What is a Meme?

The study of memes (a new field called "memetics") is going revolutionize psychology, cultural anthropology, political science and religious studies. In fact it has already started. Memetics will have as dramatic an impact on those fields as the discovery of the gene had on biology.

The word "meme" was coined by the British zoologist, Richard Dawkins in his book, The Selfish Gene, which came out in 1976. Dawkins' book was a presentation of a new way of looking at genes. Up until then, the conventional way of understanding genes was from the organism's point of view. In other words, genes are selected that help the organism survive. The problem with that way of looking at it was several facts did not seem to fit. Dawkins said when you think of it from the individual gene's point of view, all those facts fit.

He went further to say that whenever you have something that can make copies of itself, like DNA, you will have evolution because some copies will survive better or reproduce faster, and those will eventually outcompete the other kinds.

And in his last chapter, he said genes aren't the only things in this universe that make copies of themselves. There is one other thing that we know of, but there isn't a word for it, so Dawkins made one up: memes. A meme is anything that can be copied from one mind to another.

A song is a meme. A saying is a meme. An idea is a meme. The custom of shaking hands is a meme. The word "meme" is itself a meme and it has now been copied from my mind to yours.

Dawkins further said that because memes get copied, they will evolve. Some will copy better than others. Some will be more "contagious" than others. And if they are not all be copied perfectly, any given variation has the potential to be more contagious than the original, in which case it will survive better or be copied more often, so that meme will eventually dominate.

So for example, if you have a religion and it's going along just fine and somewhere along the way, someone adds the idea that if you can convert others to your religion, you are more likely to get into heaven, then you now have a new variation, a mutation in the collection of memes that comprise the religion. Now you have two versions of the same religion. One branch, say, keeps the religion to themselves. In the other branch, many of the followers are out actively trying to recruit new converts. Give those two branches a couple hundred years, and guess which one will have more converts? It doesn't matter whether it is right or wrong. It is blind, just as natural selection of genes is blind. If a variation allows a gene or a meme to make more copies, it makes more copies.

This is a very interesting subject, and since Dawkins' book came out, several other books have been written on the subject. The best one is called The Meme Machine. Also one with some great examples is called Thought Contagion: When Ideas ACT Like Viruses.

does "meme" stand for culture?

Yes, a meme could be seen as a unit of culture. What the concept of meme adds is the idea of evolution, of competition between variations of a meme, and the idea that it is possible to look at a meme from the meme's perspective rather than from the organism's perspective. In other words, memes are making copies of themselves, using our brains and biology to do it, and what will succeed may have nothing to do with what helps the organism or even the group. For example, if you have a tune in your head you can't get rid of, what is going on? It is a successful meme using your brain against your will to generate copies of itself. In this case, you might not be making a sound, so all it is doing is going around in your head, but as soon as you whistle it or hum it, it is now using you to put copies of itself into the brains of others.

A new theory often doesn't add any new facts, but explains the facts with more power, or more completely, and opens new avenues to explore that weren't available with previous theories. A good new theory also makes testable predictions possible that weren't possible before. A new theory is better if it has more explanatory power, and the memetics theory does.

One of the ways I think memetics will impact psychology is...hell, I think it will completely change psychology. Think about what the field of biology was before the theory of evolution. Hardly recognizable. Yes, they studied life forms. But now the foundation of biology rests on the solid footing of Darwinism. Everything biological is based on it. I think that will happen to psychology with the theory of memetics. What is the role, for example, of early learning? How is it influenced? Is our brain pre-wired to make copies of memes? Are there biological predispositions toward learning some kinds of memes but not others? Can learning curriculums be designed to use this meme-copying machinery better than previous curriculums?

People have "learned" a lot of things that aren't true, and may even be harmful. Could you have something like gene therapy (where they infect you with a virus that corrects your own DNA), called meme-therapy, where they can correct important faulty or dysfunctional memes by infecting you with a meme virus?

It's a new science. It'll be interesting to see it mature.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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