A meme (// MEEM) is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures.
Proponents theorize that memes are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme's reproductive success. Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.
A field of study called memetics arose in the 1990s to explore the concepts and transmission of memes in terms of an evolutionary model. Criticism from a variety of fronts has challenged the notion that academic study can examine memes empirically. However, developments in neuroimaging may make empirical study possible. Some commentators in the social sciences question the idea that one can meaningfully categorize culture in terms of discrete units, and are especially critical of the biological nature of the theory's underpinnings. Others have argued that this use of the term is the result of a misunderstanding of the original proposal.
The word meme itself is a neologism coined by Richard Dawkins, originating from his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins's own position is somewhat ambiguous. He welcomed N. K. Humphrey's suggestion that "memes should be considered as living structures, not just metaphorically" and proposed to regard memes as "physically residing in the brain." Although Dawkins said his original intentions had been simpler, he approved Humphrey's opinion and he endorsed Susan Blackmore's 1999 project to give a scientific theory of memes, complete with predictions and empirical support.
The term meme is a shortening (modeled on gene) of mimeme, which comes from Ancient Greek mīmēma (μίμημα; pronounced [míːmɛːma]), meaning 'imitated thing', itself from mimeisthai (μιμεῖσθαι, 'to imitate'), from mimos (μῖμος, 'mime').
The word was coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in Dawkins' book include melodies, catchphrases, fashion, and the technology of building arches. The word 'meme' is autological in nature, meaning it's a word that describes itself; in other words, the word 'meme' is itself a meme.
Although Richard Dawkins invented the term meme and developed meme theory, he has not claimed that the idea was entirely novel, and there have been other expressions for similar ideas in the past.
For instance, the possibility that ideas were subject to the same pressures of evolution as were biological attributes was discussed in the time of Charles Darwin. T. H. Huxley (1880) claimed that "The struggle for existence holds as much in the intellectual as in the physical world. A theory is a species of thinking, and its right to exist is coextensive with its power of resisting extinction by its rivals."
In 1904, Richard Semon published Die Mneme (which appeared in English in 1924 as The Mneme). The term mneme was also used in Maurice Maeterlinck's The Life of the White Ant (1926), with some parallels to Dawkins's concept. Kenneth Pike had, in 1954, coined the related terms emic and etic, generalizing the linguistic units of phoneme, morpheme, grapheme, lexeme, and tagmeme (as set out by Leonard Bloomfield), distinguishing insider and outside views of communicative behavior.
Dawkins cites as inspiration the work of geneticist L. L. Cavalli-Sforza, anthropologist F. T. Cloak, and ethologist J. M. Cullen. Dawkins wrote 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 exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.
Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesized that one could view many cultural entities as replicators, and pointed to melodies, fashions and learned skills as examples. Memes generally replicate through exposure to humans, who have evolved as efficient copiers of information and behavior. Because humans do not always copy memes perfectly, and because they may refine, combine or otherwise modify them with other memes to create new memes, they can change over time. Dawkins likened the process by which memes survive and change through the evolution of culture to the natural selection of genes in biological evolution.
Dawkins defined the meme as a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation and replication, but later definitions would vary. The lack of a consistent, rigorous, and precise understanding of what typically makes up one unit of cultural transmission remains a problem in debates about memetics. In contrast, the concept of genetics gained concrete evidence with the discovery of the biological functions of DNA. Meme transmission requires a physical medium, such as photons, sound waves, touch, taste, or smell because memes can be transmitted only through the senses.
Dawkins noted that in a society with culture a person need not have descendants to remain influential in the actions of individuals thousands of years after their death:
But if you contribute to the world's culture, if you have a good idea...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.
Memes, analogously to genes, vary in their aptitude to replicate; successful memes remain and spread, whereas unfit ones stall and are forgotten. Thus, memes that prove more effective at replicating and surviving are selected in the meme pool.
