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The word ``meme'' was coined by Richard Dawkins in his (much-maligned) 1976 book The Selfish Gene:
``I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drfiting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate which leaves the old gene panting far behind.

``The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmisision, 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 classcist 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.'

``Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: `...memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of talking --- the meme for, say, ``belief in life after death'' is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.' ''

That is to say, a meme is an idea, which mutates and is inherited like a gene and spreads like a virus. (Dawkins has in fact written an essay on ``Viruses of the Mind,'' which has now infected the Web.)

Such ideas are not original with Dawkins --- as he himself says, ``the analogy between cultural and genetic evolution has frequently been pointed out'' --- but they really took off after his book. One can think of various reasons --- Dawkin's clear and compelling case; the (foolish) controversy over his book; general concern about biological and computer viruses; the millenarian notions of computer groupies, who want to see themselves as preparing for the next stage in evolution. Of course, there is also Dawkin's enthusiastic use of the idea as a stick with which to beat religion over the head, which none of his predecessors attempted:

``Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent `mutation.' In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value? Remember that `survival value' here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What is it about the idea of a god which gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence. It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the next. The `everlasting arms' hold out a cushion against our own inadequacies, which, like a doctor's placebo, is none the less effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the environment provided by human culture.''

In any event, the meme meme has become endemic in the Net, making Dawkins a kind of intellectual Typhoid Mary.

Memes on the Net


At one point pretty dead. Sporadic attempts at recovery.

Journal of Memetics --- Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission A peer-reviewed, on-line journal of memetics. Damn good.

Aaron Lynch

Mr. Lynch wrote the first book dedicated to memetics that's really worth reading, Thought Contagion, and his web-site is mostly dedicated to promoting it. (The book deserves to be promoted.) Also available through this site is a fairly mathematical paper, ``Units, Events and Dynamics of Meme Replication'', which I at least found very interesting (and, at least as math, entirely correct), and a debate between Lynch and Richard Barbrook, in which the anti-meme side comes off so badly it's embarrassing to watch. (``People don't learn from each other's mistakes. They learn each other's mistakes.'')

Adam Westoby

Political scientist and historian of Marxism who at the time of his death was working on a manuscript, since put online by the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts, called ``The Ecology of Intentions: How to Make Memes and Influence People: Culturology''. It's one of the most sophisticated examinations of what proper memetics should be like, and well worth reading even in its incomplete state.

The Memetic Lexicon

i.e. a dictionary about memes, is under the keeping of one Mr. Glenn Grant, who has also written``Memes: Introduction.''

Other Useful Collections

Can be found among the pages of the Transhumanists and those of Marius Watz.

Avant la lettre

That is, anticpations of the genetic or infectious character of ideas and behavior. I've only been looking for a few months, and haven't had the chance to consult Robert Richard's Darwin and the Emergence of Evolutionary Theories of Mind and Behavior, let alone pre-Darwinians. It would be surprising to find someone who accepted the evolution of ideas but not living things; but physical evolution, in various forms, goes back before Socrates, and it might be worth checking out Lucretius or (especially!) Diderot. (Claude Bernard is another likely suspect.)

The disease-analogy, on the other hand, is incredibly obvious (thus the movie Pump Up the Volume featured the slogan ``Truth is a virus'') and I imagine it is quite ancient. A cursory check of Hippocrates turned up nothing, but perhaps the Church Fathers' writings against heresy would be more fruitful.

See Also: History and Philosophy of Science and Technology.

Jacques Monod

in Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (1971). Shards of the relevant chapter are on-line, but don't read well. I shall probably get around to typing it one of these days.

---According to Stephen Toulmin's review (in The Return to Cosmology) Monod ``gave an inaugural lecture at the College de France in November, 1967 which was all that such a lecture should be: a striking call for the reintegration of fundamental biological theory with a purified `natural philosophy,' and for its application to human affairs. While philosophers were still fiddling away at out-of-date problems, he argued, intellectual changes were going on under their noses, notably in biology, which should be leading them to reformulate their very questions.... In particular, he called for a revival of interest in the mechanisms of intellectual history, which should lead to `a natural history of the selection of ideas,' and so make the evolution of human culture as intelligible, in its own way, as Darwinism made organic speciation and evolution.'' Toulmin adds that ``this inaugural lecture has been published in English translation as an Occasional Paper of the Salk Institute of Biology, La Jolla,'' California, but I haven't found a copy. Toulmin goes on to point out that the book is marred by being so damn French; in particular, Monod's conception of philosophy is limited to the bizarrely sterile and archaic notions that pass current in Paris --- subjects for a diatribe in themselves, but a different one.

Peter Medawar

Toyed with the idea over a preiod of something like thirty years, dropping liberal hints along the way. The importance he attached to the idea also varied considerably; in e.g. ``The Future of Man'' he went so far as to say that there were two sorts of biological heredity, genetic and mental, and nothing of importance could be learned about the latter from the former. (I'm not sure but he wasn't correct.)

Karl Popper

Austrian-British philosopher (1902--1994) who spent a great deal of time and thought on the analogy between natural selection and scientific progress. Specifically mentioned by Dawkins, and a great friend of Medawar.

André Siegfried

French geographer, 1875--1959. His last book, Itinéraires de Contagions: Epidémies et idéologies, (1960; British edition Germs and Ideas: Routes of Epidemics and Ideologies, American Routes of Contagion both 1965), based on lectures given at the Académie de médecine in 1958, contains a very fully worked out analogy between the spread of ideas and the spread of disease.

Arthur O. Lovejoy

American philosopher and historian, 1873--1962. One of the founders of the ``history of ideas'' movement, his method (best seen in his classic The Great Chain of Being: A Study of the History of an Idea, the opening to which has been scanned in, after a fashion) was to follow the progress of a single, simple ``unit idea'', paying particular attention to secondary and unoriginal authors, as being the most likely to display the conventional wisdom and received notions of their time. I'm afraid it's been so long since I've read him I can't recall whether he made any biological analogies at all.

William James

Expounds both the evolution and the infectious spread of ideas in ``Great Men and their Environment'' which was published in 1880.
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Last changed 26 September 1997