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A meme is an idea or behavior that spreads from person to person within a society. The term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene in 1976. Dawkins proposed the idea that social information could change and propagate through a culture in a way similar to genetic changes in a population of organisms - i.e., evolution by natural selection. Sticking with its roots in genetics and evolution, the term is derived from the word gene, which is a unit of hereditary biological information made of DNA. Compared to a gene, which has a physical existence within a cell nucleus, a meme is far more abstract and this has led to accusations that memetics isn't really hard science.
The idea was subsequently developed to include political philosophies and religions, which were named memeplexes, because they contain vast numbers of interacting memes. Memes that interact favourably will form strong memeplexes, while memeplexes will resist incompatible memes. A political memeplex valuing authority of thought would be incompatible with memes valuing individuality of thought, for example. This goes some way to explaining the polarisation of thought on the political spectrum.
Religious mythology is part of the memeplex of religion, as would be the idea that one needs religion. In the same way that Dawkins' "selfish genes" would propagate through populations for their own benefit and not for the benefit of the organisms that carry them, memeplexes propagate through society irrespective of their value to the society. Enduring negative memeplexes are sometimes called "mind viruses"; with atheistic proponents of memetics (e.g. Dawkins himself) citing Christian fundamentalism as one such example.
The internet has been a source for the creation and propagation of many new memes. On the internet an idea can be developed and quickly acquire modifications from users around the world, such that the root idea becomes the basis for multiple spin-off ideas, subsets of ideas, and other similar iterations. In this sense, a "meme" evolves, taking on a life of its own through the contributions of users of varied cultural backgrounds.
Many memes are humorous in nature. "All Your Base Are Belong to Us" was an early internet meme, and "lolcats" is a popular emergent meme. Other memes focus on potential dangers, such as cell phones causing fires at gas pumps. When Internet vandals copy each other this also generates memes.
Memetics: Science, pseudoscience, or protoscience?
A "scientific" study of memetics was attempted with the establishment of the Journal of Memetics, which lasted from 1997-2005. While memetics has gained a few boosters in fields that study culture such as social psychology, sociology, and anthropology, it has largely been ignored as a methodological approach or met with harsh criticism. In the final issue of the Journal of Memetics, Bruce Edmonds argued that memetics had "failed to produce substantive results," writing "I claim that the underlying reason memetics has failed is that it has not provided any extra explanatory or predictive power beyond that available without the gene-meme analogy."
A common criticism of memetics is that the meme is a more primitive version of the concept of "sign" in semiotics repackaged in biological and evolutionary language. Luis Benitez-Bribiesca has criticized memetics for lacking a well-formed definition of "meme" and argued that the high rate of "mutation" as proposed by the memeticists would lead to a "chaotic disintegration" of culture rather than a progressive evolution. (Not to mention denouncing it as a "pseudoscientific dogma.") Benitez-Bribiesca's criticisms concerning fidelity and the ill-defined nature of memes feature in many other critiques of memetics as well. Dawkins argues that the fidelity is high enough for memetic copying to work in accordance with evolutionary processes. Dan Sperber and Scott Atran reply that high fidelity copying is the exception and not the rule in cultural transmission. Another problem concerning fidelity is the reconstructive nature of memory. Because memory does not store an exact copy of information, we can expect fidelity to decrease both in the process of "copying" or imitating memes from person-to-person and in the process of each individual recalling memes from memory. Atran also notes that memetics attempts to (and fails to) circumvent the evolved cognitive architecture of the mind. Robert Boyd and Peter J. Richerson claim that population thinking is more important than a model of genetic inheritance as an evolutionary analogy to cultural evolution.
The issue of the definition of meme features in most of the above criticisms as well. What is, or is not, a meme? Does the meme "carve nature at its joints"? We know, for example, that computer viruses can follow genetic and evolutionary algorithms. But how far can this application be extended into the cultural realm? Mesoudi, Whiten, and Laland argue that advances in modern genetics have chipped away at the definition of the "gene" as a discrete unit and so the same criticism might be applied to genetics, but it is still a useful field. However, they also note some of the successes of non-memetic cultural evolutionary models such as Boyd and Richerson's population thinking approach in classifying archaeological artifacts. Many of the criticisms listed above, however, assert that whether the "meme" itself can be found or said to "exist" is irrelevant to its usefulness as it fails to provide a useful framework or systematic set of falsifiable predictions.
- The Evolution of Culture, talk by Daniel Dennett with a reply by Jaron Lanier.
- Spare Me Your Memes, debate between Jaron Lanier and Charles Simonyi and Mike Godwin
- Dreams of Memes and Replicator Machines, Evolving Thoughts
- Memetics! Rationally Speaking Ep. #24
- The New Pseudoscience of Memes, Zompist
- Memes in the Cultural Evolution entry in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
- Neuroanthropology: We Hate Memes, Pass It On, People, Not Memes, Are the Medium!
- Jerry Coyne. The Self-Centred Meme. Nature vol. 398, Apr. 1999
- C.R. Hallpike. Memetics: A Darwinian Pseudoscience, in On Primitive Society, and Other Forbidden Topics, 2011, pp. 104-127
- ↑ Richard Dawkins. Memes: The New Replicators, ch. 11 in The Selfish Gene (1976)
- ↑ Journal of Memetics
- ↑ Edmonds, B. (2005). The revealed poverty of the gene-meme analogy – why memetics per se has failed to produce substantive results. Journal of Memetics, 9, 2005.
- ↑ Memetics: A Critique by Erkki Kilpinen
- ↑ Kalevi Kull. Copy vs. Translate, Meme vs. Sign. European Journal for Semiotic Studies 12(1), 101–120 (2000).
- ↑ Luis Benitez-Bribiesca Memetics: A Dangerous Idea. Interciencia, vol. 26, no. 1, 2001, pp. 29-31
- ↑ Richard Dawkins. Viruses of the Mind, ch. 3 pt. 2 in A Devil's Chaplain
- ↑ Dan Sperber. An Objection to the Memetic Approach to Culture. in Robert Aunger ed. Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science. Oxford University Press, 2000, pp. 163-173
- ↑ Scott Atran. The Trouble with Memes: Inference versus Imitation in Cultural Creation. Human Nature 12(4):351-381, 2001.
- ↑ Boyd and Richerson. Memes: Universal Acid or Better Mousetrap? in Aunger (2000).
- ↑ Sadia Noreen et al. Evolvable Malware, in RAID: 12th International Symposium On Recent Advances In Intrusion Detection, 2009.
- ↑ Mesoudi, Whiten, and Laland. Towards a uniﬁed science of cultural evolution. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, (2006) 29, 329 –383
- ↑ Wiktionary: "meme"