Memes first need retention. The longer a meme stays in its hosts, the higher its chances of propagation are. When a host uses a meme, the meme's life is extended. The reuse of the neural space hosting a certain meme's copy to host different memes is the greatest threat to that meme's copy. A meme that increases the longevity of its hosts will generally survive longer. On the contrary, a meme that shortens the longevity of its hosts will tend to disappear faster. However, as hosts are mortal, retention is not sufficient to perpetuate a meme in the long term; memes also need transmission.
Life-forms can transmit information both vertically (from parent to child, via replication of genes) and horizontally (through viruses and other means). Memes can replicate vertically or horizontally within a single biological generation. They may also lie dormant for long periods of time.
Memes reproduce by copying from a nervous system to another one, either by communication or imitation. Imitation often involves the copying of an observed behavior of another individual. Communication may be direct or indirect, where memes transmit from one individual to another through a copy recorded in an inanimate source, such as a book or a musical score. Adam McNamara has suggested that memes can be thereby classified as either internal or external memes (i-memes or e-memes).
Some commentators have likened the transmission of memes to the spread of contagions. Social contagions such as fads, hysteria, copycat crime, and copycat suicide exemplify memes seen as the contagious imitation of ideas. Observers distinguish the contagious imitation of memes from instinctively contagious phenomena such as yawning and laughing, which they consider innate (rather than socially learned) behaviors.
Dawkins initially defined meme as a noun that "conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation." John S. Wilkins retained the notion of meme as a kernel of cultural imitation while emphasizing the meme's evolutionary aspect, defining the meme as "the least unit of sociocultural information relative to a selection process that has favorable or unfavorable selection bias that exceeds its endogenous tendency to change." The meme as a unit provides a convenient means 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 word, or a meme could consist of the entire speech in which that word first occurred. This forms an analogy to the idea of a gene as a single unit of self-replicating information found on the self-replicating chromosome.
While the identification of memes as "units" conveys their nature to replicate as discrete, indivisible entities, it does not imply that thoughts somehow become quantized or that "atomic" ideas exist that cannot be dissected into smaller pieces. A meme has no given size. Susan Blackmore writes that melodies from Beethoven's symphonies are commonly used to illustrate the difficulty involved in delimiting memes as discrete units. She notes that while the first four notes of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony (listen (help·info)) form a meme widely replicated as an independent unit, one can regard the entire symphony as a single meme as well.
The inability to pin an idea or cultural feature to quantifiable key units is widely acknowledged as a problem for memetics. It has been argued however that the traces of memetic processing can be quantified utilizing neuroimaging techniques which measure changes in the connectivity profiles between brain regions." Blackmore meets such criticism by stating that memes compare with genes in this respect: that while a gene has no particular size, nor can we ascribe every phenotypic feature directly to a particular gene, it has value because it encapsulates that key unit of inherited expression subject to evolutionary pressures. To illustrate, she notes evolution selects for the gene for features such as eye color; it does not select for the individual nucleotide in a strand of DNA. Memes play a comparable role in understanding the evolution of imitated behaviors.
Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process (1981) by Charles J. Lumsden and E. O. Wilson proposes the theory that genes and culture co-evolve, and that the fundamental biological units of culture must correspond to neuronal networks that function as nodes of semantic memory. Lumsden and Wilson coined their own word, culturgen, which did not catch on. Coauthor Wilson later acknowledged the term meme as the best label for the fundamental unit of cultural inheritance in his 1998 book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge, which elaborates upon the fundamental role of memes in unifying the natural and social sciences.
Dawkins noted the three conditions that must exist for evolution to occur:
Dawkins emphasizes that the process of evolution naturally occurs whenever these conditions co-exist, and that evolution does not apply only to organic elements such as genes. He regards memes as also having the properties necessary for evolution, and thus sees meme evolution as not simply analogous to genetic evolution, but as a real phenomenon subject to the laws of natural selection. Dawkins noted that as various ideas pass from one generation to the next, they may either enhance or detract from the survival of the people who obtain those ideas, or influence the survival of the ideas themselves. For example, a certain culture may develop unique designs and methods of tool-making that give it a competitive advantage over another culture. 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. In keeping with the thesis that in evolution one can regard organisms simply as suitable "hosts" for reproducing genes, Dawkins argues that one can view people as "hosts" for replicating memes. Consequently, a successful meme may or may not need to provide any benefit to its host.
