Science Fair Project Encyclopedia
The name meme (from the Greek word for "memory", as well as its derivative, mimeme) refers to a unit of information - stored in a brain or an inanimate storage base (such as a book or a computer) - that replicates itself onto other brains or stores of information. Richard Dawkins introduced the term in his bestselling book, The Selfish Gene (1976). Some memeticists have termed inanimate sources of information "retention systems."
In more specific terms, a meme is a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution having some resemblance to the gene (the unit of genetics). The difference lies in the replicative potential and minimal resources required for replication. Memes can represent parts of ideas, languages, elemental particles, tunes, designs, motifs, skills, moral and aesthetic values, or anything else commonly learned/absorbed and then passed on to others as a unit. The science memetics has emerged as the study of evolutionary models of information transfer.
In casual use, the term meme sometimes 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's analogy of memes as replicating units.
Some memes, such as many on the Internet, tend to proliferate for periods of time then quietly die off: many start as obscure running jokes within net cliques, which gradually lose their original meaning or become otherwise detached. Some people consider absurdist humor as a good source of memes. Generally, the better the communication medium, the faster memes can come into and out of vogue.
- "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
One can define a meme as any piece of information potentially transferable from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods. In their transference from one mind to another, memes generally take the form of spoken and written phrases, but can take any form from body language to imitating observed behavior.
Memes have as their fundamental property evolution via natural selection in a way very similar to Darwin's ideas concerning biological evolution. Because they are subject to replication, mutation, survival and competition, we can speak of memes evolving. For example, while one idea may become extinct, others will survive, spread and mutate -- for better or worse -- through modification. This happens through the meme's ability to keep attention focused on itself. In this way, memes appear to "compete" for survival. The "fitness" of a meme generally relates to its ability to have attention focused on it, because attention maintains the meme in discussion and allows it to propagate, spreading to new minds and other media. Characteristics that can give longer "life" to memes include perceived usefulness, interest (the ability to pique curiosity), and relevance to given situations.
The conception and study of memes, known as memetics, has led to new insights in:
Memetics and the introduction of the meme as a concept build on several previous fundamental scientific discoveries:
- Evolutionary theory (by Charles Darwin)
- Recognition of DNA as an information sequence
- Recognition of the fact that the primary objects of evolution are information sequences in genes
Memeticists may regard meme evolution as a new level of biological evolution, whereby new ideas evolve in seconds rather than over generations (as in biological evolution); this may explain the rapid progress of Homo sapiens.
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 "[l]anguage is a virus."
John Laurent in The Journal of Memetics 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 from the more commonly accepted 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 (1843 - 1904), 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.
Memetics consists of the formal study of memes. Observers can currently regard memetics either as a field of sociology or as 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 hi might classify as replicators, suggested that the information and ideas in brains - culture, for example - could function as replicators as well. Computer software may represent another form of 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. Memetics also uses mathematical models to try to explain many very controversial subjects such as religion and political systems.
Many people wonder if the analogy of biological gene to cultural meme will hold up and whether or not tests will reveal any similarities.
We must distinguish memetics from sociobiology, which concerns itself with the biological basis of human behavior. In sociobiology sees its evolving entities as genes while memetics sees its evolving entities as memes. Memetics treats humans as products not only of biological evolution but also of cultural evolution.
The term memetic association reflects 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.
The phrase memetic drift refers to the process of an idea or 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.
- See also Memetic lexicon
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 DNA information in their genotype will remain unchanged, and when replicating again will not pass on these acquired 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 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 from just a handful of primitive syllables, the original language phenotypes, into the modern wide array of dialects because of mutation. 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" 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 that will survive for passing on to future generations. For example, a certain culture may have unique designs and methods of tool-building that another culture may not have; therefore, the culture with the more effective methods will most likely prosper over the other culture. 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 humans or in their ancestors, it proved a good trick which 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, direct or indirect, of one individual by another, and therefore could not exist without 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 examplify 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 ).
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 help to better understand and reason about biological evolution, the meme concept can allegedly assist in better understanding of 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 thus remains a science in its infancy, a protoscience, although critics sometimes call it 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 exists 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. 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 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 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, 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 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 has a reduced likelihood of remembering 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 an 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."
