The word "meme" is pronounced like the word "beam". Simply put, a meme is an idea which spreads. In more specific terms, a meme is a self-propagating unit of cultural evolution, analogous to the gene (the unit of biological evolution). The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his controversial book The Selfish Gene. The concept predates the coining of the term; for example, William S. Burroughs' assertion that "Language is a virus". Memes can represent parts of ideas, languages, tunes, designs, skills, moral and esthetic values and anything else that is commonly learned and passed on to others as a unit. The study of memes is called memetics.

In casual use, the term meme is sometimes used to mean any piece of information passed from one person to another. This is much closer to the analogy of "language as a virus" than it is to Dawkins's analogy of memes as replicating behaviours.

Table of contents
1 Overview
2 Examples of memes
3 Evolution of memes
4 Biological analogies
5 Memetics
6 Further Reading
7 See Also


"The key to every man is his thought. Sturdy and defying though he look, he has a helm which he obeys, which is the idea after which all his facts are classified. He can only be reformed by showing him a new idea which commands his own." - Ralph Waldo Emerson

Dawkins observed that cultures can evolve in much the same way populations of organisms do, by passing ideas from one generation to the next, some of which may enhance or detract from the survival of the person holding them, thereby affecting which of those ideas continue to be passed on to future generations. For example, early cultures may have had different designs and methods for building tools. The culture with the more effective method may well have prospered while others suffered, leading to its method being adopted by a higher proportion of the population as time passed. Each tool design thus acts somewhat similarly to a biological gene; some populations have it and some don't, and the presence of the design in future generations is directly affected by the meme's function.

A key characteristic of a meme is that it is propagated by imitation. Whatever you learn by observing someone else doing it is potentially a meme. Observing is not limited to seeing (as in seeing how a tool is made); you can observe by hearing (a song or a story), smelling (an ingredient for a recipe), touching (a weapon to insure it's strong enough), or by reading. Because memes propagate by imitation from one individual to another, they could not exist without brains that are powerful enough to assess the key aspects of the behavior to be imitated (what to copy and why) as well as its potential benefits. Memes (or behaviors acquired and propagated by imitation) have been observed in just a few species on Earth, including humans, dolphins and a bird that learns how to sing by imitating its parents.

Both genes and memes can "live" much longer than the individual organisms that carry them. A successful gene (such as a gene for powerful teeth in a population of lions) can remain unchanged in the gene pool for tens/hundreds of thousands of years, and even more. A successful meme can propagate itself from one individual to another long after it has first appeared.

Unlike biological genes whose success is determined by how good at surviving the organism that carry them is, memes' success depends on more subtle means (such as criticism, persuasion, and fashion/peer pressure) that have not yet been widely investigated. A few common tricks that some of the most successful memes have been "using" to "propagate" themselves include:

  1. "Find" an issue or a problem of interest which can not be solved (e.g. what, if anything, happens after death) and "propose" a solution (e.g., you go to heaven or hell). The idea can't be proved wrong for sure, and as such is relatively safe and fit for further propagation.
  2. "Frighten" those who would prefer not to propagate you (e.g. If you do, or do not do this, you will burn in hell) and "compensate" those who do as you "say" (e.g. Do this and you will go to heaven after you die).
  3. "Ask" the individuals who carry you to be kind to other people and to spend a lot of time thinking and talking about you (e.g., a priest doing little else besides trying to spread his religion).

The quotes draw your attention to the fact that a meme does not purposely do or want anything - it just gets copied or not.

Examples of memes

The following statements are crudely stated versions of some common memes:

Evolution of memes

Evolution requires not only inheritance and natural selection, but also mutation, and memes clearly have this property as well. Ideas that get passed on may undergo changes that accumulate over time. Folk tales and myths, for example, are often embellished in the retelling to make them more memorable--and therefore more likely to be retold again. More modern examples can be found in the various urban legends and hoaxes that circulate on the Internet, such as the Goodtimes virus warning.

Some of these methods of cultural evolution have been called "artificial selection", in contrast to "natural selection", to emphasize the fact that human choices are involved. But the distinction is not always clear: even evolution in nature involves conscious choices, and many choices we make may be influenced by our biology.

Biological analogies

In much the same way that the selfish gene concept can be used as a point of view from which to better understand and reason about biological evolution, the meme concept can be used to better understand some otherwise puzzling aspects of human culture (and learned behaviors of other animals as well). However, if "better" is not good enough to test empirically, the question will remain whether the meme concept is good enough for science. Is the meme idea itself simply embedding itself in culture like other bad ideas?

A controversial application of this "selfish meme" parallel is the idea that certain collections of memes can act as "memetic viruses": collections of ideas that behave like independent life forms, and continue to get passed on even at the expense of their hosts simply because they are good at getting passed on. It has been suggested that evangelical religions behave this way; 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 aren't particularly valuable to the believer.

Others note that the wide prevelance of human adoption of religious ideas proves that they must have some ecological, sexual, ethical or moral value. For example, most religions urge peace and cooperation among their followers ("Thou shalt not kill"), which may tend to promote the biological survival of social groups that carry these memes. Certainly religious promoters claim such value for following their rules or principles - but how is that related to what they feel is divine?

There is a tendency in memetics to disparage the religious meme. It is surprising to many memetics advocates to learn of meme-like concepts described long ago, which are prevalent in Sufi teaching. For an introduction to the muwakkals, the Eastern memes, read The Music of Life, Pir Hazrat Inayat Khan, Omega Uniform Edition, 2nd edition, 1993, trade paperback: 353 pages, ISBN 093087238X Muwakkals are considered separate beings, elementals, that make up human thought.


Memetics is the formal study of memes. Memetics can currently be regarded as either a field of sociology, or a protoscience in its own right.

Memetics applies concepts taken from the theory of evolution (especially population genetics) to human culture. It tries to explain many very controversial subjects, like religions and political systems, using mathematical models.

Many thoughtful people wonder if the analogy of gene to culture will hold up and how the similarity would be tested.

Memetics must be distinguished from sociobiology. In sociobiology the evolving entities are genes, while in memetics they are memes. Sociobiology is concerned with the biological basis of human behaviours, while memetics treats humans as products not only of biological evolution, but of cultural evolution also.

Memetic association is the discovery that memes herd. For example, the meme for bluejeans includes memes for trouser flies, riveted clothing, blue dye, cotton clothing, belt loops, and double-sewn seams.

Memetic drift is the process of an idea or meme changing as it is transferred from one person to another. Very few memes show strong memetic inertia which is the characteristic of a meme to be expressed in the same way and to have the same impact, regardless of which person is receiving or transmitting the idea. Memetic drift increases when the meme is transmitted by an awkward way of expressing the idea, whilst memetic intertia is strengthened when the form of expression rhymes or uses other mnemonic devices to preserve the memory of the meme prior to its transmittal. The article on Murphy's law shows one example of memetic drift.

Much of memetic terminology is created 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.

Further Reading

See Also

Copycat, Chain letter, self-replication, Urban myth, meme pool, Spam, Paradigm shift.