Unlike genetic evolution, memetic evolution can show both Darwinian and Lamarckian traits. Cultural memes will have the characteristic of Lamarckian inheritance when a host aspires to replicate the given meme through inference rather than by exactly copying it. Take for example the case of the transmission of a simple skill such as hammering a nail, a skill that a learner imitates from watching a demonstration without necessarily imitating every discrete movement modeled by the teacher in the demonstration, stroke for stroke. Susan Blackmore distinguishes the difference between the two modes of inheritance in the evolution of memes, characterizing the Darwinian mode as "copying the instructions" and the Lamarckian as "copying the product."
Clusters of memes, or memeplexes (also known as meme complexes or as memecomplexes), such as cultural or political doctrines and systems, may also play a part in the acceptance of new memes. Memeplexes comprise groups of memes that replicate together and coadapt. Memes that fit within a successful memeplex may gain acceptance by "piggybacking" on the success of the memeplex. As an example, John D. Gottsch discusses the transmission, mutation and selection of religious memeplexes and the theistic memes contained. Theistic memes discussed include the "prohibition of aberrant sexual practices such as incest, adultery, homosexuality, bestiality, castration, and religious prostitution", which may have increased vertical transmission of the parent religious memeplex. Similar memes are thereby included in the majority of religious memeplexes, and harden over time; they become an "inviolable canon" or set of dogmas, eventually finding their way into secular law. This could also be referred to as the propagation of a taboo.
The discipline of memetics, which dates from the mid-1980s, provides an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer based on the concept of the meme. Memeticists have proposed that just as memes function analogously to genes, memetics functions analogously to genetics. Memetics attempts to apply conventional scientific methods (such as those used in population genetics and epidemiology) to explain existing patterns and transmission of cultural ideas.
Principal criticisms of memetics include the claim that memetics ignores established advances in other fields of cultural study, such as sociology, cultural anthropology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology. Questions remain whether or not the meme concept counts as a validly disprovable scientific theory. This view regards memetics as a theory in its infancy: a protoscience to proponents, or a pseudoscience to some detractors.
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An objection to the study of the evolution of memes in genetic terms (although not to the existence of memes) involves a perceived gap in the gene/meme analogy: the cumulative evolution of genes depends on biological selection-pressures neither too great nor too small in relation to mutation-rates. There seems no reason to think that the same balance will exist in the selection pressures on memes.
Luis Benitez-Bribiesca M.D., a critic of memetics, calls the theory a "pseudoscientific dogma" and "a dangerous idea that poses a threat to the serious study of consciousness and cultural evolution". As a factual criticism, Benitez-Bribiesca points to the lack of a "code script" for memes (analogous to the DNA of genes), and to the excessive instability of the meme mutation mechanism (that of an idea going from one brain to another), which would lead to a low replication accuracy and a high mutation rate, rendering the evolutionary process chaotic. In his book Darwin's Dangerous Idea Daniel C. Dennett rebuts this claim, pointing to the existence of self-regulating correction mechanisms (vaguely resembling those of gene transcription) enabled by the redundancy and other properties of most meme expression languages which stabilize information transfer. Dennett notes that spiritual narratives, including music and dance forms, can survive in full detail across any number of generations even in cultures with oral tradition only. Memes for which stable copying methods are available will inevitably get selected for survival more often than those which can only have unstable mutations, therefore going extinct.
British political philosopher John Gray has characterized Dawkins's memetic theory of religion as "nonsense" and "not even a theory... the latest in a succession of ill-judged Darwinian metaphors", comparable to Intelligent Design in its value as a science.
