Life is hard.
Let us tell you what to think!
the idea of God.
We do not know how it arose in the meme pool.
originated many times by independent ‘mutation’. In any case, it
is very old indeed. How does it replicate itself? By the spoken
and written word, aided by great music and great art. Why does
it have such a high survival value? Remember that ‘survival
value’ here does not mean value for a gene in a gene pool, but
value for a meme in a meme pool. The question really means: What
is it about the idea of a god that gives it its stability and penetrance in the cultural environment? The survival value of
the god meme in the meme pool results from its great
1 : an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior
that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural
inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by
cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and
2 : a pervasive thought or thought pattern that replicates
itself via cultural means; a parasitic code, a virus of the mind
especially contagious to children and the impressionable.
3 : the fundamental unit of information, analogous to the gene
in emerging evolutionary theory of culture.
1. The area of study relating to viral cultural ideas that
spread from person to person. From Greek: mimetikos
...good at imitating.
- Urban Dictionary
is a theory of mental content based on an analogy
with Darwinian evolution, originating from the popularization of
Richard Dawkins' 1976 book: The Selfish Gene. Proponents
describe memetics as an approach to evolutionary models
of cultural information transfer.
Memetics is notoriously notable for sidestepping the traditional
concern with the truth of ideas and beliefs. Instead, it is
interested in idea's success. This memetic move away from
'facts' is akin to concept of
Within memetics... cultural
evolution, including the evolution of knowledge, can be modeled
through the same basic principles of variation and selection
that underlie biological evolution. This implies a shift from
genes as units of biological information to a new type of unit
of cultural information: memes.
The meme was conceived as a "unit of
culture" (an idea, belief, pattern of behavior, etc.) which is
"hosted" in the mind of one or more individuals and which can
reproduce itself, thereby jumping from mind to mind.
What was once regarded as one individual influencing
another to adopt a specific belief... is seen within the
discipline of memetics, as an idea-replicator reproducing itself
in a new host. As with genetics, particularly under this
Dawkinsian interpretation, a meme's success may be due
to its contribution to the effectiveness of its host.
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 (the memetic life-cycle), leading to spreading
over a growing group of individuals, defines the meme as a
replicator, similar in that respect to the gene (Dawkins, 1976;
Dawkins listed the following three characteristics for any
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
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.
Research methodologies that
apply memetics go by many names: Viral marketing, cultural
evolution, the history of ideas, social analytics, etc. Many of
these applications do not make reference to the literature on
memes directly but are built upon the evolutionary lens of idea
propagation that treat semantic units of culture as
self-replicating and mutating patterns of information that are
assumed to be relevant for scientific study. For example, the
field of public relations is filled with attempts to introduce
new ideas and alter social discourse. One means of doing this is
to design a meme and deploy it through various media channels.
One historic example of applied memetics is the PR campaign
conducted in 1991 as part of the build-up to the first Gulf War
in the United States.
the power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if
necessary, the selfish memes of our indoctrination. We can even
discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and nurturing pure,
disinterested altruism... something that has no place in nature,
something that has never existed before in the whole history of
the world. We are built as gene machines and cultured as meme
machines, but we have the power to turn against our creators.
We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (1976)
Item: A Memetic Lexicon
- by Glenn Grant,
"An idea is something
you have; an ideology is something that has you."
- Morris Berman
What if ideas were
Consider the T-phage virus. A T-phage cannot replicate
itself; it reproduces by hijacking the DNA of a bacterium,
forcing its host to make millions of copies of the phage.
Similarly, an idea can parasitically infect your mind and
alter your behavior, causing you to want to tell your
friends about the idea, thus exposing them to the
idea-virus. Any idea which does this is called a "meme"
Unlike a virus, which is encoded in DNA molecules, a meme is
nothing more than a pattern of information, one that happens
to have evolved a form which induces people to repeat that
pattern. Typical memes include individual slogans, ideas,
catch-phrases, melodies, icons, inventions, and fashions. It
may sound a bit sinister, this idea that people are hosts
for mind-altering strings of symbols, but in fact this is
what human culture is all about.
As a species, we have co-evolved with our memes. Imagine a
group of early Homo Sapiens in the Late Pleistocene epoch.
They've recently arrived with the latest high-tech hand axes
and are trying to show their Homo Erectus neighbours how to
make them. Those who can't get their heads around the new
meme will be at a disadvantage and will be out-evolved by
their smarter cousins.
