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Memetics 101

Memes as replicators

One of the major changes throughout the emergence of life on this planet was the formation of a special molecule. Whereas the molecules that were already formed at that time were more or less coincidental bindings of free-floating building blocks that were available in the primeval soup, at a certain point in time a molecule was formed which had a most noteworthy capacity. This new molecule was formed in a way that it “had the extraordinary property of being able to create copies of itself” (Selfish Gene 15). This evolution gave way to the creation of more replicators which was the final breakthrough to life on this planet.

Long before Dawkins, other scientists had uttered the idea of cultural transmission. Sociobiology had already acknowledged man as a product of not only biology but also of its cultural environment. Earlier than that James Baldwin had used the term “social heredity” to describe the learning process of mankind (Blackmore 24) and in 1880 William James published an article in which he talked about the “remarkable parallel (…) between the facts of social evolution on the one hand, and of zoological evolution as expounded by Mr. Darwin on the other” (1).

Dawkins, however, saw memes as replicators and compared them to the better known replicators: genes. When studying genetics, one makes a difference between the genotype, which is "(…) the sum total of all the genes present in an individual" and the phenotype, which is the way we perceive the organism. The phenotype is the result of interactions between the genotype and the environment (Curtis and Barnes, G10, G16), so different organisms can have the same genotype but different phenotypes. However, it is only the genotype that will be passed on when the gene spreads (through replication/ reproduction). Memes also have the ability to adapt themselves by interaction with the environment (host), and in this way change their phenotypic properties (Dennett, DDI 355).

For a gene, a genotype will only show in what we know as the phenotype of this particular genotype while still passing on its original genotype, no matter what changes are made to the phenotype. A meme however, will not be passed on in its original ‘genotypic’ state but will instead be copied in a phenotypic state which will, for the new host, become the genotype of this meme.

©2006 Klaas Chielens