A meme (pronounced /ˈmiːm/, rhyming with "cream") is a unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. (The etymology of the term relates to the Greek word î�î�î�î��î�σî�ός (/mÉ�metÉ�smos/) for "something imitated".) Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.
The British scientist Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme" 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 the book included melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (notably religious beliefs), clothing fashion, and the technology of building arches.
Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual meme's reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors 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. Theorists point out that memes which replicate the most effectively spread best, and some memes may replicate effectively even when they prove 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 scholarship can examine memes empirically. Some commentators question the idea that one can meaningfully categorize culture in terms of discrete units.
Historically, the notion of a unit of social evolution, and a similar term (from Greek mneme, 'memory'), first appeared in 1904 in a work by the German Lamarckist biologist Richard Semon titled Die Mnemischen Empfindungen in ihren Beziehungen zu den Originalempfindungen (loosely translatable 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. Modern day usage has become a slogan to blog writer (hipster runoff)Carls.
Laurent noted the use of the term mneme in Maurice Maeterlinck's The Life of the White Ant (1926), and has highlighted similarities to Dawkins' concept.
The word meme originated with Dawkins' 1976 book The Selfish Gene. To emphasize commonality with genes, Dawkins coined the term "meme" by shortening "mimeme", which derives from the Greek word mimema ("something imitated").
Dawkins states that he did not know of the "mneme", and said that he wanted "a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'". 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.
For the subsequent history of the usage of the term "meme", see Memetics. Note the work of (for example) Susan Blackmore. and Kevin Kelly.
Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesised 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 behaviour. 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, 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. In the context of the exact sciences, memetics suffers in comparison because, unlike the idea of genes, memes do not necessarily have or need a concrete medium in order to transfer.
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 spread by the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Imitation counts as an important characteristic in the propagation of memes. Imitation often involves the copying of an observed behaviour of another individual, but memes may transmit from one individual to another through a copy recorded in an inanimate source, such as a book or a musical score. Researchers have observed memetic copying in just a few species on Earth, including hominids, dolphins and birds (which learn how to sing by imitating their parents or neighbors).
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.
Aaron Lynch described seven general patterns of meme transmission, or "thought contagion":
- Quantity of parenthood: an idea which influences the number of children one has. Children respond particularly receptively to the ideas of their parents, and thus ideas which directly or indirectly encourage a higher birthrate will replicate themselves at a higher rate than those that discourage higher birthrates.
- Efficiency of parenthood: an idea which increases the proportion of children who will adopt ideas of their parents. Cultural separatism exemplifies one practice in which one can expect a higher rate of meme-replication ' because the meme for separation creates a barrier from exposure to competing ideas.
- Proselytic: ideas generally passed to others beyond one's own children. Ideas that encourage the proselytism of a meme, as seen in many religious or political movements, can replicate memes horizontally through a given generation, spreading more rapidly than parent-to-child meme-transmissions do.
- Preservational: ideas which influence those that hold them to continue to hold them for a long time. Ideas which encourage longevity in their hosts, or leave their hosts particularly resistant to abandoning or replacing these ideas, enhance the preservability of memes and afford protection from the competition or proselytism of other memes.
- Adversative: ideas which influence those that hold them to attack or sabotage competing ideas and/or those that hold them. Adversative replication can give an advantage in meme transmission when the meme itself encourages aggression against other memes.
- Cognitive: ideas perceived as cogent by most in the population who encounter them. Cognitively transmitted memes depend heavily on a cluster of other ideas and cognitive traits already widely held in the population, and thus usually spread more passively than other forms of meme transmission. Memes spread in cognitive transmission do not count as self-replicating.
- Motivational: ideas that people adopt because they perceive some self-interest in adopting them. Strictly speaking, motivationally transmitted memes do not self-propagate, but this mode of transmission often occurs in association with memes self-replicated in the efficiency parental, proselytic and preservational modes.
