What is a Meme?

Memes have become more mainstream recently, even the US President is sharing them, though the concept of memes was first created to explain part of evolutionary biology.

The term “meme” is first coined by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene” to explain the transfer of information from one generation to another. Memes are used as a counterpart to genes; genes are passed onto future generations through DNA, whereas memes are spread through a society by communication. This unit of culture can exist in many forms. A meme could be the belief in a god, the concept of cooking food with fire, or using spears during hunting.

It can be argued that just like genes, memes are also prone to mutation. For example, a gene encoding a enzyme with a certain function can mutate and adopt a completely unrelated function generations later. This can be compared to the teachings of a religion changing over hundreds of years.


However, the study of so-called “memetics” should be taken with a pinch of salt.

Applying meme theory to the model of evolution is controversial, with many scientists disagreeing with the comparison of memes to genes. One argument is that cultures are complex, so the evolution of a meme would be chaotic, memes have to pass from brain to brain, which has a lower success rate than genetic traits that are passed onto offspring via DNA.

Internet memes are also no longer true memes. A meme is meant to evolve by random mutation that are beneficial to the host in their surrounding environment. Dawkins argues the meme of internet memes is evolving due to human creativity, so is therefore not a meme according to his original definition.

So there you go, you can study memes for a living, just not the kind you’d expect.

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