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Memes

Memes are a unit of cultural information, such as a cultural practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene and popularised by Daniel Dannett, meme is a concept for explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena via application of evolutionary principles.

Memes evolve by natural selection, like that of biological evolution and they show self-replication, variation, mutation,  competition, and inheritance, each of which influences a meme’s reproductive success. Memes are thus analogous to genes. Examples of memes include thoughts,  ideas, theories, practices, habits,  songs, dances, melodies, catch-phrases, fashion and moods and terms such as race, culture  and ethnicity. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and mutate.

While memes are taken as “units” to emphasize their nature to replicate as discrete, indivisible entities, it does not imply quantization as in the case of atoms or like the digital bits and bytes. A meme has no given size and a meme can often be broken into components.

The field of study called memetics arose in the 1990s. Memetics explains, among other things, why science and logic do not always win {because selection favors ideas (memes) that are easy to understand, remember, and copy} and why the most successful memes typically provide superficially plausible answers for complex questions.

Memetics is a subject out of scope for a single blog entry. However, the following might serve as a quick start :

memeplex (or meme complex) is a collection of mutually supporting memes, which tend to replicate together. {Like, a particular religion, idea of human rights, etc.}

Memotype is a meme in the form of information held in an individual’s memory. Thus, it is a meme as contained in your head ( or any particular person’s head).

Mediotype is a meme as expressed in an  external medium, such as a text, an artefact, a song, or a behavior. A very useful mediotype is the internet meme.

Sociotype is the particular form of a meme as held commonly by a group or community of individuals. Like creationists who think Big Bang was a form of creation by God.

Criticism: Memetic theory is hardly discussed in recent texts on evolutionary psychology and linguistics. Memes, after all, are hard to define, quantify, and measure; their very existence is somewhat nebulous, inferable but not scientifically verifiable. Criticism has come from religious quarters, since religions are often reduced to mere memes or memeplexes. Also, the idea of human behavior as nothing but the programming of snippets of information is troubling to many.

A more relevant criticism comes from a still newer field: Epigenetics, saying that the culturally-transmitted behaviours are NOT copied, they are reconstructed from observed behaviours.

References not linked above:

1. http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/dan_dennett_on_dangerous_memes.html
2. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15191323?dopt=Abstract
3. http://science.jrank.org/pages/10160/Meme-Criticism-Memetic-Theory.html
4. http://www.evolutionary-philosophy.net/culture.html
5. http://alife.co.uk/essays/more_memetic_misunderstandings/
6. wikipedia Meme

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