What is a Meme?



In 2015, you’re likely to think of a ‘meme’ as a photo with a funny caption that you see on the internet. The word was actually coined in the mid-70’s by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins to describe any idea that’s worth imitating.

Dawkins came up with the word ‘meme’ by shortening the Greek word mimeme (to imitate) to sound like ‘gene’. Just as the DNA molecule of the gene is the smallest unit of biological replication, the meme is the simplest unit of cultural replication. Some examples are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothing fashions, and ways of making pots or of building arches. The ‘catchiness’ of any given idea over other related ones is the analogue to biological natural selection.

Any idea that transmits culture from one mind to another is a meme: Joining Facebook is a meme. Having a smartphone is a meme. Vegetarianism is a meme. Nationalism is a meme. Racism is a meme. Political correctness is a meme. Philosoraptor is a meme.

Passing on our genes and ideas is the closest we can come to immortality:

I have been a bit negative about memes, but they have their cheerful side as well. When we die there are two things we can leave behind us: genes and memes. We were built as gene machines, created to pass on our genes. But that aspect of us will be forgotten in three generations. Your child, even your grandchild, may bear a resemblance to you, perhaps in facial features, in a talent for music, in the color of her hair. But as each generation passes, the contribution of your genes is halved. It does not take long to reach negligible proportions. Our genes may be immortal but the collection of genes that is any one of us is bound to crumble away. Elizabeth II is a direct descendant of William the Conqueror. Yet it is quite probable that she bears not a single one of the old king’s genes. We should not seek immortality in reproduction.

But if you contribute to the world’s culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on, intact, long after your genes have dissolved in the common pool. Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G.C. Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo, Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.


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