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14.1 Origins and Concepts

A meme is a postulated unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, that gets transmitted from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. Supporters of the concept of memes believe that they act as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures. Memeticists have not definitively empirically proven the existence of discrete memes or their proposed mechanism; they do not form part of the consensus of mainstream social sciences. Meme theory therefore lacks the same degree of influence granted to its counterpart and inspiration, genetics.

Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity’s reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviours that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and 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.

14.1 Origins and concepts

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 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 significance in explaining human behaviour and cultural evolution.

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.