A meme consists of any idea or behavior that can pass from one person to another by learning or imitation. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, gestures, practices, fashions, habits, songs, and dances. Memes propagate themselves and can move through the cultural sociosphere in a manner similar to the contagious behavior of a virus.
Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme" as a neologism in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) to describe how one might extend evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (notably religious belief, clothing/fashion, and the technology of building arches).
Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (similarly to Darwinian biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity's reproductive success. Thus one can expect that some memes will propagate less successfully and become extinct, while others will survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. "Memeticists argue that the memes most beneficial to their hosts will not necessarily survive; rather, those memes that replicate the most effectively spread best, which allows for the possibility that successful memes may prove detrimental to their hosts."
The word meme first came into popular use with the publication of Dawkins' book The Selfish Gene in 1976. Dawkins based the word on a shortening of the Greek "mimeme" (something imitated), making it sound similar to "gene." Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesised that people could view many cultural entities as replicators, generally replicating through exposure to humans, who have evolved as efficient (though not perfect) copiers of information and behaviour. Memes do not always get copied perfectly, and might indeed become refined, combined or otherwise modified with other ideas, resulting in new memes. These memes may themselves prove more (or less) efficient replicators than their predecessors, thus providing a framework for a hypothesis of cultural evolution, analogous to the theory of biological evolution based on genes.
Dawkins defined the meme as "a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation", but memeticists in general promote varying definitions of the concept of the meme. 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.
According to Dawkins, meme represents a shortened form of mimeme (from Greek mimos, "mimic"). Dawkins said he wanted "a monosyllable word that sounds a bit like gene".
The concept of a unit of social evolution called a mneme (from Greek mneme, meaning "memory") appeared in 1904 in a work by the German evolutionary biologist Richard Semon titled Die Mnemischen Empfindungen in ihren Beziehungen zu den Originalempfindungen (loosely translated as "Memory-feelings in relation to original feelings"). According to the OED, the word mneme appears in English in 1921 in L. Simon's translation of Semon's book: The Mneme. Dawkins had no awareness of Semon's mnemes.
Richard Dawkins introduced the term meme after writing 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 exemplifies another self-replicating unit, and most importantly, one which he thought might prove useful in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution.
Dawkins himself, in a speech on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the publication of The Selfish Gene, described his motivation for postulating memes: he portrayed the idea not so much as an attempt at creating an account for cultural complexity, but rather as seeking something with which the selfish-genetic mechanism would still work with unreliable replicators:
The Memetic Lexicon lists meme-attributes compiled by Glenn Grant under a "share-alike" license. The examples it offers may help to focus the concept. The Lexicon has circulated since the early 1990s, and evolved into its version 3.5 of its memeplex (Memelex) in 2004: A Memetic Lexicon One should keep in mind that Glenn Grant has the background of a writer of fiction rather than that of an authority on memetics: many of the terms in the lexicon he simply invented as an experiment in the spread of his own self-generated memes: see Glenn Grant's Meme Depot
Memes spread by the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. For example, the fashion-value that "less is more" spreads through the behavior of people dressing down in understated clothes and acting superior. This behavior then has the effect of showing others a real-life example of this fashion-value. Verbal transmission can supplement or replace this imitative method.
Those interested in tracking how memes spread through culture may use memetrackers, websites that allow one to see how people receive, use, and spread new information on the Web. Cameron Marlowe's Blogdex project pioneered research on this topic.
Although memeticists speak of memes as discrete units, this need not imply that thoughts somehow become quantized or that "atomic" ideas exist 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 word, or a meme could consist of the entire speech in which that word was first uttered. This forms an analogy to the idea of a gene as a self-replicating set of code. In 1981 biologists Charles J. Lumsden and Edward Osborne Wilson published a theory of gene/culture co-evolution in the book Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process.
They argued 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.
Plato used the term eidos to speak of the immutable and eternal nature of an existing thing. The human mind acted upon this eidos, according to Plato, when reasoning about the world around it. Aristotle rejected this notion in favor of an abstraction and categorization of the world as perceived by the observer. Aristotle's studies of logic form the basis of formal logic, and the revival of and addition to his, and other classical authors', ideas during and after the Renaissance eventually gave rise to the modern scientific method.