Meanwhile, the memes themselves are evolving, just as in the
game of "Telephone" (where a message is whispered from
person to person, being slightly mis-replicated each time).
Selection favors the memes which are easiest to understand,
to remember, and to communicate to others. Garbled versions
of a useful meme would presumably be selected out.
So, in theory at least, the ability to understand and
communicate complex memes is a survival trait, and natural
selection should favor those who aren't too conservative to
understand new memes. Or does it? In practice, some people
are going to be all too ready to commit any new meme that
comes along, even if it should turn out to be deadly
nonsense, like: "Jump off a cliff and the gods will make you
Such memes do evolve, generated by crazy people, or through
mis-replication. Notice, though, that this meme might have a
lot of appeal. The idea of magical flight is so tantalizing
-- maybe, if I truly believed, I just might leap off the
This is a vital point: people try to infect each other with
those memes which they find most appealing, regardless of
the memes' objective value or truth. Further, the carrier of
the cliff-jumping meme might never actually take the plunge;
they may spend the rest of their long lives infecting other
people with the meme, inducing millions of gullible fools to
leap to their deaths. Historically, this sort of thing is
happening all the time.
Whether memes can be considered true "life forms" or not is
a topic of some debate, but this is irrelevant: they behave
in a way similar to life forms, allowing us to combine the
analytical techniques of epidemiology, evolutionary science,
immunology, linguistics, and semiotics, into an effective
system known as "memetics." Rather than debate the inherent
"truth" or lack of "truth" of an idea, memetics is largely
concerned with how that idea gets itself replicated.
Memetics is vital to the understanding of cults, ideologies,
and marketing campaigns of all kinds, and it can help to
provide immunity from dangerous information-contagions. You
should be aware, for instance, that you just been exposed to
the Meta-meme, the meme about memes...
The lexicon which follows is intended to provide a language
for the analysis of memes, meme-complexes, and the social
movements they spawn. The name of the person who first
coined and defined each word appears in parentheses,
although some definitions have been paraphrased and altered.
Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.
Keith Henson, "Memetics", Whole Earth Review #57: 50-55.
Douglas Hofstadter, Metamagical Themas.
Howard Rheingold, "Untranslatable Words", Whole Earth Review
For a fictional treatment of these ideas, see my short
story, "Memetic Drift," in Interzone #34 (March/April 1990).
Dangerous to itself. Highly auto-toxic memes are usually
self-limiting because they promote the destruction of their
hosts (such as the Jim Jones meme; any military
indoctrination meme-complex; any "martyrdom" meme). (GMG)
The part of a meme-complex that promises to benefit the host
(usually in return for replicating the complex). The bait
usually justifies, but does not explicitly urge, the
replication of a meme-complex. (Donald Going, quoted by
Hofstadter.) Also called the reward co-meme. (In many
religions, "Salvation" is the bait, or promised reward;
"Spread the Word" is the hook. Other common bait co-memes
are "Eternal Bliss", "Security", "Prosperity", "Freedom".)
(See hook; threat; infection strategy.)
Since a person can only be infected with and transmit a
finite number of memes, there is a limit to their belief
space (Henson). Memes evolve in competition for niches in
the belief-space of individuals and societies.
Any attempt to hinder the spread of a meme by eliminating
its vectors. Hence, censorship is analogous to attempts to
halt diseases by spraying insecticides. Censorship can never
fully kill off an offensive meme, and may actually help to
promote the meme's most virulent strain, while killing off
A meme which has symbiotically co-evolved with other memes,
to form a mutually-assisting meme-complex. Also called a
A sociotype of an auto-toxic meme-complex, composed of
membots and/or memeoids. (GMG) Characteristics of cults
include: self-isolation of the infected group (or at least
new recruits); brainwashing by repetitive exposure (inducing
dependent mental states); genetic functions discouraged
(through celibacy, sterilization, devalued family) in favor
of replication (proselytizing); and leader-worship
("personality cult"). (Henson.)
Currently without human hosts. The ancient Egyptian
hieroglyph system and the Gnostic Gospels are examples of
"dead" schemes which lay dormant for millennia in hidden or
untranslatable texts, waiting to re-activate themselves by
infecting modern archeologists. Some obsolete memes never
become entirely dormant, such as Phlogiston theory, which
simply mutated from a "belief" into a "quaint historical
"A tune or melody which infects a population rapidly."