- Distinction: If the meme enables the tellers to be recognized (as leaders, intelligent people, insightful, etc.), then the meme is likely to be spread. The receiver of one time will want to be themselves tellers of the same meme (or an evolved/mutated version). That is, elite knowledge is promoted to an elite status.
A meme, like a gene, does not purposely do or want anything—it either gets replicated or not.
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 a possible analogy with a cellís error-correction systems, but thatís getting subtle. What it comes down to is: people create and modify memes almost continuously. One can manipulate, modify, and create meme systems in thought, for instance through your internal dialogue. As soon as one opens their mouth and says something (or does something) that they are not really copying (but can be copied) they have unleashed a novel meme. They are performing the role of a memetic engineer. Everyone is perhaps a memetic engineer to one degree or other.
In modern society, this is especially evident in scientific and philosophical realms. It has become standard practice for scientists and philosophers alike to gather memetic systems and question their philosophical and emperical integrity. If a flaw is perceived, one may be instigated to seek philosophical (thought experiments/logic/analysis) or empirical (experimental/observational/[questionably]mathematical) resolution. This is largely a result of some of the more "modern" philosophers of the past. Over the last few hundred (or thousand) years, a "philosophy" or paradigm has developed which benefits a society that embraces it. That philosophy is the scientific and moral obligation to take nothing for granted and always question any new information one percieves. 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, Newton, Darwin, Einstein, Marx, Benjamin Franklin and Steven Hawkins. Science accepts nothing as true unless empirical evidence and observation suggests such truth strongly and consistently. This is all in adherence to a meme system that has been evolving to reject almost anything as fact, and this meme system now includes such novelties as the scientific method (among many other meme-based systems) to help discern what just might constitute a fact.
Essentially, people modify and fabricate memes consciously. This would help to explain how fast, extensive and useful memetic evolution has been for culture. People apply an ever evolving meme-based system of analysis and error correction to everything coming in and out. Just like the genetic material has developed an error-correction model that is gene-based, memetic systems have found it favorable to be influenced by a meme-based modification system. Notably though, the meme-based modification system is taking advantage of the profound computational system that is the human brain, programming it to produce and modify memes, and thus to modify the memotypic soup which largely dictates our thoughts and actions (and of course to create very useful, but still likely erroneous memeplexes).
In early social development, people influence and are influenced by memes just like 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 (arguably in response to memeplexes programming their thoughts). In later possibly somewhat esoteric stages, people become more acutely aware of the meme systems flooding their existance, as many people are reaching a full comprehension of these memes through a novel meme system that's developing which tries to explain them. One does not necessarily need to know of meme theory to realize the situation exists. Eventually, many see the potential to fabricate or modify meme systems consciously for 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 everyone influences. This is where the memetecist, or the meme artist manifests in society to create symbolic culture at an ever-accelerating rate.
Many of the world's most successful religions, and in fact arguably all religions, are and have been subject to sentient memetic modification throughout time. Christianity, Catholicism, Judaism, Mormonism, Islamic, Muslim, and Jehovahís witness(-ism) just to name a few in that family—all arose (presumably) through modification and memetic recombination from a common one or few ancestors. Those ancestors were likely results of extensive memetic engineering themselves, possibly more impressive then the modification of their descendants (as much was likely being fabricated from little in those early cases).
Cultural materialism holds that many aspects of human culture are explainable by the evolutionary pressure of economy and ecology. For example, the food taboos , sometimes enshrined in religions like the concepts of sacred cows or kosher and halal, would have prospered because they allowed the believing population to survive longer than non-believers in their environments. A migration or a change on the economic infrastructure could render the taboo inoffensive or even adverse.
Memetic virus exchange?
One 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 which 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; 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 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 does that relate to what they feel is divine?
There is a tendency in memetics to disparage religious memes. However, some speculate that traditional religions act as mental immune systems to suppress new memes that can be harmful. Interestingly, this can be compared with a virus (here a religion - a "bundle" of religious memes) being ineffective if it kills its host. For example, popular Christianity forbids both murder and suicide (an idea from St. Augustine's City of God), and its precise definitions of heresy assure that new religions that advocate such actions cannot be accepted by educated Christians.
A case could be made that the study of Zen meditation is in itself a process of meme "pruning" i.e. a means to remove experiential cliches that reduce the value of life. This has not exempted Zen itself from being a source of highly mobile memes, such as "the sound of one hand clapping".
