What is a Meme?

By Deane Barker on January 29, 2007

Meme: You hear the word ‘meme” a lot these days, referring to stuff that gets passed around via email, usually. (Apparently it rhymes with “theme,” not “them” like I thought.)

Well, there’s a lot more to it, and this page is an interesting read. Did you know the term was coined by the most prominent atheists of our time to relate it to evolutionary biology?

[The term ] coined in 1976 by the zoologist and evolutionary scientist Richard Dawkins, refers to a unit of cultural information transferable from one mind to another. Dawkins said, Examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, beliefs, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. A meme propagates itself as a unit of cultural evolution and diffusion — analogous in many ways to the behavior of the gene (the unit of genetic information)

So what are the bounds of a meme? That’s one of the big arguments between “memeticists” — apparently scientists who study memes.

Though Dawkins defined the meme as “a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”, memeticists vary in their definitions of meme. The lack of a consistent, rigorous and precise understanding of what typically makes up one unit of cultural transmission remains a problem in debates about memetics.

In my mind: one meme = one YouTube link. There, solved.



  1. I think that a better equation would be (but not limited to) urban legend = meme, because it needs to be self-propagating, Dawkins suggested also that religions are viral memes in the way they have survived thousand years, and continue to self propagate.

    However, I would like to suggest you one of the best books I have ever read: The blind watchmaker (obviously by richard dawkins)

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