A meme is a cognitive or behavioral pattern that can be transmitted from one individual to another one

Since the individual who transmitted the meme will continue to carry it, the transmission can be interpreted as a replication: a copy of the meme is made in the memory of another individual, making him or her into a carrier of the meme. This process of self-reproduction, leading to spreading over a growing group of individuals, defines the meme as a replicator, similar in that respect to the gene (Dawkins, 1976; Moritz, 1991).

Dawkins listed the following three characteristics for any successful replicator:

copying-fidelity:
the more faithful the copy, the more will remain of the initial pattern after several rounds of copying. If a painting is reproduced by making photocopies from photocopies, the underlying pattern will quickly become unrecognizable.
fecundity:
the faster the rate of copying, the more the replicator will spread. An industrial printing press can churn out many more copies of a text than an office copying machine.
longevity:
the longer any instance of the replicating pattern survives, the more copies can be made of it. A drawing made by etching lines in the sand is likely to be erased before anybody could have photographed or otherwise reproduced it.

In these general characteristics, memes are similar to genes and to other replicators, such as computer viruses or crystals. The genetic metaphor for cultural transmission is limited, though. Genes can only be transmitted from parent to child ("vertical transmission"). Memes can be transmitted between any two individuals ("horizontal transmission" or "multiple parenting"). In that sense they are more similar to parasites or infections (cf. Cullen, 1998).
 

For genes to be transmitted, you need a generation. Memes only take minutes to replicate, and thus have potentially much higher fecundity (see Competition between Memes and Genes). On the other hand, the copying-fidelity of memes is in general much lower. If a story is spread by being told from person to person, the final version will be very different from the original one. It is this variability or fuzziness that perhaps distinguishes cultural patterns most strikingly from DNA structures: every individual's version of an idea or belief will be in some respect different from the others'. That makes it difficult to analyse or delimit memes. This does not imply that meme evolution cannot be accurately modeled, though. After all, genetics was a well-established science long before the precise DNA structure of genes was discovered.

Examples of memes in the animal world are most bird songs, and certain techniques for hunting or using tools that are passed from parents or the social group to the youngsters (Bonner, 1980). In human society, almost any cultural entity can be seen as a meme: religions, language, fashions, songs, techniques, scientific theories and concepts, conventions, traditions, etc. The defining characteristic of memes as informational patterns, is that they can be replicated in unlimited amounts by communication between individuals, independently of any replication at the level of the genes.

Of course, the capacity of the nervous system for learning is the result of evolutionary processes at the genetic level. Yet I will here not go into detail about why that capacity has been selected. The increased fitness resulting from a nervous system that is flexible enough to adapt its behavior to many new situations, seems obvious enough. If a useful type of behavior can be learned directly from another individual by communication or imitation, that seems like a most welcome shortcut for having to discover it by personal trial-and-error. More arguments for why the capacity for meme replication has evolved genetically can be found in most texts about the recently founded domain of memetics (Moritz, 1991).

Memetics can be defined as an approach trying to model the evolution of memes (see e.g. Boyd & Richerson, 1985; Cavalli-Sforza & Feldman, 1981; Lumsden & Wilson, 1981; Csanyi, 1991; Lynch, 1998). Memes undergo processes of variation (mutation, recombination) of their internal structure. Different variants will compete for the limited memory space available in different individuals. The most fit variants will win this competition, and spread most extensively. Different criteria for the fitness of a meme, relative to other memes, can be formulated.
 

Variation, replication and selection on the basis of meme fitness determine a complex dynamics. This dynamics will be influenced by the medium through which memes are communicated, and the copying-fidelity, fecundity and longevity it allows. Perhaps the most powerful medium for meme transmission is the computer network, and this implies some specific characteristics for memes on the net.

As is the case with genes, it is not necessary to know the exact coding or even the exact size or boundaries of a meme in order to discuss its fitness, and thus to make predictions about its further spreading, survival or extinction within the population of competing memes. Such predictions can be empirically tested. For example, a memetic hypothesis might state that simpler memes will spread more quickly. This can be tested by observing the spread (perhaps in a controlled environment) of two memes that are similar in all respects, except that the one is simpler. Theories can also be induced from empirical observation of meme behavior "in the wild" (see e.g. Best, 1998). Given the differences in variation and selection mechanisms, it is also possible to make predictions about the competition between memes and genes.

 

References:

  • Best, M., L., 1997; Models for Interacting Populations of Memes: Competition and Niche Behavior. Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission, 1.
  • Bonner J.T. (1980): The Evolution of Culture in Animals, (Princeton University Press, Princeton).
  • Boyd R. & Richerson P.J. (1985): Culture and the Evolutionary Process, (Chicago University Press, Chicago).
  • Cavalli-Sforza L.L. & Feldman M.W. (1981): Cultural Transmission and Evolution: a quantitative approach, (Princeton University Press, Princeton).
  • Csanyi V. (1991): Evolutionary Systems and Society: a general theory, (Duke University Press, Durham, NC).
  • Cullen B. (1998): "Parasite Ecology and the Evolution of Religion", in: Heylighen F. (ed.) (1998): The Evolution of Complexity (Kluwer Academic, Dordrecht)
  • Dawkins R. (1976): The Selfish Gene, (Oxford University Press, New York).
  • Heylighen F. (1992) : "Selfish Memes and the Evolution of Cooperation", Journal of Ideas , Vol. 2, #4, pp 77-84.
  • Lynch, Aaron (1997) "Units, Events, and Dynamics in Memetic Evolution", Journal of Memetics (submitted)
  • Lumsden, Charles, and Wilson, Edward (1981): Genes, Mind, and Culture: the Coevolutionary Process, (Harvard University Press, Cambridge).
  • Moritz E. (1990): "Memetic Science: I - General Introduction", Journal of Ideas 1, p. 1-23
  • Moritz E. (1995): Metasystems, Memes and Cybernetic Immortality, in: Heylighen F., Joslyn C. & Turchin V. (eds.), The Quantum of Evolution. Toward a theory of metasystem transitions, (Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, New York) (special issue of "World Futures: the journal of general evolution, vol. 45, p. 155-171).
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