About Memes

The term meme (it’s pronounced like dream or cream) was coined by Richard Dawkins, Professor of the Public Understanding of Science at Oxford University, in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. As examples he suggested “tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches”.

Memes are habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information that is copied from person to person. Memes, like genes, are replicators. That is, they are information that is copied with variation and selection. Because only some of the variants survive, memes (and hence human cultures) evolve. Memes are copied by imitation, teaching and other methods, and they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again. Large groups of memes that are copied and passed on together are called co-adapted meme complexes, or memeplexes.

The word “meme” has recently been included in the Oxford English Dictionary where it is defined as follows  “meme (mi:m), n. Biol. (shortened from mimeme … that which is imitated, after GENE n.) “An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation”.

According to memetics, our minds and cultures are designed by natural selection acting on memes, just as organisms are designed by natural selection acting on genes. A central question for memetics is therefore ‘why has this meme survived?’. Some succeed because they are genuinely useful to us, while others use a variety of tricks to get themselves copied. From the point of view of the “selfish memes” all that matters is replication, regardless of the effect on either us or our genes.

Some memes are almost entirely exploitative, or viral, in nature, including chain letters and e-mail viruses. These consist of a “copy-me” instruction backed up with threats and promises. Religions have a similar structure and this is why Dawkins refers to them as ‘viruses of the mind’. Many religions threaten hell and damnation, promise heaven or salvation, and insist that their followers pass on their beliefs to others. This ensures the survival of the memeplex. Other viral memes include alternative therapies that don’t work, and new age fads and cults. Relatively harmless memes include children’s games, urban legends and popular songs, all of which can spread like infections.

At the other end of the spectrum memes survive because of their value to us. The most valuable of memeplexes include all of the arts and sports, transport and communications systems, political and monetary systems, literature and science.

Memetics has been used to provide new explanations of human evolution, including theories of altruism, the origins of language and consciousness, and the evolution of the large human brain. The Internet can be seen as a vast realm of memes, growing rapidly by the process of memetic evolution and not under human control.

The field of memetics is still a new and controversial science, with many critics, and many difficulties to be resolved.

Examples of memes

Anything that is copied from person to person, or book to person etc.

Scientific theories


Internet Memes

The Loo Roll meme !

Many other sites provide definitions, FAQs and other basic information on memes. See Links.

For more on definitions see Blackmore,S.J. 1998 Imitation and the definition of a meme. Journal of Memetics – Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 2.