A meme (/miːm/ MEEM) is an idea, behavior, or style that spreads by means of imitation from person to person within a culture and often carries symbolic meaning representing a particular phenomenon or theme. A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas, symbols, or practices, that can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena with a mimicked theme. Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. In popular language, a meme may refer to an Internet meme, typically an image, that is remixed, copied, and circulated in a shared cultural experience online.
Proponents theorize that memes are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme's reproductive success. Memes spread through the behavior 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. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be 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 academic study can examine memes empirically. However, developments in neuroimaging may make empirical study possible. Some commentators in the social sciences question the idea that one can meaningfully categorize culture in terms of discrete units, and are especially critical of the biological nature of the theory's underpinnings. Others have argued that this use of the term is the result of a misunderstanding of the original proposal.
The word meme itself is a neologism coined by Richard Dawkins, originating from his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins's own position is somewhat ambiguous. He welcomed N. K. Humphrey's suggestion that "memes should be considered as living structures, not just metaphorically" and proposed to regard memes as "physically residing in the brain." Although Dawkins said his original intentions had been simpler, he approved Humphrey's opinion and he endorsed Susan Blackmore's 1999 project to give a scientific theory of memes, complete with predictions and empirical support.
The word was coined by British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins 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 Dawkins' book include melodies, catchphrases, fashion, and the technology of building arches. The word 'meme' is autological in nature, meaning it's a word that describes itself; in other words, the word 'meme' is itself a meme.
Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesized 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 behavior. 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.
In that context, Dawkins defined the meme as a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation and replication, 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. Meme transmission requires a physical medium, such as photons, sound waves, touch, taste, or smell because memes can be transmitted only through the senses.
Initially, Dawkins did not seriously give context to the material of memetics. He considered a meme to be an idea, and thus a mental concept. However, from Dawkins' initial conception, it is how a medium might function in relation to the meme which has garnered the most attention. For example, David Hull suggested that while memes might exist as Dawkins conceives of them, he finds it important to suggest that instead of determining them as idea "replicators" (i.e. mind-determinant influences) one might notice that the medium itself has an influence in the meme's evolutionary outcomes. Thus, he refers to the medium as an "interactor" to avoid this determinism. Alternatively, Daniel Dennett suggests that the medium and the idea are not distinct in that memes only exist because of their medium. Dennett argued this in order to remain consistent with his denial of qualia and the notion of materially deterministic evolution which was consistent with Dawkins' account. A particularly more divergent theory is that of Limor Shifman, a communication and media scholar of "Internet Memetics." She argues that any memetic argument which claims the distinction between the meme and the meme-vehicle (i.e. the meme's medium) are empirically observable is mistaken from the offset. Shifman claims to be following a similar theoretical direction as Susan Blackmore, however her attention to the media surrounding Internet culture has enabled Internet Memetic research to depart in empirical interests from previous memetic goals. Regardless of Internet Memetic's divergence in theoretical interests, it plays a significant role in theorizing and empirically investigating the connection between cultural ideologies, behaviors, and their mediation processes.
Memes, analogously to genes, vary in their aptitude to replicate; successful memes remain and spread, whereas unfit ones stall and are forgotten. Thus, memes that prove more effective at replicating and surviving are selected in the meme pool.
Memes first need retention. The longer a meme stays in its hosts, the higher its chances of propagation are. When a host uses a meme, the meme's life is extended. The reuse of the neural space hosting a certain meme's copy to host different memes is the greatest threat to that meme's copy. A meme that increases the longevity of its hosts will generally survive longer. On the contrary, a meme that shortens the longevity of its hosts will tend to disappear faster. However, as hosts are mortal, retention is not sufficient to perpetuate a meme in the long term; memes also need transmission.
Memes reproduce by copying from a nervous system to another one, either by communication or imitation. Imitation often involves the copying of an observed behavior of another individual. Communication may be direct or indirect, where memes transmit from one individual to another through a copy recorded in an inanimate source, such as a book or a musical score. Adam McNamara has suggested that memes can be thereby classified as either internal or external memes (i-memes or e-memes).
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.
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 that 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 (helpinfo)) form a meme widely replicated as an independent unit, one can regard the entire symphony as a single meme as well.
The inability to pin an idea or cultural feature to quantifiable key units is widely acknowledged as a problem for memetics. It has been argued however that the traces of memetic processing can be quantified utilizing neuroimaging techniques which measure changes in the connectivity profiles between brain regions." Blackmore meets such criticism by stating that memes compare with genes in this respect: that while a gene 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.
Genes, Mind, and Culture: The Coevolutionary Process (1981) by Charles J. Lumsden and E. O. Wilson proposes 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. Lumsden and Wilson coined their own word, 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. 041b061a72