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Study of memes, that is, basic replicating unit of information. Term first proposed by Richard Dawkins towards the end of The Selfish Gene (1976), from a blending of gene and mimesis (Greek for "imitation").

Memetics applies concepts taken from the theory of evolution (especially population genetics) to human culture. It tries to explain many very controversial subjects, like religions and political systems, using mathematical models.

Many thoughtful people wonder if the analogy of gene to culture will hold up and how the similarity would be tested.

Memetics must be distinguished from sociobiology. In sociobiology the evolving entities are genes, while in memetics they are memes. Sociobiology is concerned with the biological basis of human behaviours, while memetics treats humans as products not only of biological evolution, but of cultural evolution also.

Memetic drift is the process of an idea or meme changing as it is transferred from one person to another. Very few memes show strong memetic inertia which is the characteristic of a meme to be expressed in the same way and to have the same impact, regardless of which person is recieving or transmitting the idea. Memetic drift increases when the meme is transmitted by an awkward way of expressing the idea, whilst memetic intertia is strengthened when the form of expression rhymes or uses other mnemonic devices to preserve the memory of the meme prior to its transmittal. The article on Murphys Law shows one example of memetic drift.

Much of mememetic terminology is created by prepending 'mem(e)-' to existing, usualy biological, term, or by putting 'mem(e)' in place of 'gen(e)' in various terms. Examples include: meme pool, memotype, memetic engineer, meme-complex.

Further Reading

  • Blackmore, Susan. The Meme Machine, Oxford University Press, 1999.
  • Dawkins, Richard. The selfish gene, Oxford University Press, 1976.