(Rheingold); a hit song. (Such as: "Don't Worry, Be Happy".)
(f. German, ohrwurm=earworm.)
Dangerous to others. Highly exo-toxic memes promote the
destruction of persons other than their hosts, particularly
those who are carriers of rival memes. (Such as: Nazism, the
Inquisition, Pol Pot.) (See meme-allergy.) (GMG)
The part of a meme-complex that urges replication. The hook
is often most effective when it is not an explicit
statement, but a logical consequence of the meme's content.
(Hofstadter) (See bait, threat.)
A person who has been successfully infected by a meme. See
infection, membot, memeoid.
The realm of memetic evolution, as the biosphere is the
realm of biological evolution. The entire memetic ecology.
(Hofstadter.) The health of an ideosphere can be measured by
its memetic diversity.
Anything that tends to reduce a person's memetic immunity.
Common immuno-depressants are: travel, disorientation,
physical and emotional exhaustion, insecurity, emotional
shock, loss of home or loved ones, future shock, culture
shock, isolation stress, unfamiliar social situations,
certain drugs, loneliness, alienation, paranoia, repeated
exposure, respect for Authority, escapism, and hypnosis
(suspension of critical judgment). Recruiters for cults
often target airports and bus terminals because travelers
are likely to be subject to a number of these immuno-depressants.
(GMG) (See cult.)
See vaccime. (GMG)
Successful encoding of a meme in the memory of a human
being. A memetic infection can be either active or inactive.
It is inactive if the host does not feel inclined to
transmit the meme to other people. An active infection
causes the host to want to infect others. Fanatically active
hosts are often membots or memeoids. A person who is exposed
to a meme but who does not remember it (consciously or
otherwise) is not infected. (A host can indeed be
unconsciously infected, and even transmit a meme without
conscious awareness of the fact. Many societal norms are
transmitted this way.)
Some memeticists have used `infection' as a synonym for
`belief' (i.e. only believers are infected, non-believers
are not). However, this usage ignores the fact that people
often transmit memes they do not "believe in." Songs, jokes,
and fantasies are memes which do not rely on "belief" as an
Any memetic strategy which encourages infection of a host.
Jokes encourage infection by being humorous, tunes by
evoking various emotions, slogans and catch-phrases by being
terse and continuously repeated. Common infection strategies
are "Villain vs. victim", "Fear of Death", and "Sense of
Community". In a meme-complex, the bait co-meme is often
central to the infection strategy. (See replication
strategy; mimicry.) (GMG)
A person whose entire life has become subordinated to the
propagation of a meme, robotically and at any opportunity.
(Such as many Jehovah's Witnesses, Krishnas, and
Scientologists.) Due to internal competition, the most vocal
and extreme membots tend to rise to top of their sociotype's
hierarchy. A self-destructive membot is a memeoid. (GMG)
(pron. `meem') A contagious information pattern that
replicates by parasitically infecting human minds and
altering their behavior, causing them to propagate the
pattern. (Term coined by Dawkins, by analogy with "gene".)
Individual slogans, catch-phrases, melodies, icons,
inventions, and fashions are typical memes. An idea or
information pattern is not a meme until it causes someone to
replicate it, to repeat it to someone else. All transmitted
knowledge is memetic. (Wheelis, quoted in Hofstadter.) (See
A form of intolerance; a condition which causes a person to
react in an unusually extreme manner when exposed to a
specific semiotic stimulus, or `meme-allergen.' Exo-toxic
meme-complexes typically confer dangerous meme-allergies on
their hosts. Often, the actual meme-allergens need not be
present, but merely perceived to be present, to trigger a
reaction. Common meme-allergies include homophobia, paranoid
anti-Communism, and porno phobia. Common forms of
meme-allergic reaction are censorship, vandalism,
belligerent verbal abuse, and physical violence. (GMG)
A set of mutually-assisting memes which have co-evolved a
symbiotic relationship. Religious and political dogmas,
social movements, artistic styles, traditions and customs,
chain letters, paradigms, languages, etc. are
meme-complexes. Also called an m-plex, or scheme
(Hofstadter). Types of co-memes commonly found in a scheme
are called the: bait; hook; threat; and vaccime. A
successful scheme commonly has certain attributes: wide
scope (a paradigm that explains much); opportunity for the
carriers to participate and contribute; conviction of its
self-evident truth (carries Authority); offers order and a
sense of place, helping to stave off the dread of
meaninglessness. (Wheelis, quoted by Hofstadter.)
