Meme theory, as coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book “The Selfish Gene,” refers to the concept of memes as units of cultural evolution. Dawkins proposed the term “meme” to describe an idea, behavior, or style that spreads within a culture, analogous to the way genes spread biological information. In the context of meme theory, the focus is on the transmission and replication of cultural information.
A meme is a cultural unit that carries information from one individual to another through imitation. This can include ideas, behaviors, phrases, fashion, or any other cultural element that can be transmitted.
Dawkins drew a parallel between memes and genes, suggesting that just as genes are units of biological evolution, memes are units of cultural evolution. Memes, like genes, undergo a process of selection, variation, and replication.
In likening memes to genes, Dawkins aimed to highlight the role of both in the evolutionary processes of their respective domains. Genes are fundamental units of biological evolution, carrying genetic information from one generation to the next. Similarly, memes are the building blocks of cultural evolution, transmitting ideas, behaviors, and cultural practices from one individual to another.
Genes undergo a process of natural selection, where certain genetic traits become more prevalent in a population due to their adaptive advantages. Memes, too, experience a form of selection. Those memes that are more easily imitated, memorable, or culturally relevant are more likely to be transmitted successfully.
Just as genetic variation arises through mutations and recombination, cultural variation occurs through the modification and adaptation of memes. Cultural traits can be altered, combined, or transformed as they pass from person to person, contributing to the diversity of cultural expressions.
Replication is a key component of both genetic and cultural evolution. Genes replicate through the process of reproduction, ensuring their continuity across generations. Memes replicate through imitation and cultural transmission. When individuals imitate or adopt a meme, they contribute to its replication and dissemination within the cultural framework.