What is a Meme?

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by Wayne R. Dynes


Recent years have seen a good deal of interest in memes and mimetics. Regrettably, this subject is not always well understood.

A meme is a postulated unit from the realms of ideas, symbols, or practices, capable of migrating from one mind to another through speech, writing, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. In the field of human culture, memes figure as analogues to genes, in that they appear to self-replicate, responding to a range of pressures.

The British scientist Richard Dawkins (today best known for his vigorous advocacy of atheism) coined the word "meme" in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). He meant for the term to serve as an entry point for discussing evolutionary principles that might serve to explain the spread of ideas and cultural motifs. As examples of memes, Dawkins cited melodies, catch-phrases, beliefs (notably religious beliefs), clothing fashions, and the technology of building arches.

One must bear in mind that the comparison with genes is only an analogy. Nonetheless, some meme-theorists suggest that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner similar to that of biological evolution). They do this through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity's reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors 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. Some memes replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts. While the preceding analysis is appealing, one must remember that memes do not actually have a life of their own, but constitute elements that are adopted and transmitted by human (sometimes all-too-human) beings. Memes are a function of mimicry, in which the role of the mimicker is crucial.

Some commentators have adduced a disease model, comparing the spread of memes to contagions and epidemics. Fads, hysterias, and “copy-cat” crimes exemplify memes seen as the contagious imitation of ideas.

The concept of the meme, which is relatively new, may be compared with two older concepts which are similar: the topos and the unit-idea.

In classical Greek rhetoric, topos (Greek "place"; pl. topoi) designated a standard method of constructing or treating an argument. In the middle of the 20th century, however, the German medievalist Ernst Robert Curtius (1886-1956) expanded this concept by focusing on topoi as commonplaces: reworkings of traditional material, particularly descriptions of standardized settings, but extendable to almost any literary theme. Examples are the themes of arcadia and the puer senex (the comparison of an old man to a child). The concept is also useful in the field of comparative religion, whereby (e.g.) the idea of the Deluge is examined in a number of ancient Middle Eastern traditions.

The American historian and philosopher Arthur O. Lovejoy (1873–1962) was an influential advocate of the history of ideas, initiating the systematic study of the discipline. In Lovejoy's approach, the basic object of analysis is the unit-idea, or the individual concept. These unit-ideas serve as the building-blocks of the history of ideas. While they show considerable stability over the course of time, unit-ideas ceaselessly recombine in new patterns, emerging in various configurations in different historical eras.

A prime example is the notion of the Great Chain of Being, to which Lovejoy devoted a whole monograph. For many other examples, see the multivolume Dictionary of the History of Ideas, first and second edtions. In Arthur O. Lovejoy’s view, the essential task of the historian of ideas is to detect such unit-ideas, tracing their historical emergence, affirmation, and retreat in ever-new forms and combinations.

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