memes defined operationally (from article)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Tue 14 Jan 2003 - 01:41:30 GMT

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          Memetics comes from "meme" (which rhymes with "cream"), a word coined in purposeful analogy to gene by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, _The Selfish Gene_. To understand memes, you must have a good understanding of the modern concepts of evolution, and this is a good source. In its last chapter, memes were defined as replicating information patterns that use minds to get themselves copied much as a virus uses cells to get itself copied. (Dawkins credits several others for developing the concepts, especially the anthropologist F. T. Cloak.) Like genes, memes are pure information.*

       [*The essence of a gene is in its information. It is still a gene
       "for hemoglobin" or "for waltzing behavior in mice" whether the
       sequence is coded in DNA, printed on paper, or is written on
       magnetic tape.]

    They must be perceived indirectly, most often by their effect on behavior or by material objects that result from behavior. Humans are not the only creatures that pass memes about. Bird songs that are learned (and subject to variation) and the songs of whales are also replicating information pattern that fit the model of a meme. So is the
    "termiteing" behavior that chimps pass from generation to generation.

          "Meme" is similar to "idea," but not all ideas are memes. A passing idea which you do not communicate to others, or one which fails to take root in others, falls short of being a meme. The important part of the "meme about memes" is that memes are subject to adaptive evolutionary forces very similar to those that select for genes. That is, their variation is subject to selection in the environment provided by human minds, communication channels, and the vast collection of cooperating and competing memes that make up human culture. The analogy is remarkably close. For example, genes in cold viruses that cause sneezes by irritating noses spread themselves by this route to new hosts and become more common in the gene pool of a cold virus. Memes cause those they have successfully infected to spread the meme by both direct methods (proselytizing) and indirect methods (such as writing). Such memes become more common in the culture pool.

          The entire topic would be academic except that there are two levels of evolution (genes and memes) involved and the memetic level is only loosely coupled to the genetic. Memes which override genetic survival, such as those which induce young Lebanese Shiites to blow themselves "into the next world" from the front seat of a truck loaded with high explosives, or induce untrained Iranians to volunteer to charge Iraqi machine guns, or the WW II Kamikaze "social movement" in Japan, are all too well known. I have proposed the term "memeoid" for people whose behavior is so strongly influenced by a replicating information pattern (meme) that their survival becomes inconsequential in their own minds.

    2003 comment. I could elaborate, or use different examples, but this seems good enough for a working definition.

    Keith Henson

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