Wednesday, April 8, 2009


meme [MEEM]
n. A unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another.

[From Greek mimēma ("something imitated"), from mimeisthai ("to imitate")]

In his book, The Selfish Gene, Oxford University biologist Richard Dawkins -- famous for his strong defense of evolutionary science and his public quarrels with Biblical Creationists -- coined the word meme as a cultural equivalent to a gene. While meme has taken on a life of its own as its usage has grown, this is what Dawkins originally wrote:
The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. There may be others. If there are, provided certain other conditions are met, they will almost inevitably tend to become the basis for an evolutionary process. But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution? I think a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of 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 classicist 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 même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream.'

Dawkins then lists various cultural phenomena which qualify as units of cultural transmission:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms 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 his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: 'memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking--the meme for, say, "belief in life after death" is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.'

My guess as to why Dawkins conceived of the meme is because he was trying to understand why so many people, despite scientific evidence, were so religious and superstitious. This gets at that:
Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent 'mutation.' In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that 'survival value' here does not mean value for a gene in the gene pool, but value for a meme in the meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The 'everlasting arms' hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies which, like a doctor's placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.

Replication is the key ingredient in memes. It is like life after death for the originator of an idea. Francis Scott Key is long dead, but he lives on in the Star Spangled Banner. Glenn Grant weighs in on the replication angle:
An idea or information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone to replicate it, to repeat it to someone else. All transmitted knowledge is memetic.

Heith Michael Rezabek gets at the idea that learned behaviors are also memes:
My favorite example of a crucial meme would be "fire" or more importantly, "how to make a fire." This is a behavioral meme, mind you, one which didn't necessarily need a word attached to it to spring up and spread, merely a demonstration for another to follow. Once the meme was out there, it would have spread like wildfire, for obvious reasons... But when you start to think of memes like that -- behavioral memes -- then you can begin to see how language itself, the idea of language, was a meme. Writing was a meme. And within those areas, more specific memes emerged.

News Hounds, a (presumably liberal) website dedicated to challenging the Fox News Channel, characterizes ideas accepted on Fox and spread to its audience by its announcers as viral memes:
The “Fox Nation” is very, very concerned about the University of Notre Dame’s invitation for President Obama to give the commencement address and receive an honorary degree at their school. Megyn Kelly provided even more coverage of the matter on Monday (April 6th). In keeping with the Fox meme that this event represents a violation of Catholic values while reinforcing the meme that Obama is pro-choice ergo he’s evil, Megyn Kelly provided a platform for more of the same.

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