I’ve recently become interested in the concept of the meme (rhymes with seem).
The word was coined by British biological theorist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins is an evolutionist. He argues that the human mind evolves in a manner similar to biological natural selection. He wanted a word similar to gene to describe the way ideas and beliefs spread and mutate.
He bases the word meme on a Greek word meaning “something imitated.”
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.
He gives examples:
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 via sperms 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.”
Here’s the definition given in the OED:
meme: A cultural element or behavioural trait whose transmission and consequent persistence in a population, although occurring by non-genetic means (esp. imitation), is considered as analogous to the inheritance of a gene.
The word meme and the idea behind it is itself a meme and has propagated a new branch of science called memetics. The new memeticists have expanded Dawkins’ original definition and are not presently in total agreement as to what exactly meme means.
Outside the scientific realm, the word meme is used to describe the replication of words, phrases, and ideas on the internet. In this context it refers to the item that “goes viral.”
Scientists are also quick to compare the meme to a virus or a parasite. I question the wisdom of this method of explaining the action of the meme in a scientific context. It fosters a negative attitude towards the word that does not apply to its sister word gene.
virus: fig. and in figurative contexts: a harmful or corrupting influence; (a form of) moral or intellectual perniciousness. Also in weakened use: a phenomenon liable to spread rapidly and pervasively. –OED
Memes, like genes, should be studied as objectively as possible. Not all genes are “good.” Not all memes are “bad.”