ultimate meme-vector, seems to host both sides of this debate. Although it would seem to a naïve 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.

The Principia Cybernetica project maintains 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 criticises very strongly "meme totalists" who assert memes over bodies.

Examples of memes

Crudely-stated versions of some common memes include:

  • Technology: cars, paper-clips, etc. Technology clearly demonstrates mutation as well, which memetic (or genetic) progress requires. Many paper-clip designs have emerged throughout history, for example, with varying degrees of longevity, fecundity and copying fidelity (i.e., memetic "success"). An often-cited example of "technology as meme" involves the building of a fire.
  • Jingles: advertising slogans set to an engaging melody
  • Earworms: songs that one can't stop humming or thinking. "It's a Small World After All" offers a common example.
  • Jokes: or at least those jokes popularly considered funny
  • Proverbs and aphorisms: for example: "You can't keep a good man down".
  • Nursery rhymes: propagated from parent to child over many generations, sometimes with associated actions and movements.
  • Children's culture: games, activities and taunts typical for different age groups.
  • Epic poems: once important memes for preserving oral history; writing has largely superseded them.
  • Chain letters: "You must send this message to five other people, or something bad will happen to you."
  • Conspiracy theories
  • Luck: "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)
  • Fashions: especially clothing styles such as blue jeans.
  • Medical and safety advice: "Don't swim for an hour after eating" or "Steer in the direction of a skid."
  • Movies: very memetic given their mass replication, movies tend to cause people to replicate scenes or repeat popular catch phrases such as "You can't handle the truth!" from A Few Good Men or "Alllllllrighty then!" from Ace Ventura, even if they have not seen the movie themselves.
  • Religions: complex memes, including folk religious beliefs; can even spread virally (such as The Prayer of Jabez).
  • Popular concepts: these include Freedom, Justice, Ownership, Open Source, Egoism, or Altruism
  • Group-based biases: everything from anti-semitism and racism to cargo cults.
  • Longstanding political memes that suppress democratic notions and activity, such as "mob rule" and "republic, not a democracy."
  • Programming paradigms: from structured programming and object-oriented programming to extreme programming.
  • Internet phenomena: Internet slang, and Internet humor such as "All your base are belong to us" and "Snakes on a Plane."
  • Wikis: the proliferation of collaborative editing systems following the Wiki example in their multiple incarnations. Wikipedia, Wiktionary, etc.
  • Moore's Law: this meme has a particularly interesting form of self-replication. The conviction that "semiconductor complexity doubles every 18 months" became considerably more than a predictive observation; it became a performance target for an entire industry once that industry extensively started to believe in the "law". Manufacturers 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. Additionally, the evolution of this meme provides details of interest. The original law described growth in terms of the number of transistors on a chip, but people - more and more -- have (wrongly) understood it as describing an increase in terms of performance. This could exemplify how a meme can mutate slowly under the pressure of its environment (partial technical understanding and simplification for use in the mainstream media).
  • Consciousness and the self: Susan Blackmore theorized that a "self" merely comprises a collection of memetic stories which she calls the selfplex.
  • The concept of memes itself comprises a meme. Even the idea that the concept of memes is itself a meme has become a widely spread meme. However, the idea that the idea that the concept of memes is itself a meme is not yet particularly common as a meme. (Not to mention that, at this stage, the idea makes most people's heads hurt.)

The Memetic Lexicon lists meme-attributes compiled by Glenn Grant under a "share-alike" licence. The thoughtful examples it offers help to focus the concept for readers unfamiliar with memetic thinking. The Lexicon has circulated since the early 1990s, and evolved into its version 3.5 of its memplex (Memelex) in 2004: A Memetic Lexicon. One should keep in mind that Glenn Grant has the background of a writer of fiction rather that of an authority on memetics: many of the terms in the lexicon he simply invented as an experiment in the spread of his own self-generated memes. [4]

Common misconceptions

A very common misconception about memes represents them as very special, rare kinds of thought or as some special trick of public relations gurus. Generally, memes can comprise any piece of information that can possibly transfer between two minds — idea, thought, joke, song, dance, habit, even state of mood.

See also


  • The Selfish Meme: A Critical Reassessment by Kate Distin, Cambridge University Press, 2005, ISBN 0521606276

External links

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