Memes as discrete units
Richard Dawkins initially defined meme as a noun which "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 favourable or unfavourable 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 if 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 which 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.
Some criticsgene 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.
have seen the inability to pin an idea or cultural feature to its key units as an insurmountable problem for memetics. Blackmore meets such criticism by stating that memes compare with genes in this respect: that while a
The 1981 book Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process by Charles J. Lumsden and E. O. Wilson proposed 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. They coined their own term, "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.
Evolutionary influences on memes
Richard Dawkins noted the three conditions which must exist for evolution to occur:
- variation, or the introduction of new change to existing elements
- heredity or replication, or the capacity to create copies of elements
- differential "fitness", or the opportunity for one element to be more or less suited to the environment than another
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 also regards memes as 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 which 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. Meme theory commonly cites memes grouped in memeplexes of religion as examples.
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 criticismssociology, 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 .
of memetics include the claim that memetics ignores established advances in other fields of cultural study, such as
Criticism of meme theory
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.
Another critique comes from semiotic theorists such as Deacon and 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.
Fracchia and Lewontin regard memetics as reductionist and inadequate.
Lack of philosophical appeal
In his chapter titled "Truth" published in the Encyclopedia of Phenomenology, Dieter Lohmar questions the memeticists' reduction of the highly complex body of ideas (such as religion, politics, war, justice, and science itself) to a putatively one-dimensional series of memes. He sees memes as an abstraction and such a reduction as failing to produce greater understanding of those ideas. The highly interconnected, multi-layering of ideas resists memetic simplification to an atomic or molecular form; as does the fact that each of our lives remains fully enmeshed and involved in such "memes". Lohmar argues that one cannot view memes through a microscope in the way one can detect genes. The leveling-off of all such interesting "memes" down to some neutralized molecular "substance" such as "meme-substance" introduces a bias toward scientism and abandons the very essence of what makes ideas interesting, richly available, and worth studying.
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. A third approach, described as "radical memetics", seeks to place memes at the centre of a materialistic theory of mind and of personal identity.
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, 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 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, Stanovich uses the memes and memeplex concepts to describe a program of cognitive reform which 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.
Although social scientists such as Max Weber sought to understand and explain religion in terms of a cultural attribute, 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. 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 (itself a meme) in homes and churches potently reinforces the wide array of Christian memes.
Memetic explanations of racism
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. Balkin maintains that the same structures used to generate ideas about free speech or free markets also serve to generate racist 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 which become harmful or unjust "ideologies" when diverse peoples come together, as through trade or competition.
Main article: Internet meme
The term "Internet meme" refers to a catchphrase or concept that spreads rapidly from person to person via the Internet, largely through Internet-based email, blogs, forums, Imageboards, social networking sites and instant messaging.
One technique of meme mapping represents the evolution and transmission of a meme across time and space. Such a meme map uses a figure-8 diagram (an analemma) to map the gestation (in the lower loop), birth (at the choke point), and development (in the upper loop) of the selected meme. Such meme maps are non-scalar, with time mapped onto the y-axis and space onto the x-axis transect. One can read the temporal progress of the mapped meme from south to north on such a meme map. Paull has published a worked example using the "organics meme" (as in organic agriculture).
- ^ a b c d Dawkins, Richard (1989), The Selfish Gene (2 ed.), Oxford University Press, p. 192, ISBN 0-19-286092-5, http://books.google.com/?id=WkHO9HI7koEC&pg=PA192, "We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. 'Mimeme' comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to 'memory', or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'."
- ^ "meme" at The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language: Fourth Edition, 2000
- ^ Graham 2002
- ^ Millikan 2004, p. 16; Varieties of meaning "Richard Dawkins invented the term 'memes' to stand for items that are reproduced by imitation rather than reproduced genetically."
