Friday, April 07, 2006

Who coined the word 'meme'?

The word “meme” was coined and defined in a 1976 essay by British biologist Richard Dawkins, “Memes: the new replicators”. You can read Dawkins’ case by going here or you can read the essay in his book, “The Selfish Gene.” Here is the essence of Dawkins’ original argument:
  1. Culture evolves in much the same that life evolves. “Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic transmission in that, although basically conservative, it can give rise to a form of evolution.”
  2. There are many examples of cultural evolution that cannot be tied to genetic evolution. These include language, fashion, diet, ritual, custom, art, architecture, engineering and technology. “All evolve in historical time in a way that looks like highly speeded up genetic evolution, but has really nothing to do with genetic evolution.”
  3. We must expand the meaning of evolution. “For an understanding of the evolution of modern man, we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas of evolution.”
  4. Something new is at work. “A new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. … It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup … the soup of human culture.”
  5. Dawkins calls this replicator a “meme” (rhymes with “cream”). “Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catchphrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches.”
  6. Memes reproduce. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”
  7. Memes are alive. “Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell.”
  8. Memes demand a good chunk of our lives. “Any time spent in doing other things than attempting to transmit the meme may be regarded as time wasted from the meme's point of view.”
  9. Survival of the fittest applies to memes. “Selection favors memes that exploit their cultural environment to their own advantage.”
  10. Like genes, memes replicate for their reasons, not ours. “Once the genes have provided their survival machines with brains that are capable of rapid imitation, the memes will automatically take over. We do not even have to posit a genetic advantage in imitation, though that would certainly help. All that is necessary is that the brain should be capable of imitation: memes will then evolve that exploit the capacity to the full.”
All memetics begins (or should begin) with Dawkins and his essay. To stray from Dawkins’ definition – as have so many writers both inside and outside the field – is to render the word “meme” meaningless.

Copyright 2006 by W.O. Cawley Jr.


Blogger Tim Tyler said...

That's not a picture of Dawkins! That is Ed Wilson!

5:35 AM  

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