meme [meem]


a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.


1976;  < Gk mīmeîsthai  to imitate, copy; coined by R. Dawkins, Brit. biologist


an idea or element of social behaviour passed on through generations in a culture, esp by imitation

[C20: possibly from mimic, on the model of gene] 2013. the definition of meme. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 4 Dec 2013].

Todays lecture saw us looking into memes and asking ourselves the question “What is a meme?” The term “meme” was coined by the English ethologist, evolutionary biologist, and author Richard Dawkins in his book entitled “The Selfish Gene” (R. Dawkins 1976). Through the theory of memetics, Dawkins tried to explain how cultures evolve, he emphasised the importance of the gene.


The Selfish Gene, R.Dawkins 1976

What is memetics?

Memetics are ideas that are based upon Darwins “Theory of Evolution”. The theory of evolution through natural selection was first written by Darwin in the “Origin of Species”


The Origin of Species, Charles Darwin 1859


A more simplified version of Rudolph F. Zallinger’s original illustration, The March of Progess.

Natural Selection:

  • Humans can be seen as gene carriers
  • Genes carry our DNA
  • Memes are to culture what genes are to the body. The meme is the basic unit of cultural transmission, as the gene is the basic unit of biological transmission.

Memes are

  •  Basic building blocks of our minds and culture as genes are the building blocks of biological life.
  •  Contagious ideas which reproduce like a virus.
  • They are passed from mind to mind, propagating themselves through face to face contact and communication networks.
  • A pattern of information copied from person to person.

Memes can be:

  • Songs
  • Ideas
  • Catchphrases
  • Clothes
  • Fashion

They are spread through media and social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Vines, Instagram etc.


Social Media & Networking Sites

The success of a meme depends on:

  • Longevity – How long it will last
  • Fecundity – Making lots of copies, being shared/forwarded
  • Copying Fidelity – How true the copy is to the original

Examples of different well known memes:


Grumpy Cat Meme

Know Your Meme. 2013. Fun Time Is Over | Grumpy Cat | Know Your Meme. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 4 Dec 2013].


What Does The Fox Say? Ylvis 2013 (Video)

YouTube. 2013. Ylvis – The Fox (What Does the Fox Say?) [Official music video HD]. [online] Available at: [Accessed: 4 Dec 2013].

The song “Happy Birthday” is also a good example of a successful meme.

The freelance writer Susan Blackmore believes that you can look at religion from a memetic point of view. Whether or not something is fact or fiction, if it successfully copied it can be considered a meme, this can include faith systems. Certain behaviours, ideas and stories can be copied from person to person, this is a way of humans attempting to understand the world that surrounds them. Religions could be considered successful memes, as they are stored in the brain, in books, buildings and repeatedly passed on, this makes us ask the questions “Why are we here?” and “How did life begin?”.

How memes transmit themselves

Memes can be transmitted:

  • Vertically – from parent to offspring
  • Horizontally – from peer to peer or between strangers

Some important questions that we should ask ourselves are:

  • Are we able to resist memes?
  • Can we protect ourselves from memes that we are bombarded with from the media?