An introduction to memes

"Meme" is a word that was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. It has been discussed a lot, and it has itself become a meme. When reading Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine, I realized that even in treatises specifically devoted to the meme concept, the fundamentals are not explained very well. This is partly natural since the concept itself is vague and changing. But I decided to write this introduction to memes as an attempted clarification. I am fairly sure that people who talk about memes mean rather different ideas by that word, and saying things as explicitly and simply as possible should help in seeing what those different ideas are and in discussing them. So this is my view on memes, or the particular mutant of the meme concept in my mind. I will try to explain the idea without any reference to genes, or to biology in general. My point is that such a presentation should be possible if Dawkins and Blackmore are right.

A meme is an idea, any idea. It is something in human mind. It could be the idea (the essential content) of a joke, or a scientific hypothesis, or the idea that we shouldn't eat meat. The human mind is full of ideas, some of which live a very short lives whereas others might have been adopted in early childhood and kept through the individual's whole life. Some ideas have the property of being either true or false, or perhaps being partly true and partly false, on the basis of their correspondence with the reality outside the human mind. Or perhaps you have a different truth theory. The point, anyway, is that some ideas are propositions in the logical sense; a scientific hypothesis, is a typical example. But most ideas aren't propositions; a joke is just a story, and whether it is based on actual events is irrelevant. The principle "eating meat is wrong", or any moral principle, might be regarded as a proposition by some philosophers. And an idea that merely consists of, say, giving preference to Dom Perignon over other brands of champagne surely isn't a proposition. (It still need not be just a matter of taste; it might be an idea adopted from literature and films, even before tasting any champagne.)

Although animals and extraterrestrial beings and man-made systems might conceivably have something that can be called a mind, and thus memes, I'll discuss ideas in human mind only, since we know for sure that there is such a thing as human mind and we live with it. Whether we really know what the human mind is and how it works is a different issue.

Several treatises on the meme concept do not make it clear whether a written, drawn or otherwise recorded idea is a meme, too. The terminology isn't that relevant. The relevant thing is to distinguish between an idea in (human) mind and a physical presentation of an idea. The latter can exist independently of human mind, but it has been created by a human mind and it is insignificant unless it will be received and grasped by a human mind. We could say that written texts, for example, contain ideas in dormant state. Similarly, human speech itself is an expression of ideas in the physical word outside one's mind. Although it is common not to make a clear distinction between an idea and its expression, and although no such distinction is usually needed in everyday life, it is essential for an analysis of memes.

Consider a joke you have heard. If you didn't find it funny, you will probably forget it. If it was very funny, you will probably remember it and tell it a few times, perhaps even publish it somewhere. And if others find it good too, the joke will propagate very fast. Lots of jokes are told every day, and most of them are either variants of old jokes which thus propagate or else jokes that will be forgotten; only a few new jokes will be remembered and told again. So there is a "struggle for life" between jokes, so to say, and "survival of the funniest". Moreover, between variants of a joke, there is competition too.

Some variation of jokes looks fairly irrelevant; it perhaps involves just simple substitutions. When you hear a joke that Englishmen tell about the Irish, you will probably substitute the Swedes or the Russians for the Irish if you tell that joke among Finnish people. After all, most nationality jokes are "portable", since they reflect prejudices and other ideas about neighboring nations or populations. "Localization" of nationality jokes is comparable to biological evolution in small scale: adaptation to the local environment. The pressure towards localization is often strong. A very good joke about three Scandinavians in a falling airplane will hardly survive as such in an Asian country where nobody ever saw a Scandinavian, still less understood the stereotypies that Scandinavian nations have about each other.

In the competition of jokes, being funny is important but not the only important factor. If you hear a particularly tasteless joke, you may well remember it for some time, perhaps due to its nauseating effect. You might also remember a joke about your favorite politician, or, perhaps more probably, about a politician you hate, even if the joke itself was not that good. And if you meet the president of the United States once in your life and he tells you a joke, you will probably remember the joke no matter what. And you might tell the joke, at least indirectly by telling that the president told you such-and-such a joke.

It is important to note that calling a proposition a meme does not imply that it is false as a proposition. This should be self-evident, but people often mock ideas for their being adopted just because they sound good and fashionable. We don't usually mock ideas that way if we favor them or, in the case of propositions, know or believe that they are true.

For memes that are propositions, their truth value is not always irrelevant. In particular, in science and in some other contexts, the truth value, or at least people's views on the truth value, is crucial for the survival of some types of memes.

Similarly, for memes that describe methods or procedures for doing something, their practical effectiveness is apparently most important. When someone invents a new method for producing some chemical and publishes it, the meme becomes widespread if the method has benefits like producing better quality, being cheaper, etc. This is one of the key areas of that part of human behavior that can be called rational.

But even in scientific communities and in technical matters, the survival of memes depends on non-rational factors too. The human mind is never completely rational. Moreover, rationality may involve other factors than evaluating the truth value of a proposition. It can, for example, be quite rational from an individual's point of view to support a scientific theory even if he thinks it's false or at least not as good as a competing theory, if this is the only way to get some scholarship or some job.

The discussion above is very general, but memetics is not just a theoretical view. For example, when asking "how do I get my message through" in communication, the memetic approach is to ask: in the assumed environment where my idea (meme) will fight for survival, what factors would favor it? As a simple example, the tactics of including a good joke into your message, or even formulating your message as a joke with serious content embedded into it, is based on an assumption that coupling your meme with a meme with a good survival value will make your meme more successful. (Whether this is actually true surely depends. If the joke is not intrinsically related to your message, the odds are that the joke will be adopted and your message won't, i.e. the coupling will break.)

To summarize, there is great variation in the "survival" of memes, i.e. in the probabilities that an idea gets adopted, stored, and propagated. And there is no single cause that determines the "survival". Instead, in different mental and social environments, different factors operate in memes' struggle for life. "Memetics" is a way of looking at the world where we live from this perspective, trying to analyze those factors and their effect in various circumstances.

Additional notes

(Added 2004-06-04.)

Are simple statements memes? For example, is "Never judge anything if you don't know what you're talking about" a meme? Are all statements and ideas memes? This depends on the definition of "meme". One might call statements and ideas and patterns of behavior just "potential memes", most of which die away without reduplicating, but we might as well call them "memes", with the understanding that memes can be very short-lived. In practice, we are not interested in very short-lived or trivial statements as memes, except in the sense of asking why they do not propagate (or become memes in the more serious sense).

Otherwise, too, the memetic terminology is rather vague. It's a fairly new field, with disagreements on basic concepts too. Some people try to regard a meme as a counterpart of a gene, but this leads into difficulties - we can hardly describe anything as basic units of memetics the same way as a gene is basic unit of genetics. A simple, "atomic" idea (such as "Finns eat raw fish") might be regarded as such a unit. But most thoughts and expressions cannot be decomposed into such simple constituents, and far more complex ideas (such as "there is one God" - this is complex because the implied idea of God is complex, and varying) have been described as "memes"; but when we get to very complex phenomena, such as religion, people start using words like "meme complex".


I wrote the first version of this treatise in February 2001 and posted it to the Usenet group alt.memetics. It was commented by pointing out that that it still uses biological phrases like "struggle for life". I decided not to modify this, since those phrases are figurative speech anyway, and the descriptions of biological evolution use them metaphorically, too. There's some memetics in action here: "struggle for life" originally referred to physical fighting between individuals, and it still creates vivid impressions, and such impressions greatly contribute to the success of memes. To get a message through, and to make people remember it and think about it, it surely helps to associate it with some strong emotions. Journalists have always known this.