Teleology (from the Greek: telos: "end", "purpose") studies design and purpose philosophically . A teleological school of thought imight even regard all things as designed for or directed toward a final result, postulating an inherent purpose or final cause for all that exists. In terms of genetics, taking as its sole purpose Darwin's proposal of survival as the only observable final good, one might apply teleology as an applicable description of the described process of evolution - organism C follows B follows A, ad infinitum, resulting in the continued survival of species or of species derived thereof, though without ascribing any intelligent purpose or direction (apart from that of artificial selection). Similarly, one might describe memetics and similar disciplines (which seek to analyse or describe social trends, concepts and so forth) as teleologies, as the end "purpose" of human communication and social interaction consists of the survival of the societal arena, intellectually and in terms of languages and physical interactions (seen as essential to the furthering of heterogeneous species), without the need for stating or understanding this "purpose" or for perceiving the form the societal arena takes, if at all, as particularly heterogeneous in itself, or in agreement or disagreement with that which is communicated.
These examples postulate "survival" as a continual end in and of itself. Although one could also take "extinction" as an observable final state for a given line of descent, this might imply (in terms of biology) that a given species had taken to behaviours which resulted in it, and all species descended from it, becoming extinct. Whilst one could more easily argue in societal terms that a given social group had directed itself wittingly or unwittingly to self-destruction, this would still constitute a teleology.
Horace, in his Ars Poetica, c.18 BC, gives us the saying "haec decies repetita placebit" , which Roland Barthes paraphrased as the Latin tag "bis repetita placent", ('things which are repeated are pleasing') in the preface to his 1957 work, Mythologies — expressing the idea that, whether true or untrue, 'things' themselves seem significant.
Descriptions of meme-like concepts appear in Sufi teaching. Muwakkals rank as separate beings, elementals, that make up human thought (compare Leibniz's monads). These "elemental thoughts" also appear in the Vajrayana tradition as thoughtform simulacrum.
During the Enlightenment the terms "idea", "perception", and "impression" came into use. The essential meaning of the term "idea", as then used, involved some existent phenomena resulting from perception of a stimulus and cogitation on that stimulus.
Charles Darwin struggled with the concept in his early notebooks (M and N Notebooks) and never succeeded in adequately addressing the complexities of the human social and cognitive capabilities. While Darwin lacked proof for a biologically-inheritable element, he had postulated one and seemed quite comfortable with the concept of biologically-inherited social traits. (A modern biologist ignorant of the connotations of the term might characterize the latter concept as "Social Darwinism".) Darwin also wrote of selection of novelty and fashion and quoted Max Müller on the struggle amongst words and grammatical forms:
Gabriel Tarde (1843–1904), a French sociologist, developed ideas of cultural transmission based on imitation and innovation of small psychological interactions. His sociology attempted to classify social phenomena by the generation and propagation of ideas, practices, and habits. Some have seen this work as an appealing historical and theoretical precursor to memetics.
Bertrand Russell repeated several times the phrase "beliefs are contagious" in his writing about human error.
John Laurent in The Journal of Memetics has suggested that the term 'meme' itself may have derived from the work of the little-known German biologist Richard Semon. In 1904 Semon published Die Mneme, later published in English as The Mneme in 1921. 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 (who allegedly plagiarized from Eugène N. Marais) and highlights its parallels to Dawkins' concept.
Semiotics, semiotic studies, or semiology studies sign processes (semiosis), or signification and communication, signs and symbols, both individually and grouped into sign systems. Commentators may see semiotics as having important anthropological dimensions; for example Umberto Eco proposes that one can study every cultural phenomenon as communication. However, some semioticians focus on the logical dimensions of the science. They examine areas belonging also to the natural sciences - such as how organisms make predictions about, and adapt to, their semiotic niche in the world (see semiosis). In general, semiotic theories take signs or sign systems as their object of study: the communication of information in living organisms becomes the topic of biosemiotics or of zoosemiosis.
The old saying "Ideas have a life of their own" clearly encapsulates the "meme about memes". Keith Henson has traced this quote back to 1910 where an unknown interviewer of G. K. Chesterton used it—apparently as an old saying at that time.
One could conceivably trace this idea back to at least 1831, when Victor Hugo wrote: "[...] every thought, either philosophical or religious, is interested in perpetuating itself [...]" in his book Notre Dame de Paris (translated into English as The Hunchback of Notre Dame) (Book Fifth, Chapter II).
Roland Barthes' (1915-1985) Mythologies (1957) dealt with, according to Barthes' preface to the 1970 edition: Note in passing that the French adjective même expresses similarities in meaning to the Greek mīmos from which the English adjective mimesis derives.
