Meme

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The word, meme (rhymes with 'beam'), entered the language as a coined word to refer to a pattern of information in a person's mind, held in memory, capable of expression in behavior, through its behavioral expression having greater or lesser appeal for adoption by other peoples' minds, and, consequently having greater or lesser propensity for widespread adoption and further dissemination within a culture.

The 'pattern of information' in the mind that constitutes a meme comes in many types, including concepts, ideas, beliefs, quotes, song lyrics, tunes, fashion preferences, behavioral responses, idioms, slang — any pattern of information in the mind capable of behavioral expression, hence of transmission to other minds. Example: the phrase "live and learn", expressible through vocal behavior, a moderately 'good' meme in virtue of how widespread it can disseminate within the culture. Example: the concepts of religious faith and scientific theory, two memes competing for adoption of their patterns of information by the minds in the culture.

One can think about memes in the way one thinks about viruses, mental viruses, viruses of the minds, viruses of the mind with greater or lesser degrees of infectivity. The concept of virus of the mind itself exemplifies a meme.[1]

One can think about memes in the way one thinks about genes, as replicators, having human minds as the medium in which they replicate.

Origin of Concept

Genetic Analogy

The concept of a "meme" was popularized, and perhaps created, in 1976[2] by Richard Dawkins. He submits it as a term to denote a "unit of cultural information" which disceminates from one person's mind to another in a manner analogous to the inheritance of genetic information.

Memeplexes or meme-complexes.

Transmission of Memes

Evolution

Meme evolution is not just analogous to biological or genetic evolution, not just a process that can be metaphorically described in these evolutionary idioms, but a phenomenon that obeys the laws of natural selection exactly. The theory of evolution by natural selection is neutral regarding the differences between memes and genes; these are just different kinds of replicators evolving in different media at different rates.
And just as the genes for animals could not come into existence on this planet until the evolution of plants had paved the way (creating the oxygen-rich atmosphere and ready supply of convertible nutrients), so the evolution of memes could not get started until the evolution of animals had paved the way by creating a species — Homo sapiens — with brains that could provide shelter, and habits of communication that could provide transmission media, for memes.
This is a new way of thinking about ideas. It is also, I hope to show, a good way, but at the outset the perspective it provides is distinctly unsettling, even appalling. We can sum it up with a slogan:
A scholar is just a library's way of making another library.
—Daniel Dennett] [3]

The evolution of...

Examples of Memes

Richard Dawkins lists these as examples of memes: "tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches"[4]. In The God Delusion, Dawkins lists as examples of religious memes: survival after one's own death, reward for martydom, punishment for blasphemers, heretics and apostates, the virtue in belief in God, the virtue in faith (defined as belief without evidence), the idea that those with religious belief should be automatically and unquestionably respected, ideas that are so difficult to understand (Trinitarianism, transubstantiation and the incarnation) that one should not try to understand it, and the linking of religious ideas with great art[5].

The Internet has given the meme theory a plethora of examples and an environment for their own execution - many have pointed the distribution of conspiracy theories (including conspiracy theory videos like Loose Change and Zeitgeist), urban legends, viral videos on websites like YouTube and Internet quizzes that people post on blogs and social networking services.

The Meme Debate

Proponents of the Idea

Proponents suggest that memes evolve through a process akin to biological natural selection. This would be like biological evolution. A meme would be transmitted through the culture, potentially changing (or mutating) as it propagates through the culture. According to the theory, memes, like genes, would be successful at differential rates in a given culture.

Memes have been invoked in a number of contexts to explain the transmission and spread of ideas, trends, and other cultural phenomena. Daniel Dennett prominently uses memes (with some modifications) to explain some aspects of religion in his Breaking the Spell.

In popular culture, a 'meme' is a simple idea, phrase, or cultural phenomenon which is spread quickly and without the intervention of the mass media.

Criticism of the Idea

While there have been notable proponents who use memes in order to explain social phenomena, the idea has also had many critics.

One of the deepest problems with the concept of memes is that, unlike genetic material, there is no mechanism to ensure the fidelity of memetic transmission. This shortcoming was noted by Dawkins himself in his original formulation of the idea.

To take an example from popular culture, a popular song may be disseminated widely throughout the culture in a memetic fashion. However, while one person might correctly remember the lyrics but botch the tune, another might get the tune right and hum the then-forgotten lyrics. There is no mechanism to prevent this from happening.


References

  1. Brodie R. (1996) Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Seattle: Integral Press. ISBN 0-9636001-2-5.
    • A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself created in other minds.
  2. Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene. "Memes:The new replicators", Oxford University, 1976, Second Edition, December 1989
  3. Dennett DC. (1991) Consciousness Explained. New York: Little, Brown and Company. ISBN 978-0-316-18065-8.
  4. The Selfish Gene, p. 192
  5. The God Delusion, p.199-200