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Memetics 101

Towards a definition of memes…

Since Dawkins first spoke of memes in The Selfish Gene, much time has passed and several scientists have ventured into the realm of memetics. It has proven to be a problem for scientists to find a standing definition of ‘a meme’ and quite some meme-criticists use this as a point of critique towards the field of memetics.

Dawkins only gave a very simple definition of what a meme is. Most authors quote him by limiting his meme definition to “a unit of cultural transmission”. It can be interesting, however, to also add some words from the following paragraph of Dawkins’ book to this early definition; more specifically the claim that 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” (Selfish Gene 192). As this truly is the first definition, it is, in my opinion, important to add this very specific factor of imitation which is usually not included when Dawkins’ definition is quoted.

Other scientists have altered the definition; either adding more information and thus expanding what exactly can be called a meme or by limiting the definition to fit within a specific field of research. According to Wilkins, a meme is “The least unit of socio-cultural information relative to a selection process that has favourable or unfavourable selection bias that exceeds its endogenous tendency to change” (What’s in a meme). Heylighen describes memes as “an information pattern, held in an individual's memory, which is capable of being copied to another individual's memory” (Memetics).

Susan Blackmore comes to the conclusion that it is nearly impossible to agree on a definition of memetics (Meme Machine 53). Indeed, it seems that every scientist has his or her own definition of what exactly can be considered a meme. I personally use a definition that is somewhere in the middle of the three aforementioned ones.

A meme is an information pattern which is capable of being copied to another individual’s memory, mostly by means of imitation (though other techniques are possible as well) and which is subject to a selection process.

©2006 Klaas Chielens