It may surprise many memetics advocates to learn of meme-like concepts described long ago, and prevalent in Sufi teaching. Muwakkals are considered separate beings, elementals, that make up human thought.
(It should also be noted that this whole discussion may be framed wrongly. If "we" are, seen rigorously from Dawkins' perspective, a collection of the extended effects of our various genes and memes, then the question of what is meant by "valuable to the individual" cannot readily be extracted from what is valuable to their genes or memes. Since the "ecological, sexual, ethical or moral value" of a meme cannot easily be determined outside of the context of the memes of the determiner, the idea of "meme" or "meme virus" can easily be misused to reject others' positions in a pseudo-scientific way. 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., your memes fail to be transmitted to me—I can call them "memes" and say that you are "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& mdash; 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 is more likely to be benevolent towards the interests of these hosts than 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 bathroom or before handling food, and to remind others to do the same, is not at all harmful. In contrast, a cultish one telling people to quit their jobs, abandon their families, and run around spreading the meme is quite virulent.
Memetics offers maximum explanatory value in cases where the contents of the meme cannot be demonstrated as true. For example, it's easy to show that washing hands helps to prevent illness, so the best explanation for why this practice would be popular is that it works. It does still help explain the rate of spread, such as why the practice of washing hands before surgery took so long to catch on. Where memetics excels is explaining the spread of certain value judgements ("chastity is important"), preferences ("pork is icky"), superstitions ("black cats are unlucky") and other scientifically unverifiable beliefs ("Allah is the one true God"), since none of these can easily be accounted for in terms of their truth value. Calling something a meme is therefore not an insult, but saying that it is just a meme is.
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 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, 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 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, 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.
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 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 which the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution—the right to keep and bear arms—would otherwise thwart. 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, of course, 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. 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 fully supported, the remaining verifiable facts of Kellermann's studies and career are virtually unrecognizable in the negative descriptions of '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 and career. 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 facts as related to the real Kellermann. 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.
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 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. But it seems entirely likely that they are valuable to the believer. At least, the majority of people on Earth believe so.
Some (Dawkins himself, see ) consider whether religion itself is a meme—or, to be more exact, a memeplex or group of memes. To observers infected by a different set of memes, it appears that some fundamentalist evangelical movements only act to add to their own numbers. The movements in question devote what seems to their opponents to be 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, and in some cases as a particularly virulent virus. 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 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 have "replicated" very effectively. That is, Christianity has won converts for centuries; now in many cases a religious conversion also becomes a political conversion.
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. Ideas and attitudes which are not necessarily verifiable by experimentation, but which tend to be held by scientists or 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."
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 naÔve 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 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 is essential for memetic (or genetic) progress to be made. There have been many paper clip designs throughout history, for example, with varying degrees of longevity, fecundity and copying fidelity (ie. memetic "success"). An often cited example of "technology as meme" is the building of a fire.
- Jingles: advertising slogans set to an engaging melody
- Earworms: songs that you can't stop humming or thinking. "It's a Small World After All" is a common example.
- Jokes: or at least jokes that are popularly considered funny
- Proverbs and aphorisms: "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, taunts that are typical for different age groups.
- Epic poems: once important memes for preserving oral history, 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."
- 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 antisemitism 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.
- 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 more than a predictive observation, but a performance target for an entire industry once it was extensively believed. 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.
- The self: Susan Blackmore theorized that a "self" merely comprises 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. (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" license. 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 memeplex in 2004: A Memetic Lexicon
A very common misconception about memes represents them as very special, rare kinds of thought or as some special trick of PR gurus. In contrast, memes can comprise any piece of information that can possibly transfer between two minds—idea, thought, joke, song, dance, habit, even state of mood.
- 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
- Review: The new pseudo-science of memes
- 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 — 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
- Collective intelligence
- Collective memory
- Diffusion of innovations
- Everett Rogers
- Exploding sheep
- Gabriel Tarde
- Jedi (census)
- Meme pool
- Metal Gear Solid 2 — a video game which centres on the concept that history itself is memetic
- Paradigm shift
- Urban myth
- The text of Dawkin's Selfish Gene, chapter 11, "Memes: the new replicators"
- Viral-Meme.info - "Language as a virus"
- Meme Designed to Help Make Blogs More Visible! (GoMeme 4.0)
- Church of Virus lexicon
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