John Maynard Keynes ended his The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1935) with the following:
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.
Much of the study of memes focuses on groups of memes called memeplexes (also known as meme complexes or as memecomplexes)—such as religious, cultural, or political doctrines and systems. Memeplexes contain mutually supportive memes that together become more evolutionarily successful. These memeplexes may also play a part in the acceptance of new memes which, if they fit with a memeplex, can "piggyback" on that success. Memeplexes of religion provide a commonly-cited example.
Without some concept of cultural evolution, one might have to postulate repeated and contradictory divine/demonic revelations in order to account for the historical record of religions and for the existence of various and varied denominations.
Statistical approaches to the identification of memeplexes can utilize quantitative data on individual responses to specific memes. A successful attempt to identify memeplexes of ideology requested volunteer anonymous Internet respondents to indicate their quantitative support, neutrality, or rejection of a sample of 100 isms, such as capitalism, socialism, monotheism and atheism. Great variability among individuals in degree of support and correlations among quantified responses to specific memes identified memeplexes that related to differences in political-party preferences, in religious adherence, and marital status (i.e., a profile of "the marrying kind"). A similar approach might serve to quantify support for prototypical individuals (such as Roosevelt or Reagan) or opinions on social, economic and political issues. Quantitative analyses of responses to memes might contribute to a science of mememetrics that would complement psychometrics in the study of individual difference.
Memetics excels in explaining the spread of certain value-judgements ("chastity is important"), preferences ("pork is repulsive"), superstitions ("black cats bring bad luck") and other scientifically unverifiable beliefs ("'X' is the one true God"); since one cannot easily account for any of these phenomena or prove their claims by conventional scientific methods. Calling someone's ideas/beliefs/action a "meme", therefore, does not constitute an insult, but dismissing it as "just a meme" does. For example, one can regard both theism and atheism as memetic.
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.
In much the same way that the selfish gene concept offers a way of understanding and reasoning about aspects of biological evolution, the meme concept can conceivably assist in the better understanding of some otherwise puzzling aspects of human culture. However, if one cannot test for "better" empirically, the question will remain whether or not the meme concept counts as a validly disprovable scientific theory. Memetics thus remains a science in its infancy, a protoscience to proponents, or a pseudoscience to some detractors.
Another objection to the study of the evolution of memes in genetic terms (although not to the existence of memes) involves the fact that 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.
Examples of the varying degrees of criticism of memetics include the following:
Another philosophical criticism sees memetics as re-introducing, or reinforcing, the classic pre-20th-century form of Cartesian dualism, that of mind versus body. Memetics seeks to include in the overall science of evolution such a dualism in the form of meme/gene. This dualism remains tenable, but many prominent philosophers have criticised it widely and historians of philosophy often see it as waning. Wittgenstein, in his critique of Cartesian dualism, Philosophical Investigations, argued for the absurdity of positing two parallel worlds, one of "body stuff", the other of "mind stuff" whose interaction one does not (and perhaps can not) know. (See also Wittgenstein's private language argument).
However, in response to such criticism one might add that memeticists have started to see memes not as atomic but as complex interactors in an environment of other memes and physical entities, a development pre-figured perhaps in the theory of the association of ideas in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries . However, such a response would require memetics to prove it had some value to add to such complexity in order to prevent it falling into the same disuse as the theory of association of ideas.
Memetics might counter the charge of dualism by noting Leibniz's Monadology. This provided a direct response to Cartesian dualism based on an indivisible unit, the monad. Memes resemble monads in that they lack physicality (not having shape, size, mass, charge or energy) and yet as a totality they account for reality. Taken together they form the sum of all experience at any given time. But this argument essentially becomes a solipsistic exercise.
Against the charge of dualism, memeticists might counter that memes in fact supersede genetics, science itself then becoming just another meme that aims, not at the "Truth", as such, but at the useful. However, memetics would then have undermined its own truth and the history of its own arrival on the scene, thus becoming yet another ontotheology.
A more solid counter against the charge of dualism is that memetics is founded on scientific physicalism, which accounts for both memes and genes as instances of information, which physically exists by the standards of modern physics. No dualism is required because scientifically based physicalism is monistic; only physical things exist. The added value of memetics would be, as with any other scientific theory such as genetics, its ability to make accurate, testable, and falsifiable predictions.