Another critique comes from semiotic theorists such as Terrence Deacon and Kalevi Kull. This view regards the concept of "meme" as a primitivized concept of "sign". The meme is thus described in memetics as a sign lacking a triadic nature. Semioticians can regard a meme as a "degenerate" sign, which includes only its ability of being copied. Accordingly, in the broadest sense, the objects of copying are memes, whereas the objects of translation and interpretation are signs.[clarification needed]
Fracchia and Lewontin regard memetics as reductionist and inadequate. Evolutionary biologist Ernst Mayr disapproved of Dawkins's gene-based view and usage of the term "meme", asserting it to be an "unnecessary synonym" for "concept", reasoning that concepts are not restricted to an individual or a generation, may persist for long periods of time, and may evolve.
Opinions differ as to how best to apply the concept of memes within a "proper" disciplinary framework. One view sees memes as providing a useful philosophical perspective with which to examine cultural evolution. Proponents of this view (such as Susan Blackmore and Daniel Dennett) argue that considering cultural developments from a meme's-eye view—as if memes themselves respond to pressure to maximise their own replication and survival—can lead to useful insights and yield valuable predictions into how culture develops over time. Others such as Bruce Edmonds and Robert Aunger have focused on the need to provide an empirical grounding for memetics to become a useful and respected scientific discipline.
Prominent researchers in evolutionary psychology and anthropology, including Scott Atran, Dan Sperber, Pascal Boyer, John Tooby and others, argue the possibility of incompatibility between modularity of mind and memetics. In their view, minds structure certain communicable aspects of the ideas produced, and these communicable aspects generally trigger or elicit ideas in other minds through inference (to relatively rich structures generated from often low-fidelity input) and not high-fidelity replication or imitation. Atran discusses communication involving religious beliefs as a case in point. In one set of experiments he asked religious people to write down on a piece of paper the meanings of the Ten Commandments. Despite the subjects' own expectations of consensus, interpretations of the commandments showed wide ranges of variation, with little evidence of consensus. In another experiment, subjects with autism and subjects without autism interpreted ideological and religious sayings (for example, "Let a thousand flowers bloom" or "To everything there is a season"). People with autism showed a significant tendency to closely paraphrase and repeat content from the original statement (for example: "Don't cut flowers before they bloom"). Controls tended to infer a wider range of cultural meanings with little replicated content (for example: "Go with the flow" or "Everyone should have equal opportunity"). Only the subjects with autism—who lack the degree of inferential capacity normally associated with aspects of theory of mind—came close to functioning as "meme machines."
In his book The Robot's Rebellion, Keith Stanovich uses the memes and memeplex concepts to describe a program of cognitive reform that he refers to as a "rebellion." Specifically, Stanovich argues that the use of memes as a descriptor for cultural units is beneficial because it serves to emphasize transmission and acquisition properties that parallel the study of epidemiology. These properties make salient the sometimes parasitic nature of acquired memes, and as a result individuals should be motivated to reflectively acquire memes using what he calls a "Neurathian bootstrap" process.
In Cultural Software: A Theory of Ideology, Jack Balkin argued that memetic processes can explain many of the most familiar features of ideological thought. His theory of "cultural software" maintained that memes form narratives, social networks, metaphoric and metonymic models, and a variety of different mental structures. Balkin maintains that the same structures used to generate ideas about free speech or free markets also serve to generate racistic beliefs. To Balkin, whether memes become harmful or maladaptive depends on the environmental context in which they exist rather than in any special source or manner to their origination. Balkin describes racist beliefs as "fantasy" memes that become harmful or unjust "ideologies" when diverse peoples come together, as through trade or competition.
Richard Dawkins called for a re-analysis of religion in terms of the evolution of self-replicating ideas apart from any resulting biological advantages they might bestow.
As an enthusiastic Darwinian, I have been dissatisfied with explanations that my fellow-enthusiasts have offered for human behaviour. They have tried to look for 'biological advantages' in various attributes of human civilization. For instance, tribal religion has been seen as a mechanism for solidifying group identity, valuable for a pack-hunting species whose individuals rely on cooperation to catch large and fast prey. Frequently the evolutionary preconception in terms of which such theories are framed is implicitly group-selectionist, but it is possible to rephrase the theories in terms of orthodox gene selection.
