What is a Meme and What Can
We Do About It?

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In the first 10 chapters of "The Selfish Gene", Richard
Dawkins discusses the nature of gene replication and
the theory that individual entities (such as humans) are
"survival machines" built for the survival of the genes.

In Chapter 11, -Memes: the new replicators-, Richard's
ideas diverge form the central physical replication
discussion and enter into the fascinating area of the
replication of culture and ideas (basically addressing
many issues central to the concepts of theism and

Excerpts from Chapter 11 of Richard Dawkins' classic,
The Selfish Gene, in which he introduces us to the Meme:

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In a discussion about the possible forms of life present
throughout the universe "...will there still be any principle
that is true of all life? Obviously I do not know but, if I had
to bet, I would put my money on one fundamental principle.
This is the law that all life evolves by the differential survival
of replicating entities. The gene, the DNA molecule, happens
to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet.
There may be others. If there are, provided certain other
conditions are met, they will almost inevitably tend to
become the basis for an evolutionary process.

But do we have to go to distant worlds to find other kinds
of replicator and other, consequent, kinds of evolution?
I think that a new type of replicator has recently emerged on
this very planet. It is staring us in the face. It is still in its
infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but
already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves
the old gene panting far behind.

The new soup is the soup of human culture. We need a name
for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit
of cultural transmission or a unit of *imitation*. 'Mimeme'
comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable
that sounds a bit like 'gene'. I hope my classicist friends will
forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to *meme*. If it is any
consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as relating to
'memory', or to the French word meme. It should be
pronounced to rhyme with 'cream'.

Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes
fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as
genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from
body to body via sperms or eggs, so 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....

...As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier
draft of this chapter '...When you plant a fertile meme in my mind  
you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the
meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize
the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn't just a way of
talking--the meme for say, -belief in life after death- is actually
realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the
nervous systems of individual men the world over.'

Consider the idea of God. We do not know how it arose in the
meme pool. Probably it originated many times by independent
'mutation'. In any case, it is very old indeed. How does it
replicate itself? By the spoken and written word, aided by great
music and great art. Why does it have such high survival value?

...The survival value of the god meme in the meme pool results
from its great psychological appeal. It provides a superficially
plausible answer to deep and troubling questions about existence.
It suggests that injustices in this world may be rectified in the
next. The 'everlasting arms' hold out a cushion against our own
inadequacies which, like a doctor's placebo, is none the less
effective for being imaginary. These are some of the reasons
why the idea of God is copied so readily by successive
generations of individual brains. God exists, if only in the form
of a meme with high survival value, or infective power, in the
environment provided by human culture."

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Fast-forward to the end of the chapter where Richard Dawkins
optimistically outlines what humans can do, what possible
positive manifestations can occur, within the human meme
pool (excerpt):

"It is possible that yet another unique quality of man is a
capacity for genuine, disinterested, true altruism. I hope so,
but I am not going to argue the case one way or the other,
nor to speculate over its possible memic evolution. The point
I am making now is that, even if we look on the dark side and
assume that individual man is fundamentally selfish, our
conscious foresight--our capacity to simulate the future in
imagination--could save us from the worst selfish excesses
of the blind replicators.

We have at least the mental equipment to foster our long-term
selfish interests rather than merely our short-term selfish
interests. We can see the long-term benefits of participating
in a 'conspiracy of doves', and we can sit down together to
discuss ways of making the conspiracy work. We have the
power to defy the selfish genes of our birth and, if necessary,
the selfish memes of our indoctrination.

We can even discuss ways of deliberately cultivating and
nurturing pure, disinterested altruism--something that has no
place in nature, something that has never existed before in the
whole history of the world. We are built as gene machines
and cultured as meme machines, but we have the power to
turn against our creators. We, alone on earth, can rebel
against the tyranny of the selfish replicators."