Some 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. On 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, normal subjects and autistic subjects interpreted ideological and religious sayings (for example, "Let a thousand flowers bloom" or "To everything there is a season"). Autistics 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 autistic subjects—who lack inferential capacity normally associated with aspects of theory of mind—came close to functioning as "meme machines".
This central problem with the possibility of memes has an illustration in the inability of such a meme-reductionist proposal to afford an explanation of how memetics itself qualifies as a meme, or, further, how one could describe biological genetics as a rather successful meme current in 20th-century science. Either way memes fail. Providing such an explanation would remove the ground from which the idea of memes themselves arose and so empty memes of all meaning. Without such an explanation memes find themselves without reason, limited to cover all but science and memetics itself. Others have countered that meme-perspectives do not exclude talk of meaning, truth, or falsity as relevant.
Genetics has a clear model explaining the storage and transmission of genes. Indeed, Richard Dawkins himself clearly discusses, in his book The Selfish Gene, how patterns of DNA directly generate patterns of proteins that then combine to construct biological phenotypes—the physical bodies of living things. Those phenotypes have the means for replicating their defining patterns into sex cells for transmitting the patterns to offspring. Memetics, by contrast, as of 2007 has no such commonly accepted model for the storage and transmission of memes. Memeticists typically assume that memetic "phenotypes" equate with memetic "genotypes"—that every individual believing in one god, for example, carries the same "monotheistic meme"—but do not propose a single well-defined mechanism by which memes are cognitively encoded or transmitted. This lack of rigor seems like a serious—and to some critics, fatal—weakness in memetics relative to its genetic model. What "particulate" (discrete) patterns or entities have the responsibility or ability to encode and transmit a meme?
The author Evan Louis Sheehan attempted to rigorously portray the cognitive representations of memes as "particulate" entities. He defined them as patterns captured in cortical hierarchies, identical in structure to what Jeff Hawkins proposes in his book On Intelligence (2004). Each hierarchy expresses a complex pattern that the brain-owner has automatically sensed and remembered, as a consequence of simple Hebbian learning. "Sensed patterns" captured in these cortical hierarchies can reflect anything from the shape of a tree to a commonly-performed pattern of behavior that routinely propagates through mimicry. A cortical hierarchy consists of a "molecular" entity, constructed from sub-hierarchies (as the pattern of a tree comprises the sub-patterns of leaves, branches and a trunk), which themselves ultimately comprise "atomic" entities — small, patterned combinations of sensory elements. Memes thus take on a "particulate" nature that allows their combination and re-combination in various ways. Sheehan, in his book The Mocking Memes: A Basis for Automated Intelligence builds a model of creative thinking around a rapidly-evolving Darwinian process of combining and re-combining various causal memes, which represent nothing more than remembered patterns of causality.
Sheehan describes a meme as any sort of pattern that serves as a template for its own replication. He suggests that an understanding of memetics requires a recognition of how such patterns get themselves automatically translated—according to the strict laws of physics—from substrate to substrate, as from patterns of light entering a human eye to patterns of neural excitations in the retina of that eye, to the Hebbian development of hierarchical patterns of neural connections in the cortex, and ultimately to patterns of muscle contractions that serve to mimic the witnessed behaviors of others.
Philosopher and cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett, in a debate with theologian Alister McGrath, has responded to criticism regarding the lack of rigor in the study of memetics by claiming that words and similar means of spreading and holding ideas provide a clear model for the spread and storage of memes. Sheehan suggests the automatic translation of patterns among various substrates as critical to providing the means for spreading and holding patterns of words and ideas. For example, we speak words through vibrational patterns of the larynx, which get translated to pressure waves in air, which then get translated to vibrations of a listener's ear drum, which then get translated to waves of cochlear fluid inside the inner ear, which then get translated to patterns of neural firings, which then get translated to patterns of neural connections, thereby establishing a memory of the spoken words in the listener's mind. Sheehan asserts that the constant flitting of memetic patterns from one substrate to another makes memes so difficult to pin down, as analogous to genes, but that the physical processes that translate memetic patterns from substrate to substrate exhibit an usually high level of fidelity.
According to Sheehan, "automatic translations of patterns from substrate to substrate to substrate, and back again, provide looping pathways by which patterns can iteratively replicate, mutate and evolve." Sheehan claims that "many such looping pathways exist both within a single brain (to create an intelligent mind) and among many brains (to create culture, language and technology)."
