Memes and other replicators

Richard Brodie (
Thu, 26 Jun 1997 16:33:03 -0700

From: Richard Brodie <>
To: "'Memetics List'" <>
Subject: Memes and other replicators
Date: Thu, 26 Jun 1997 16:33:03 -0700

This is a case for reserving the word "meme" for replicators that reside
in the mind. I pointedly do not argue that the meme is the ONLY cultural
replicator. In fact, the very title of my book, "Virus of the Mind,"
refers to a replicator that "lives" outside the mind but enslaves or
parasitizes minds to aid in its reproduction.

Given that there was (and apparently is) no agreement among scholars on
an accepted definition of "meme," I came up with a working definition
for use in my book. Here it is (p. 32):

A MEME is a unit of information in a mind
whose existence influences events
such that more copies of itself get created
in other minds.

So the minimal replication cycle for a meme is something like this:

meme X exists in mind of person A -->
influences A's behavior (including speech) -->
provides stimulus to person B -->
meme X is created in mind of B

As an example, meme X might be "FIRE!" Person A yells "FIRE!" Person B
hears the yell and "catches" the infectious meme.

Of course, most meme replication is not so simple. Persons C, D, E, and
so on might serve as intermediaries, perhaps even through different
memes Y and Z, before person F is influenced to write something into
the script for a "Seinfeld" episode seen by millions who then catch meme
A. Rube-Goldberg meme propagation is probably the rule, not the

Here is my reasoning for reserving "meme" for replicators in minds. The
first reason is simple: if we make "meme" refer to ANY replicating
information pattern, it becomes semantically identical to another word
we already have for that: "replicator." So we lose a potentially useful

Secondly, as humans we are peculiarly interested in the workings of our
own minds. Having a special term for information that replicates by
residing in our minds allows us to focus the huge base of scholarship we
already have about the mind on the particular mechanism of replication
and evolution by natural selection.

The interesting properties of memes fall into three classes (or six, if
you prefer Calvin's model). First, what properties do memes have that
make them penetrate our mind's defenses? Candidates for properties in
this class might be simplicity, urgency, or reminiscence of events that
were important to primitive man's reproduction and thus adapted for
(sex, danger, food, status).

A second class of properties relates to the fidelity of memes.
Candidates for this class include tradition, making sense, and
simplicity again.

The third class of properties relate to propagation: how much and how
effectively do these memes influence a person's behavior? Memes for
evangelism, action, crisis, and so on fall into this camp.

Any attempt to explain all of culture by looking at meme replication is
doomed to failure. Bloom's superorganisms and Dawkins's mind viruses are
indeed cultural replicators that evolve to promote their own survival
and spread. Perhaps "memetics", if it implies that memes are the be-all
and end-all, is a poor name for our science after all.

But on the other hand, any attempt to discredit memetics by pointing out
the existence of other cultural replicators is likewise empty. We will
understand culture by looking at the interesting points in its
complexity. Looking at them as replicators is bound to illuminate some
processes and obscure others. And reserving the word "meme" for that
special replicator that occupies that special place in our mind, if not
our heart, is worth doing.

Richard Brodie +1.425.688.8600
CEO, Brodie Technology Group, Inc., Bellevue, WA, USA
Author, VIRUS OF THE MIND: The New Science of the Meme
Visit Meme Central:

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