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The term meme (pronounced to rhyme with "dream") was coined as an informal term by Richard Dawkins in his controversial book The Selfish Gene to mean roughly a unit of cultural evolution, analogous to gene, the unit of biological evolution. (The concept, however, predates the coining of the term; for example, William S. Burroughs' assertion that "Language is a virus"). Memes can represent parts of ideas, languages, tunes, designs, moral and esthetic values, skills, and anything else that is commonly learned and passed on to others as a unit. The study of memes is called memetics.

Dawkins observed that cultures can evolve in much the same way populations of organisms do, by passing ideas from one generation to the next, some of which may enhance or detract from the survival of the person holding them, thereby affecting which of those ideas continue to be passed on to future generations. For example, early cultures may have had different designs and methods for building tools. The culture with the more effective method may well have prospered while others suffered, leading to its method being adopted by a higher proportion of the population as time passed. Each tool design thus acts somewhat similarly to a biological gene; some populations have it and some don't, and the presence of the design in future generations is directly affected by the meme's function. Unlike biological genes which are usually removed from the gene pool by the death of the organisms carrying them, memes "die" by more subtle means such as criticism, persuasion, and even fashion.

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Examples of memes

The following statements are crudely stated versions of some common memes:

  • "Statement X is true. Statement X tells us: If you believe X, you will go heaven. If you do not believe X, you will go to hell. Therefore, it is your moral duty to convince everyone of the truth of X." (some skeptics believe this explains most organized religion: note that Statement X can be anything, so long as it contains this hook)
  • "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).
  • "You must send this message to five other people, or something bad will happen to you" (see chain letter)

Evolution of memes

Evolution requires not only inheritance and natural selection, but also mutation, and memes clearly have this property as well. Ideas that get passed on may undergo changes that accumulate over time. Folk tales and myths, for example, are often embellished in the retelling to make them more memorable--and therefore 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.

Some of these methods of cultural evolution have been called "artificial selection", in contrast to "natural selection", to emphasize the fact that human choices are involved. But the distinction is not always clear: even evolution in nature involves conscious choices, and many choices we make may be influenced by our biology.

Biological analogies

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. Is the meme idea itself simply embedding itself in culture like other bad ideas?

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 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 aren't particularly valuable to the believer.

Others note that the wide prevelance of human adoption of religious ideas proves that they must have some ecological, sexual, ethical or moral value. Certainly religious promoters claim such value for following their rules or principles - but is that related to what we feel is divine?

There is a tendency in memetics to disparage the ‘religious meme.’ It is surprising to many memetics advocates to realize the meme was discovered long ago and is prevalent in Sufi teaching. For an introduction to the ‘muwakkals,’ the Eastern memes, read “The Music of Life”, Pir Hazrat Inayat Khan[?], Omega Uniform Edition, 2nd edition, 1993, trade paperback: 353 pages, ISBN 093087238X Muwakkals are considered separate beings, elementals, that make up human thought.


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.

Memetics applies concepts taken from the theory of evolution (especially population genetics) to human culture. It tries to explain many very controversial subjects, like religions 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. In sociobiology the evolving entities are genes, while in memetics they are memes. Sociobiology is concerned with the biological basis of human behaviours, while 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 flys, 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 transferred from one person to another. 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 which person is receiving or transmitting the idea. Memetic drift increases when the meme is transmitted by an awkward way of expressing the idea, whilst memetic intertia is strengthened when the form of expression rhymes or uses other mnemonic devices to preserve the memory of the meme prior to its transmittal. The article on Murphy's law shows 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.

Further Reading

See also Copycat, Chain letter, self-replication, Urban myth

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