Others suggest that many of the criticisms of memetic theory stem from confusion over what the term "gene" refers to. In microbiology, microbiologists see a "gene" as a cistron, a specific region of DNA. The analogy between memes and genes, however, relates to an evolutionary biologist's gene, an abstract replicatory unit of information. People who think of a gene as an actual visible piece of DNA often criticise the memetic analogy because of this. An example of such an "abstract replicatory unit of information" might code for the color of one's hair or for the length of a digit.
Memetics regards religion itself as memetic, and Richard Dawkins has often discussed religion.
Evangelistic religious movements act to swell the reach of their faith-meme. Judaism, Christianity and, Islam have all developed through variation, modification and memetic re-combination from a shared monotheistic meme: Zoroastrianism appears to have functioned as an important and widely-shared religious ancestor, contributing through Judaism to Christianity, Islam and their many derivative religions. Some of these movements devote a large amount of time and energy to evangelistic activity.
Many of the world's most successful religions demonstrate memetic modification over time—the theologies of the 21st century differ to a greater or lesser extent from the theologies of previous centuries.
In Western countries, universities evolved from medieval religious institutions devoted to learning. Of the nine colonial colleges in the British colonies of North America, eight had affiliations with religious institutions. Many US colleges separated themselves from their seminaries, because the First Amendment to the United States Constitution prevents federal funding of religious organizations. One can think of American academia as an offshoot religion that eliminated less adaptive memes (beliefs in the supernatural) in response to a selective pressure (funding restrictions).
A tendency exists in memetics to disparage religious memes. Dawkins in The God Delusion (2006) calls all religious memes "mind viruses". Some compare this process to a scenario where the action of a virus (here a religion or a "bundle" of religious memes) proves ineffective and maladaptive if it kills its host(s), or to where the presence of less-harmful bacteria on the skin prevent infection by more-harmful organisms. For example, popular Christianity forbids both murder and suicide, and its precise definitions of heresy ensure that properly-educated Christians have difficulty in accepting new religions or new viewpoints which advocate such actions.
Susan Blackmore has made a case that the study of Zen meditation in itself comprises a process of meme "pruning", i.e., a means to remove experiential clichés that reduce the value of life. This has not exempted Zen itself from serving as a source of highly mobile memes, such as "the sound of one hand clapping" koan or exclaiming "mu".
Daniel Dennett used the idea of religion as a meme (or as a set of memes) as a basis for much of his analysis of religion in his book Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon.
Fundamentalist Christianity has associated a particular set of politico-social ideas/memeplexes with a separate set of religious ideas/memeplexes that have "replicated" very effectively for many centuries—notions such as "render unto Caesar", individual conscience, or punishment/reward in an afterlife. For other examples of piggybacking involving religious memes, note the conversion-histories of the Hungarians and of Kievan Rus': adoption of Catholicism and Orthodoxy respectively entailed perceived cultural, political and diplomatic benefits and adherence to perceived mainstream civilization. Personal and intangible experiences which might seem "above" memes may rather have subconscious roots in memes absorbed during a lifetime, as depth psychology might suggest.
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 prepared to see the universe as a mechanism subject to general regularities which humans can observe, describe and model through repeatable experiments and/or observations—acts highly virulently, spreading quickly through an educated population as journals circulate and scientists communicate with each other and society. By demonstrating its success at making predictions, science as a practice can make itself more attractive to potential converts. Whether or not experimenters can necessarily verify them, ideas and attitudes—those which scientists tend to hold or those which feel aesthetically pleasing in combination with scientific discoveries—can propagate themselves in societies where science has a high status by the process of meme piggybacking.
Furthermore, one can view the scientific method as a successful meta-memetical means of selecting those memeplexes best suited for explaining observable physical processes, through its mechanism (parallel to the evolutionary algorithm used in computer science) of providing standardized methods for creating and evaluating competing populations of solutions to a given problem.
When regarded as non-conscious replicators (much like viruses), individual memes generally lack moral goodness or badness. However, the behaviors that memes generate in individuals and groups can have moral implications. History furnishes many examples of the moral implications of racist/ethnic/class memes when they interact with politics, such as the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Racism provides an example of a common meme: an ideology that has come to separate people, causing the deaths of some targets or practitioners (the latter due to backlash) and threatening the lives of those who do not conform with racist norms. Once introduced into a culture, memes evolve (note antisemitism as a form of xenophobia) and spread through society, sometimes becoming both harmful and attractive so that they spread like a virus.(Ref.: 1994 G. Burchett)
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, networks of cultural associations, metaphoric and metonymic models, and a variety of different mental structures. Some of these structures can help generate racist and anti-Semitic beliefs, by making this kind of belief spread fast and wide. Conversely, some memes can have moral implications that most observers might deem positive, such as the meme of anti-racism, which tends/aims to generate behaviors of tolerance.
