What Is a Meme?

August 18, 2010 |  by

A great song from The Sound of Music opens with: Let’s start at the very beginning..

That’s what we need with memes. For a true understanding of memes, we need to start at the foundation. And that means a rock-solid definition. Without that, it’s just too easy to go astray. So let’s look at the standard definitions from:

Wiktionary:

1. Any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods and terms such as race, culture, and ethnicity.
2. A self-propagating unit of cultural evolution having a resemblance to the gene (the unit of genetics).

Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene:

“Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body by sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”

According to this – everything from pot-making to theories and thoughts is a meme. It makes me think: So what isn’t a meme? And isn’t there something about a “unit of cultural information” and “leaping from brain to brain” that feels just a wee bit shaky? If something is hard to define, usually it means we don’t really understand it. We may have a feeling for it – maybe it even “makes sense” – but the essence eludes us. That’s what I get from these definitions.

Add to that all the assumptions:

  • Are memes really located in the brain?
  • Is “transmission” actually by speech/imitation?
  • Is the best model for the meme really the gene?

Let’s examine just one part of the standard definition. For example, that “ways of making pots” is a meme. I think a better way to describe methods of pot-making is instead of being different memes – they are reflections of different memes. For instance, pot-making in ancient Peru is going to be totally different from pot-making for the best restaurants in NYC today. Clearly, it’s not just that 2 pot-making memes are at work – that’s taking too narrow a focus – 2 memes are at work, but they are the memes for the ancient Peruvian culture and the modern global/NYC scene. The reflections of these memes filter into thousands (millions) of practical know-hows, customs and expressions, etc…including pot-making.

What’s important is that we’re dealing with a hierarchy of memes. At a very practical level (pots, arches) it may seem there’s a meme for everything, but when we trace these “memes” back to their source, we find they’re often just the reflection of a greater meme, which is itself often the reflection of an even greater meme.

But still – we haven’t answered the question: Is pot-making a meme?

The answer is…it depends.

And this is the key to memes. Identifying memes isn’t as simple as identifying animals or fruits. We can’t just say “X is a meme” and call it a day. So what’s the criteria? What I’m calling a meme is a living, evolving, purposeful (not always for good) organism. A meme has a quality of being – a sense of wholeness. To use Aristotle’s word: it’s an entelechy (roughly “to have a purpose/goal (agenda)” in Greek). So returning to our pot-makers, we have to ask: “Is there an actual, living culture of pot-making present (for example a long line of master pot-makers) or is it just a matter of somebody following instructions on how to make a pot?” That’s the difference: if it feels whole, it’s a meme – if it’s more like a fragment, it’s a reflection of a meme (call it a meme bit).

All this leads to our definition of memes. Remember, we’re looking for a starting point. So it can’t have assumptions – it has to be stripped down to its simplest. We’ll use the word entity to reflect the oneness, wholeness, the being of memes. And we’ll stress that memes are all about groups (lacking from the standard definitions). So, we have:

meme: an entity which influences or aligns our actions, outlook or behavior with that of a certain group.

That feels better to me. But what do you think?

facebooktwittergoogle_plusmail


5 Comments


  1. Seems to me there must be more than just 2 memes at work in the pot-making example. Are we saying there is really one meme behind the global/NYC pot-making scene? Can there be multiple ‘memes’ feeding into the action/outlook/behavior of a certain group? Or does that dilute/defeat the attempt to define a meme?

  2. That’s a great point. I was trying to keep it simple, so I kept the example to 2 memes. But really – sure – memes are constantly overlapping, bumping into each other, “sharing” their influence on groups with other memes. It’s another level of looking at it.

    Thanks for adding that.

  3. i like your definition WAY better than the others! far and away, the most sensible and credible of them. the brain? come on…that’s just weird. genes? well, maybe it’s not the worst analogy, but far from the best (though i’ve not got anything to offer really in lieu). i think it’s just to “small” and individualized.

    as to their domicile (so to speak)…interesting question.REALLY interesting question! they seem to operate on many different levels – some close, some far, some more consciously, some not at all. some seem to have an enormous, objective kind of influence where others are totally subjective and variable.

    piques my curiosity in mob mentality, swarm theory, etc (things i know nothing about). i like the idea of a collective consciousness, though their agendas may not always appeal to me.

    nonetheless, it’s seems like a fascinating place to consider our next evolutionary step…how can we use/manipulate/interact with/explore memes in a more conscious or deliberate manner to achieve our own agendas, or just learn about ourselves from a broader perspective?

    after reading this, i wonder…are we nothing but a collection of memes and their “residue?”

  4. Do memes relate to larger structures: businesses, schools, governments, and if so how?

  5. Hey Cecilia – absolutely. Larger structures are the real meat-and-bones of memes. This post was just tackling the smaller examples (pot-making) because that’s how memes have been traditionally defined.

    In some of the recent posts, I’ve been working toward a theory of how memes work on the larger level. It’s easy to say, “Of course, there’s a meme at my school, business, etc.” But I think it will help the understanding of memes a lot if we can say exactly HOW it happens (just like you asked). That’s why the latest posts on brains: Attractors, activators and resonance. The concept of resonance – and its workings in the brain – could be quite profound.

    I’ll be working on the HOW question this next week. Hopefully I can have a good answer then.

    Thanks for commenting. It’s refreshing to have a little dialogue here..

Leave a Reply