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Memetics is a field of biology, psychology, and sociology which deals with the replication, spread and evolution of memes. A meme is a communicable idea. The term meme was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). Memetics applies some of the principles of biological evolution to human thought and culture.
Memes are ideas that can:
- Replicate, either by human imitation or by mechanical reproduction (e.g., printing books)
- Change, or mutate, sometimes by flawed imitation or reproduction, or by influence from other memes or ideas
As examples of memes, Dawkins suggested tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Memes can also be members of meme complexes, or memeplexes, in which many memes function together. Religions are common examples of memeplexes, because they are collections of evolving ideas.
However, memetics is a controversial field. Some scientists argue that biological evolution does not map to memetics perfectly. Stephen Jay Gould held the opinion that memetics is misleading, and not useful.
A leading proponent of memes and memetics is psychologist Susan Blackmore.
The term meme is a shortening of the word mimeme, which comes from the Greek mimma and means, roughly, "something that is imitated." Dawkins chose this shortened form for its resemblance to the word gene to emphasize the parallel nature of the two concepts. Herein lies a problem, because unlike genes, which can be more or less clearly delimited, memes cannot; it is in practice impossible to tell where a meme "ends" and a "neighboring" meme begins. Considering the example of a God-meme, if belief in supernatural entities is seen as a reflection of the realities of the believer's life, the actual form the God-meme will have is dependent on these realities; no God somebody ever believed in is, from that person's point of view, absurd. Genes, as modern genetics discovers, are highly context-sensitive, but in their most reduced form (as it is found in mycoplasmas and other very primitive organisms), they can stand independent of context. Andrew Brown's The Darwin Wars provides a neat overview about this controversy, which is partly caused by Dawkins' definition of "gene" corresponding to analytical genes, which differs from "genes" as defined in genetics and is much more similar to memes.