Dawkins introduced the term meme as the corresponding cultural analogy to that of gene in biology.

But is it specious?

How does meme differ from belief, idea or notion?

A gene is defined specifically by where it is in the dna, which is discovered byhow it expresses itself; for this reason it is an objective fact of science.

Beliefs, ideas or notions are simply ordinary language describing a certain kind of thought.

  • it's not a good analogical argument, but it's a strong metaphor – user6917 Aug 23 '14 at 14:43
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    The main problem with memes is that they don't follow Mendelian genetics. Evolution of memes is in practice at least Lamarckian rather than Darwinian or even less coherent than that, so though the idea of a meme may have some coherence, Dawkins's reading over of Darwinian ideas to memes is much less useful than he seems to think (because, not natural selection). – Francis Davey Oct 29 '14 at 9:41
  • I would say evolutionary pressures allow for natural selection to occur with memes. We rewrite for example, a letter or text message, for a reason. That reason would have some effect on the transmitted understanding. When not understood, the idea isn't replicated. – Gabriel Fair Jun 25 '18 at 22:55
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    @Francis Davey: Calling meme evolution closer to Lamarkian evolution is the first useful observation I've heard about this pseudo-science! – Mozibur Ullah Jun 29 '18 at 0:08

The idea that there are mental constructs that (a) get transferred from one individual to another at different rates that depend both on there content and the environment in which they are embodies, and (b) are subject to (effectively) random modification over the course of their propagation is not, in itself, incoherent. Whether memetic theory exists is more of a scientific question than a philosophical one.

You may question whether this is in fact a good description of cultural changes over time, or whether it applies to all ideas, or whether it oversimplifies things, e.g. how to make sense of the issues raised in shane's answer.

There are philosophical issues in terms of which units of culture might be sensibly identified as memes; but given a suitably precise definitions for the concepts involved, the problems are more scientific than philosophical.


It's been a long while since I read Dawkins on memes, but IIRC, he thinks of them as more like concepts than beliefs. A belief is made up of concepts, but I think Dawkins's point was that the concepts reproduce themselves (albeit with slight changes) over time. Hence, the analogy to genes.

  • possibly; but don't we say that 'ideas spread'? Further isn't the laymans idea of GR is very different from Hawkings idea of it; one could say it has reproduced or mutated; but there is the already existing terminology of 'popularisation' or 'simplification' or 'bowlderisation'. – Mozibur Ullah Aug 23 '14 at 11:11

A meme is specifically a culturally transmissible unit of information. Duplicating culturally transmissible information is not necessarily the same thing as duplicating thoughts. For example, lots of people learn arithmetic but different people may think about how to do arithmetic in different ways.

Now it could be the case that one particular way of thinking about doing maths is better than another, i.e. - people can do maths faster with it or understand the results better. But if nobody puts time and effort into figuring out how to transmit that method culturally it won't be a meme. so there is a distinction between memes and thoughts. Moreover, when somebody figures out how to transmit an idea culturally he adds to its content and may substantially change it. So the meme version of the idea may be very different to what he was doing originally.

Another distinction between memes and ideas is that a person may think that he does not hold a particular meme when in fact he does. A parent may get annoyed with a child when the child disobeys the parent's instructions. The parent might then say "Do X because I said so." The parent may think that this is not his actual position, he has a very good reason he just can't explain it right now. But the parent is wrong. If he had some fabulous explanation and he wanted to tell the child he would do so. He literally does want the child to do X because he said so and not for any independent reason. Such ideas are not transmitted by people understanding their content, but by patterns of behaviour that help shield the content from being thought about and criticised.

For the best available discussion of memes, see "The Beginning of Infinity" by David Deutsch, chapters 15 and 16, which have detailed discussions of meme transmission and of similarities and differences between memes and genes.

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