Memeticists often define an individual's mind as a "playground for memes" or as an "ecology of memes", where the different memes that have colonized that mind at different times interact with each other. For example, when a mind successfully infected by the memeplex for religion X becomes exposed to the memeplex for religion Y, memeplex X may repulse memeplex Y: X can block Y from infecting the mind (for instance through use of such memetic components as the meme that "all other religions apart from X are evil").
In a person's history, language provides the first and most important memetic infection. Indeed, memeticians generally regard language as a memetically-evolved phenomenon. For example, even at the level of animals, many species have evolved particular cries to convey different meanings, such as "danger", "hungry", "aroused", "go away" or "come here". Experiments can verify the memetic nature of the cries of these species, showing for example that the cries do not arise when humans raise the animals concerned: they do not generate the cries by instinct, but learn them from other animals. Human language, as a memetically-evolved tool, can serve not only to communicate concepts between humans, but also to combine low-abstraction concepts into higher-abstraction ones. This combination/abstraction process, seen memetically, constitutes creative breeding of memes, where the interaction of several memes results in the birth of a new, combined meme. For example, the mind of Richard Dawkins saw the creative breeding of its memes for "replicator", "culture", and "mind", and this breeding gave birth to the new meme of "meme".
After humans become infected with the memeplex for language—generally during babyhood—they get infected with a series of higher-abstraction memes, and especially values-memes. Depending on the education received by the person, the lessons drawn from experience, and the surrounding cultural materials (tales, songs, books, etc), a certain ecology and history of meme-infection and interaction builds up within that person’s mind. Memes generate behaviors in their host—either spoken or acted behaviors. Because each person has an individual memetic infection and interaction history, there emerge singular behavior patterns. We conventionally refer to what memeticists regard as meme-generated patterns of behavior as a person's personality.
Memetic engineering (a term was coined by Leveious Rolando, Gibran Burchett, and John Sokol.) consists of the process of developing memes, through meme-splicing and memetic synthesis, with the intent of altering the behavior of others. It involves creating and developing theories or ideologies based on an analytical study of societies, their ways of thinking and the evolution of the minds that comprise them. Attempts at Artificial Meme-Phrase Creation have not met with noted success, though apocryphal stories tell of the putative origins of these sorts of memes.
Sometimes people modify and fabricate memes consciously, even intentionally (think the self-image of advertising agencies, for example—though some argue that the intention comes from the memes). This would help to explain how rapidly, extensively and usefully memetic evolution has functioned in and for culture. People apply many ever-evolving meme-based systems of analysis and error-correction to all information flowing in and out. Just as genetic material has developed gene-based error-correction models, memetic systems have "found" it advantageous to associate with meme-based error-correction models.
However, attempting to popularize a fabricated meme or an unproven theory often results in a backlash against said meme: the originators of a meme may appear to have a hidden agenda.
Evolution requires not only inheritance and natural selection but also variation, and memes also exhibit this property. Ideas may undergo changes in transmission which accumulate over time. Generations of hosts pass on these changes in the phenotype (the information in brains or in retention systems). In other words, unlike genetic evolution, memetic evolution can show both Darwinian and Lamarckian traits. For example, folk tales and myths often become embellished in the retelling to make them more memorable or more appropriate and therefore more impressed listeners have a greater likelihood of retelling them, complete with accumulating embellishments that may serve to modify human behavior. More modern examples appear in the various urban legends and hoaxes—such as the Goodtimes virus warning—that circulate on the Internet.
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, or influence the survival of the ideas themselves. This process can affect which of those ideas will survive for passing on to future generations. For example, a certain culture may have unique designs and methods of tool-making that another culture may not have; therefore, the culture with the more effective methods may prosper more than the other culture, ceteris paribus. 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. Similarly, like the biological evolutionary process, cultures can retain memes that once served a purpose during one epoch or era as vestigial memes — note the survival of astrology. Such evolutionary misdirection resembles (debatably) the survival of the vermiform appendix, or of wisdom teeth in humans.
