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Memes, Memetics

Related: culture - gene - memory - mind - reproduction - sociology

A meme is the basic unit of cultural evolution, the smallest unit of culture.

Memetics was invented by Richard Dawkins, and is a theory for understanding the spreading of information patterns (ideas). The word "meme" is a parallel to "gene", and signifies that this is a metaphor which likens the spreading of ideas to that of the spreading of genes. In this metaphor, ideas are taken to be akin to viruses, "infecting" their hosts in a symbiotic state. Memes need people to reproduce themselves.

Christianity is one of the most successful memes. Based upon the teachings of Jesus, a Jew who lived his life in the Roman province of Palestine; Roman communications networks enabled Christianity to spread quickly throughout the Roman empire and eventually to the rest of Europe, and finally the entire globe.

The Selfish Gene (1976) - Richard Dawkins
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Meme, (rhymes with "cream" and comes from Greek root with the meaning of memory and its derivative "mimeme"), is the term given to a unit of information that replicates from brains and inanimate stores of information, such as books and computers, to other brains or stores of information. The term meme was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his bestselling book, The Selfish Gene. Inanimate sources of information have been termed '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 minimally required resources to replicate. Memes can represent parts of ideas, languages, elemental particles, tunes, designs, skills, moral and aesthetic values and anything else that is commonly learned and passed on to others as a unit. The study of evolutionary models of information transfer is called memetics. The smiley is an example of a visual meme. Having seen it one is likely to copy, reproduce, or modify it and then show it to others.

In casual use, the term meme is sometimes used to mean any piece of information that is passed from one mind to another. This is much closer to the analogy of "language as a virus" than it is to Dawkins's analogy of memes as replicating behaviors. Memes on the internet tend to proliferate for periods of time then quietly die off, and many start as obscure running jokes within net cliques which gradually lose their original meaning or otherwise become detached. Some people consider absurdist humor to be a good source of memes. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meme [Feb 2005]


  • The Selfish Gene () - Richard Dawkins [Amazon.com]
    Inheriting the mantle of revolutionary biologist from Darwin, Watson, and Crick, Richard Dawkins forced an enormous change in the way we see ourselves and the world with the publication of The Selfish Gene. Suppose, instead of thinking about organisms using genes to reproduce themselves, as we had since Mendel's work was rediscovered, we turn it around and imagine that "our" genes build and maintain us in order to make more genes. That simple reversal seems to answer many puzzlers which had stumped scientists for years, and we haven't thought of evolution in the same way since. [...] --Rob Lightner

    Changing the perception of evolution, introducing 'memes

  • Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society (1999) - Aaron Lynch [Amazon.com] [FR] [DE] [UK]
    Why do certain ideas become popular? The naive view is that it's because they're true, or at least justified. This fascinating book, influenced by evolutionary biology and epidemiology, is the first full-scale examination of some of the other reasons. Consider Aaron Lynch's example of optimism--it may not be true or warranted, but it tends to prevail because optimists tend to have more children to pass along their outlook to. Sometimes, Lynch points out, there is a paradoxical but predictable expansion-contraction pattern to the social spread of ideas. If nothing else, lobbyists need to look into this stuff to see which side their bread is really buttered on. Warning: this book is densely written. But it's worth the wade. --Amazon.com

  • The Meme Machine () - Susan Blackmore, Richard Dawkins [Amazon.com]
    Showing greater courage and intellectual chutzpah than I have ever aspired to, she deploys her memetic forces in a brave--do not think foolhardy until you have read it--assault on the deepest questions of all: What is a self? What am I? Where am I? ... Any theory deserves to be given its best shot, and that is what Susan Blackmore has given the theory of the meme -- Richard Dawkins

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