LogoLaurent, J. (1999). A Note on the Origin of Memes/Mnemes.
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission,3.

A Note on the Origin of `Memes'/`Mnemes'

John Laurent
School of Science
Griffith University

In the Selfish Gene Richard Dawkins says that he had originated the term `meme', a cultural equivalent of `gene', by shortening `mimeme' which he says he derived from the Greek mimeisthai, to imitate. This may be, but another, and more straightforward source for the term, I would suggest, is `mneme', referring to a unit of memory and taken from the Greek mimneskesthai, to remember (and ultimately from Mnemosyne, the Greek goddess of memory [Note 1]), and which appears in the book The Soul of the White Ant, by the Belgian dramatist, essayist and amateur entomologist, Maurice Maeterlinck, first published in 1927. Nowhere does Dawkins refer to `mneme', but it is difficult to believe that he had not come across the term, especially since he has much about termites in both The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker and cites a number of works about these creatures (though not Maeterlinck's) in both books. Also, in an endnote in the second (1989) edition of The Selfish Gene, where he elaborates on a sentence in the main text of the book which reads "Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically".

Dawkins writes as follows:

"DNA is a self-replicating piece of hardware. Each piece has a particular structure, which is different from rival pieces of DNA. If memes in brains are analogous to genes they must be self-replicating brain structures, actual patterns of neuronal wiring-up that reconstitute themselves in one brain after another. I had always felt uneasy spelling this out aloud, because we know far less about brains than about genes, and are therefore necessarily vague about what such a brain structure might actually be. So I was relieved to receive recently a very interesting paper by Juan Delius of the University of Konstanz in Germany, [who] is bold enough to ram home the point by actually publishing a detailed picture of what the neuronal hardware of a meme might look like" (Dawkins, 1989, p.323).

Now, the actual phrase that Maeterlinck uses - where he is discussing various theories which attempt to explain `memory' in termites as well as the other `social' insects (ants, bees etc.) - is "engrammata upon the individual mneme" (Maeterlinck, 1927, p.198), and according to my dictionary (Webster's Collegiate), an engram is "a memory trace; specif.: a protoplasmic change in neural tissue hypothesized to account for persistence of memory." For what it is worth, Maeterlinck explains that he obtained his phrase from the "German philosopher" Richard Semon. The only book that I have been able to locate by this author (who describes himself as a naturalist, though he could have said `natural philosopher' in the parlance of the time) is In the Australian Bush and on the Coast of the Coral Sea (Semon, 1899), but this book is nevertheless interesting in the present context in that Semon does indeed devote some pages to a discussion of animal intelligence and `instinct' in it, together with possible correlations with brain structure (in Echidna, for example, whose brain "in proportion to the size of the body...is more voluminous than that of marsupials, and is further remarkable for its degree of convolution and the fissures on its surface".

To repeat, it is hard to believe that Dawkins was not at least aware of Maeterlinck (who also wrote The Life of the Bee, which my copy shows went into 34 printings [in English] between 1901 and 1948), and this author's use of the term `mneme'. In any event, Semon's earlier specific use of the term in an identical context to that in which Dawkin's correspondent Delius - another German writer - uses `meme' is a remarkable coincidence.


1. I am grateful to Peter Pegg for this information.


Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Maeterlinck, M. (1927). The Life of the White Ant. London: George Allen & Unwin.

Semon, R. (1899). In the Australian Bush and on the Coast of the Coral Sea: Being the Experiences and Observations of a Naturalist in Australia, New Guinea and the Moluccas. London: MacMillan and Co.

© JoM-EMIT 1999

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