Memeoid, or memoid
A person "whose behavior is so strongly influenced by a
[meme] that their own survival becomes inconsequential in
their own minds." (Henson) (Such as: Kamikazes, Shiite
terrorists, Jim Jones followers, any military personnel).
Hosts and membots are not necessarily memeoids. (See
The full diversity of memes accessible to a culture or
individual. Learning languages and traveling are methods of
expanding one's meme pool.
Related to memes.
Accumulated mis-replications; (the rate of) memetic mutation
or evolution. Written texts tend to slow the memetic drift
of dogmas (Henson).
One who consciously devises memes, through meme-splicing and
memetic synthesis, with the intent of altering the behavior
of others. Writers of manifestos and of commercials are
typical memetic engineers. (GMG)
1. One who studies memetics. 2. A memetic engineer (GMG).
The study of memes and their social effects.
1. The actual information-content of a meme, as distinct
from its sociotype. 2. A class of similar memes (GMG).
Any meme about memes (such as: "tolerance", "metaphor").
The concept of memes, considered as a meme itself.
Millennial meme, the
Any of several currently-epidemic memes which predict
catastrophic events for the year 2000, including the battle
of Armageddon, the Rapture, the thousand-year reign of
Jesus, etc. The "Imminent New Age" meme is simply a
pan-denominational version of this. (Also called the `Endmeme.')
An infection strategy in which a meme attempts to imitate
the semiotics of another successful meme. Such as:
pseudo-science (Creationism, UFOlogy); pseudo-rebelliousness
(Heavy Metal); subversion by forgery (Situationist
Any memetic strategy used by a meme to encourage its host to
repeat the meme to other people. The hook co-meme of a
A meme which attempts to splice itself into an existing
meme-complex (example: Marxist-Leninists trying to co-opt
other sociotypes). (GMG)
A meme-complex. (Hofstadter.)
1. The social expression of a memotype, as the body of an
organism is the physical expression (phenotype) of the gene
(genotype). Hence, the Protestant Church is one sociotype of
the Bible's memotype. 2. A class of similar social
The part of a meme-complex that encourages adherence and
discourages mis-replication. ("Damnation to Hell" is the
threat co-meme in many religious schemes.) (See: bait, hook,
A meta-meme which confers resistance to a wide variety of
memes (and their sociotypes), without conferring
meme-allergies. In its purest form, Tolerance allows its
host to be repeatedly exposed to rival memes, even
intolerant rivals, without active infection or meme-allergic
reaction. Tolerance is a central co-meme in a wide variety
of schemes, particularly "liberalism", and "democracy".
Without it, a scheme will often become exo-toxic and confer
meme-allergies on its hosts. Since schemes compete for
finite belief-space, tolerance is not necessarily a virtue,
but it has co-evolved in the ideosphere in much the same way
as co-operation has evolved in biological ecosystems.
(pron. vak-seem) Any meta-meme which confers resistance or
immunity to one or more memes, allowing that person to be
exposed without acquiring an active infection. Also called
an `immuno-meme.' Common immune-conferring memes are
"Faith", "Loyalty", "Skepticism", and "tolerance". (See:
Every scheme includes a vaccime to protect against rival
memes. For instance:
Conservatism: automatically resist all new memes.
Orthodoxy: automatically reject all new memes.
Science: test new memes for theoretical consistency and
(where applicable) empirical repeatability; continually
re-assess old memes; accept schemes only conditionally,
pending future re:-assessment.
Radicalism: embrace one new scheme, reject all others.
Nihilism: reject all schemes, new and old.
New Age: accept all esthetically-appealing memes, new and
old, regardless of empirical (or even internal) consistency;
reject others. (Note that this one doesn't provide much
Japanese: adapt (parts of) new schemes to the old ones.
A medium, method, or vehicle for the transmission of memes.
Almost any communication medium can be a memetic vector.
Villain vs. Victim
An infection strategy common to many meme-complexes, placing
the potential host in the role of Victim and playing on
their insecurity, as in: "the bourgeoisie is oppressing the
proletariat" (Hofstadter). Often dangerously toxic to host
and society in general. Also known as the "Us-and-Them"