- ^ a b c d Dawkins 1989, p. 352
- ^ Kelly & 1994 p.360:"But if we consider culture as its own self organizing system,' a system with its own agenda and pressure to survive' then the history of humanity gets even more interesting. As Richard Dawkins has shown, systems of self-replicating ideas or memes can quickly accumulate their own agenda and behaviours. I assign no higher motive to a cultural entity than the primitive drive to reproduce itself and modify its environment to aid its spread. One way the self organizing system can do this is by consuming human biological resources."
- ^ Heylighen & Chielens 2009
- ^ Semon, Richard Wolfgang (1921), The Mneme, London: George Allen & Unwin
- ^ Laurent, John (1999), "A Note on the Origin of 'Memes'/'Mnemes'", Journal of Memetics 3 (1): 14'19, http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/1999/vol3/laurent_j.html, retrieved 2008-03-17
- ^ Blackmore, Susan (1999), The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-286212-X
- ^ Kelly, Kevin (1994), Out of Control: The New Biology of Machines, Social Systems, and the Economic World, United States: Addison-Wesley, pp. 360, ISBN 0-201-48340-8
- ^ a b c d e f Blackmore 1999
- ^ a b Blackmore 1998
- ^ Blackmore 1998; "The term 'contagion' is often associated with memetics. We may say that certain memes are contagious, or more contagious than others."
- ^ a b Lynch 1996
- ^ Wilkins, John S. (1998), "What's in a Meme? Reflections from the perspective of the history and philosophy of evolutionary biology", Journal of Memetics 2, http://jom-emit.cfpm.org/
- ^ Wilson 1998
- ^ a b Dennett 1991
- ^ Dawkins 2004
- ^ See for example John D. Gottsch: "Mutation, Selection, And Vertical Transmission Of Theistic Memes In Religious Canons" in Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, Volume 5, Issue 1, 2001. Online version retrieved 2008-01-27.
- ^ Sterelny & Griffiths 1999; p.333
- ^ Benitez Bribiesca, Luis (January 2001), "Memetics: A dangerous idea" (PDF), Interciencia: Revista de Ciencia y Technologia de América (Venezuela: Asociación Interciencia) 26 (1): 29'31, ISSN 0378-1844, http://redalyc.uaemex.mx/redalyc/pdf/339/33905206.pdf, retrieved 2010-02-11, "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."
- ^ Terrence Deacon, "The trouble with memes (and what to do about it)". The Semiotic Review of Books 10(3).
- ^ Kalevi Kull (2000), "Copy versus translate, meme versus sign: development of biological textuality". European Journal for Semiotic Studies 12(1), 101'120.
- ^ Fracchia, Joseph; R C Lewontin (February 2005), "The price of metaphor" (PDF), History and theory (Weleyan University) 44 (44): 14'29, doi:10.1111/j.1468-2303.2005.00305.x, ISSN 0018-2656, http://www.jstor.org/pss/3590779, retrieved 2010-03-28, "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."
- ^ Dieter Lohmar - "Truth", in Lester Embree, Encyclopedia of phenomenology, Dordrecht, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1997
- ^ See Edmonds, Bruce (2002-09), "Three Challenges for the Survival of Memetics", Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission 6 (2), http://cfpm.org/jom-emit/2002/vol6/edmonds_b_letter.html, retrieved 2009-02-03
- ^ Aunger 2000
- ^ Poulshock 2002
- ^ Atran 2002
- ^ Stanovich, Keith E. (2004-05-15). The Robot's Rebellion: Finding Meaning in the Age of Darwin (1 ed.). University Of Chicago Press. ISBN 0226770893.
- ^ Balkin 1998
- ^ a b Paull, John (2009) "Meme Maps: A Tool for Configuring Memes in Time and Space", European Journal of Scientific Research, 31(1):11-18.
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- Henson, H. Keith: "Evolutionary Psychology, Memes and the Origin of War."
- Henson, H. Keith: "Sex, Drugs, and Cults. An evolutionary psychology perspective on why and how cult memes get a drug-like hold on people, and what might be done to mitigate the effects", The Human Nature Review 2002 Volume 2: 343-355
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