How the notion of "meme" was born
If forms of life exist whose chemistry is based on silicon rather than carbon, or ammonia rather than water, if creatures are discovered that boil to death at − 100 degrees centigrade, if a form of life is found that is not based on chemistry at all but on electronic reverberating circuits, will there still be any general principle that is true of all life?
Obviously I do not know but, if I had to bet, I would put my money on one fundamental principle. This is the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities.
The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet.
There may be others. If there are, provided certain other conditions are met, they will almost inevitably tend to become the basis for an evolutionary process. But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution?
I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.
The new soup is the soup of human culture.
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. ‘Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like ‘gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.
If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to ‘memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with ‘cream’.
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.
If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passes it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain.
As my colleague N. K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: ‘… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.
When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking—the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’