What is a Meme?

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Coined by popular science writer Richard Dawkins in 1996, a "meme" is any idea that spreads among social groups. It was coined as a variant on "gene." As genes in nature struggle to outcompete rival gene-sets, memes in social environments compete with other memes for our attention. The "meme" view of cultural evolution sees the totality of human ideas as an ecology of self-propagating, mutating, evolving entities. The rising protoscience concerning memes is called "memetics."

Memes are neurological patterns within the human brain.
Memes are neurological patterns within the human brain.

Without experiencing changes as they pass from mind to mind, memes could not evolve. By analogy to biological evolution, these changes are called "mutations," although the underlying dynamics of genetic and memetic mutation are radically dissimilar. Even though the workings of genes and memes can be very different, they share certain similarities.

Many memes on the Internet involve cats.
Many memes on the Internet involve cats.

One thing genes and memes have in common is differential self-replication. Certain genes and memes reproduce more effectively than others, meaning they become more numerous than rival variants. These variants become the context within which the next round of mutant variants will compete.

Although neither genes nor memes are independently self-aware, they "selfishly" create behaviors or structures optimized for their own continued survival and prosperity, not necessarily that of the host. In memetics, cults are often used as an example of this. Obviously, memes and genes may contribute to the continued survival and prosperity of the host, but only insofar as it helps their own replication. Genes and memes also operate in parasitic and symbiotic arrangements. In the same way that gene-complexes, or organisms, exploit or help each other based on their specific niche, meme-complexes — worldviews — develop similar strategies as it suits their ability to propagate.

Physically, memes are most often defined as neurological patterns within human brains, although art, culture, science, and other artificial structures are often regarded as carriers of memes or representations of memes in the external world. Though memetics is sometimes criticized as a renamed incarnation of sociology or group psychology, the field possesses its own journals, researchers, and techniques that set it apart from historical disciplines. The term "meme" has become an infectious meme itself, appearing in many popular magazines and books on marketing, business, and psychology.

Michael Anissimov
Michael Anissimov

Michael is a longtime wiseGEEK contributor who specializes in topics relating to paleontology, physics, biology, astronomy, chemistry, and futurism. In addition to being an avid blogger, Michael is particularly passionate about stem cell research, regenerative medicine, and life extension therapies. He has also worked for the Methuselah Foundation, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, and the Lifeboat Foundation.

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Discussion Comments


@Ana1234 - And generally if you look at what an online meme actually is, it does fit the definition. It's not really the pictures or video themselves, but a general idea (usually a joke) surrounding them. So you might call the custom of putting digital floral wreathes on celebrity photos a meme, but you wouldn't call one of the individual pictures a meme. Which is why meme sites will usually have an explanation of how the idea developed, rather than just a couple of pictures.


@croydon - I'm not sure if religions are really memes per sec. They are probably more similar to organisms with memes representing the genes in ordinary organisms. So the Golden Rule might be a meme in the whole group of memes that makes up Christianity. It can also be in other religions too though, like certain genes exist in a wide variety of animals.

I don't actually think the popular use of the word meme does much to take away from the scientific meaning. If anything, it has spread the term much more widely than it would have otherwise gone.


I've always loved the idea of a memes in the traditional sense and I'm a little bit annoyed that they became more associated with popular pictures on the internet.

The exploration of ideas as evolving units which may not survive depending on their merits, so much as on their ability to be transmitted and sustained is one worth pursuing. I wrote about this in one of my philosophy classes at university.

Religions, for example, could be called memes. People seem to attribute the success of a religion (particularly their own religion) to the fact that it's true or right. But there's a reason that most religions encourage proselytizing and total adherence from their members. Because those are necessary for it to last. Without those, a religion wouldn't be around for its members to point out its success.

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