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A look at the history and origin of memes 


In 1976, Richard Dawkins published his book The Selfish Gene, in which he introduced the word meme: "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 being related to 'memory, or to the French word même.

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About Memetics

Memetics has since become an area of interest and research in academia and out. Memetics has a variety of opinions on Memetic Theory and argues for different core principles. However, the majority agree that memes spread from person to person within a culture, thus differentiating memes from fads or trends. Common memes include catchphrases, melodies, and fashion styles, inventions such as paperclips or digital communication methods such as Internet Relay Chat (IRC).

Before going further, it is important to note what memes are not: they are not genes. While there is no consensus between memetics about the exact relationship between memes and genes, there is a general agreement that they aren't the same thing. The theory now known as gene-meme coevolution proposes that both biological evolution and cultural evolution influence one another. As an analogy, memes are to culture as genes are to biology, meaning that the concept of meme, very broadly defined, acts as a conceptual bridge between the two fields. Meme Scout can help you generate memes. 

Origin of the term meme

While Dawkins coined the term "meme", he did not originate the idea of new ideas being spread from person to person within a culture. An American philosopher named Charles Sanders Peirce is usually credited with coining the term "semiotic", which later evolved into "semiotics" and is defined as "The study of signs". A sign can be anything that has meaning or stands for something else. This meaning separates memes from fads or trends since they have some underlying value. 

That makes it possible for a meme, too, for example, to start because someone finds a particular novel humorous and spread throughout the population. It is then possible that people find this novel humorous because it has value i.e. makes them laugh or teaches them something new. In other words, memes can accumulate meaning over time as they travel from person to person, which fads and trends cannot do since they lack any underlying value.

In 2005 Susan Blackmore published her book The Meme Machine, in which she outlined seven properties common to all memes: copying, variation, competition, persistence, novelty, transmission and fitness. Copying means that a gene-like aspect of evolution is present in culture via replication. Competition is where different memes compete for space within a mind, and persistence is where many compete for space over time. 

Novelty deals with the ability of any given meme to stand out from other information that may be stored in mind, such as recalling it at a later date. Transmission deals with the ability of a meme to travel between minds via communication. Finally, fitness means that some memes survive while others die off, which is similar to the role played by natural selection in biology.