Memes have as an important characteristic their propagation through imitation, a concept introduced by the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde. Imitation involves copying 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. Imitation may depend on brains sufficiently powerful to assess the key aspects of the imitated behavior (what to copy and why) as well as its potential benefits.
When imitation first evolved in the animal ancestors of humans, it proved itself a valuable skill for learning, which increased an individual's ability to reproduce genetically. Some have speculated that sexual selection of the best imitators further drove a genetic increase in the ability of brains to imitate well.
Memetics suggests that memes have the potential for a much more lasting effect than genes: humans continue to quote prophets, popes and teachers who had no known lineal blood-descendants. Most organisms pass their genes on to their offspring sexually, but with every generation the genetic contribution of a given ancestor halves—so that a person only has a quarter of their grandfather's personal genes. Susan Blackmore has evaluated the legacy of Socrates. Since the 5th century BC, Socrates' genes have become thoroughly diluted (dispersed); however, his memes still have a profound effect on modern thought and on contemporary philosophical discourse.
In modern times, the advent of the Internet—and more specifically of email—has provided memes with a high-fidelity propagation medium that enables highly prolific memes to propagate quickly. For example, chain-emails furnish a significant instance: in-depth studies have examined their evolution and mutation based on their differential survival rate. Paper-based chain-letters, predecessors to this meme-distribution net, have also attracted study, but they have a lower propagation-rate due to the higher copying effort, and a higher mutation-rate may have occurred due to manual transcription or degraded photocopying, thus potentially reducing their lifespan. It seems plausible that the first email chain-letters started when recipients transcribed paper-based chain-letters to email, suggesting that memes can move from one propagation medium to another (more efficient) one.
If one accepts the memetic description, it still remains to single out which memes have good potential for spreading. One can make an analogy with biology. To be able to say something about the spread of a gene in birds that affect their wings ornithologists need to know about both population genetics and aerodynamics. Similarly, memeticists need to complement the description of memes with a description of what makes a meme easily absorbable by people other than the original carrier.
Only the number of extant copies (and where those copies reside) determine the measurable success of a gene or of a meme. A strong (but not complete) correlation exists between genes that do well and genes that have a positive effect on the organism which contains those genes. And if we can restrict attention to memes normally interpreted as statements of fact, then a correlation emerges between those memes that do well and those that reflect reality. However, some genes and memes do survive which owe their success to other factors. Similarly, a correlation exists between successful memes of a technological/economic nature and those that help the economy (such as slavery and free markets (each in their day), for instance).
A gene's success in a body may stem from its attempt to bypass the normal sexual lottery by making itself present in more than 50% of zygotes in an organism. Some genes find other ways of having themselves transmitted between cells. Hence multiple factors influence the evolution of genes — not just the success of the species as a whole. Similarly the evolutionary pressures on memes include much more than just truth and economic success. Evolutionary pressures may include the following:
Memes, like genes, do not purposely do or want anything—they either get replicated or not. Some meme systems have negative effects on the host or on their host society (revenge killings, for example), but humans generally have a symbiotic relationship with these abstract entities.
Memes do not mutate in an exclusively passive way. The brain inhabited by a meme system can carry out a sort of active modification of a meme. One could draw an analogy with a cell's error-correction systems, but they clearly function quite differently. People create and modify memes almost continuously. One can modify, manipulate, and create meme systems in thought, for instance through internal dialogue. As soon as one opens one's mouth and says something (or does something) that one has not copied (but that others can copy), one has unleashed a novel meme. Thus, one could conclude that we all perform the role of a memetic engineer to some degree (even if not consciously).
This seems especially evident in modern society, more notably in the scientific and philosophical realms and in the entertainment industry. It has become standard practice for scientists and philosophers alike to assemble memetic systems and to question their philosophical and empirical integrity. On perceiving a flaw, one may seek theoretical (mathematical/thought experiments/logic/analysis) or empirical (experimental/observational) resolution. This happens in large part due to the influence of some of the more "modern" philosophers of the past. Over the last few hundred (or thousand) years, a "philosophy" or paradigm has evolved and developed which benefits the societies in which many embrace it. That philosophy includes the moral and scientific obligation to take nothing for granted and always to question any new information one perceives. People following this tradition have transformed the memetic base of modern science and philosophy. These people include Zoroaster, Socrates, Aristotle, Plato, Galileo, Newton, Darwin, Albert Einstein, Karl Marx, Benjamin Franklin and Karl Popper. Science accepts nothing as true unless empirical evidence and observation suggests such "truth" strongly and consistently. This entire procedure adheres to a meme-system that has evolved to the point of rejecting almost any absolute truth-claim. This meme-system now includes such novel analytical paradigms as the scientific method and Dewey's decision-making model (among many other meme-based systems) to help distinguish useful (or truthful) meme-systems from "bad" ones.