He argued that the role of key replicator in cultural evolution belongs not to genes, but to memes replicating thought from person to person by means of imitation. These replicators respond to selective pressures that may or may not affect biological reproduction or survival.
In her book The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore regards religions as particularly tenacious memes. Many of the features common to the most widely practiced religions provide built-in advantages in an evolutionary context, she writes. For example, religions that preach of the value of faith over evidence from everyday experience or reason inoculate societies against many of the most basic tools people commonly use to evaluate their ideas. By linking altruism with religious affiliation, religious memes can proliferate more quickly because people perceive that they can reap societal as well as personal rewards. The longevity of religious memes improves with their documentation in revered religious texts.
Aaron Lynch attributed the robustness of religious memes in human culture to the fact that such memes incorporate multiple modes of meme transmission. Religious memes pass down the generations from parent to child and across a single generation through the meme-exchange of proselytism. Most people will hold the religion taught them by their parents throughout their life. Many religions feature adversarial elements, punishing apostasy, for instance, or demonizing infidels. In Thought Contagion Lynch identifies the memes of transmission in Christianity as especially powerful in scope. Believers view the conversion of non-believers both as a religious duty and as an act of altruism. The promise of heaven to believers and threat of hell to non-believers provide a strong incentive for members to retain their belief. Lynch asserts that belief in the Crucifixion of Jesus in Christianity amplifies each of its other replication advantages through the indebtedness believers have to their Savior for sacrifice on the cross. The image of the crucifixion recurs in religious sacraments, and the proliferation of symbols of the cross in homes and churches potently reinforces the wide array of Christian memes.
Although religious memes have proliferated in human cultures, the modern scientific community has been relatively resistant to religious belief. Robertson (2007) reasoned that if evolution is accelerated in conditions of propagative difficulty, then we would expect to encounter variations of religious memes, established in general populations, addressed to scientific communities. Using a memetic approach, Robertson deconstructed two attempts to privilege religiously held spirituality in scientific discourse. Advantages of a memetic approach as compared to more traditional "modernization" and "supply side" theses in understanding the evolution and propagation of religion were explored.
In A Theory of Architecture, Nikos Salingaros speaks of memes as "freely propagating clusters of information" which can be beneficial or harmful. He contrasts memes to patterns and true knowledge, characterizing memes as "greatly simplified versions of patterns" and as "unreasoned matching to some visual or mnemonic prototype." Taking reference to Dawkins, Salingaros emphasizes that they can be transmitted due to their own communicative properties, that "the simpler they are, the faster they can proliferate," and that the most successful memes "come with a great psychological appeal."
Architectural memes, according to Salingaros, can have destructive power: "Images portrayed in architectural magazines representing buildings that could not possibly accommodate everyday uses become fixed in our memory, so we reproduce them unconsciously." He lists various architectural memes that circulated since the 1920s and which, in his view, have led to contemporary architecture becoming quite decoupled from human needs. They lack connection and meaning, thereby preventing "the creation of true connections necessary to our understanding of the world." He sees them as no different from antipatterns in software design—as solutions that are false but are re-utilized nonetheless.
In 2013, Richard Dawkins characterized an Internet meme as one deliberately altered by human creativity, distinguished from Dawkins's original idea involving mutation "by random change and a form of Darwinian selection."
Meme stocks are listed companies lauded for the social media buzz they create, rather than their operating performance. r/wallstreetbets, a subreddit where participants discuss stock and option trading, became notable in 2021 for its involvement on the popularization of meme stocks.
If the mutation rate is high and takes place over short periods, as memetics predict, instead of selection, adaptation and survival a chaotic disintegration occurs due to the accumulation of errors.
The selectionist paradigm requires the reduction of society and culture to inheritance systems that consist of randomly varying, individual units, some of which are selected, and some not; and with society and culture thus reduced to inheritance systems, history can be reduced to "evolution." [...] [W]e conclude that while historical phenomena can always be modeled selectionistically, selectionist explanations do no work, nor do they contribute anything new except a misleading vocabulary that anesthetizes history.
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