Francis Heylighen of the Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies has postulated what he calls "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.
The cultural materialism view in anthropology holds that the evolutionary pressures of economy and ecology explain many aspects of human culture. For example, the food taboos sometimes enshrined in religions—such as the concepts of sacred cows, kosher and halal—would have prospered because they allowed the believing population to (say) live more hygienically and thus survive longer than non-believers in environments possibly more hostile to survival. A migration or a change of the economic infrastructure could render the taboo neutral or even adverse.
Resistance to violent and destructive courses of action has formed a common meme that can guide human cultural and cognitive evolution away from disastrous paths—for instance the U.S. and USSR stockpiled but did not deploy nuclear weapons in action in the period of the Cold War. Some cultures can consider ignorance a virtue—in particular, ignorance of certain temptations that the culture believes would prove disastrous if pursued by many individuals. See for example the operation of the Index librorum prohibitorum.
The Internet, perhaps the ultimate meme-vector to date, seems to host both sides of this debate. Opposition to use of the Internet can stem from any number of memes: from ethics to intent to ability to resist hacking or pornography.
The Principia Cybernetica project maintains 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 "meme totalists" who assert memes over bodies.
One controversial application of the "selfish meme" parallel results in the idea that certain collections of memes can act as "memetic viruses": collections of ideas that behave in the manner of independent life-forms which continue to get passed on — even at the expense of their hosts—simply because of their success at getting passed on. Some observers have suggested that evangelical religions and cults behave in 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 do not provide particular direct benefits to the believer.
Others maintain that the wide prevalence of human adoption of religious ideas provides evidence to suggest that such ideas offer some ecological, sexual, ethical or moral value; otherwise memetic evolution would long ago have selected against such ideas. For example, some religions urge peace and co-operation among their followers ("Thou shalt not murder") which may possibly tend to promote the biological survival of the social groups that carry these memes. However, the idea of group selection stands on shaky ground (to say the least) in the more individual-oriented field of genetics. Accordingly, some consider the idea of selection of ideas beneficial to the group exclusively as unlikely.
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 propagation of the entire genetic corpus of the host—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 has a greater likelihood of favouring the interests of these hosts than does a meme capable of succeeding even if each host quickly dies. For example, the commonplace meme which encourages people to wash their hands after they use the toilet or before handling food, and which reminds others to do the same, does not appear harmful. In contrast, a meme telling people to quit their jobs, abandon their families, and run around spreading the meme seems quite virulent.
In traditional population genetics the normal genetic variation, genetic selection, and genetic drift do not lead to the formation of a new species without some form of "reproductive isolation". Thus 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 mere genetic drift acting on the normal genetic variation in the two subspecies will eventually change enough characteristics of the two subgroups to preclude them interbreeding, which (by a common definition of what constitutes a species) means that they will comprise two different species. Examples of reproductive isolation include geographical isolation, where a suddenly-appearing mountain range or river separates two subgroups; temporal isolation (isolation by time), 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 contains sufficient internal variation and mixes enough to keep a given meme relatively 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, each version differing sufficiently from that of the other group to appear as a distinct entity.
The Kellerman meme provides an example of this occurring on the Internet. A search of the web and/or Usenet for the word 'Kellerman' will turn up many 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. 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 proponents of gun control.. Compare the work of the differently spelled scientist Arthur Kellermann.
The original meme of Kellermann and his work on gun-related violent injury has generated a new meme ("Dr. Kellerman is an evil lying gun-grabbing enemy of freedom") by the classic genetic phenomenon of a deletion mutation. The sub-population involved had strongly negative attitudes towards Kellermann's work as well as a lack of firsthand familiarity with his studies and career. Because of the "reproductive isolation" caused by the total non-intersection of the results of searches for "Kellerman" and "Kellermann", the Kellerman-meme drifted even further in the direction of negativity, unchecked by facts related to the real Kellermann. As this group encounters new individuals of similar general outlook, they introduce new recruits 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" (memeplex) as a set of mutually-assisting "co-memes" which have co-evolved a symbiotic relationship; and the "Villain vs. Victim" infection strategy.)