“What lies at the heart of every living thing is not a fire, not warm breath, not a ‘spark of life’. It is information, words, instruction.”

– Richard Dawkins, 1986.

Many of you have heard the term “meme” due to the recent popularity of internet memes. However, the word “meme” has existed long before the advent of funny pictures with poorly written English emblazoned on it. Interestingly, it was Richard Dawkins who invented the word in 1976 from Greek influences. He shortened it to “meme” because he wanted the word to be a monosyllable that sounded similar to “gene”. On a related note, that means it’s pronounced “meem” similar to “gene”, not as some people say “me-me” or the French word “meme” meaning same (I can’t do accents on my keyboard, but there’s one over the first “e”).

So what is a meme? This quote from the Smithsonian is pretty good to help build an initial understanding:

Our world is a place where information can behave like human genes and ideas can replicate, mutate and evolve.

Essentially, a meme is an idea or concept that is spread from generation to generation through means that are non-genetic (transmitted via writing, visual representation, speech, gestures or any other imitable phenomena). The importance of the word meme resembling the word gene is that memes are theorised to evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to biological evolution – basically, a meme is like a gene for information. Here’s one more good quote:

A meme is an idea that behaves like a virus – that moves through a population, taking hold in each person it infects

– Malcolm Gladwell

Memes are powerful language tools because they can convey a vast array of inherent information with very few words (or actions/images depending on the meme). Dawkins defined a meme as a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation and replication. Internet memes are the most commonly known these days, and just think of the amount of information we can get out of a few words or an image.

This badly drawn picture by itself is enough to evoke a wide range of information. It means someone who is always unsuccessful at finding companionship and is used by the victim to demonstrate his/her emotions regarding their situation. There’s a huge list of internet memes; I’m not going to go through every one of them. Internet memes are plentiful though, which dilutes their potency a bit. Here’s a stronger example: Olympics. With that one word alone, I can make you think of competitions, athletes, races, medals and an overarching theme of unity and celebration.

However, remember Gladwell’s definition. Memes mutate over time and can end up misrepresenting something, or becoming impervious to change. Folk etymology is an example of this (I’ve gone into this in my etymology posts), where people start believing that a certain idiom originated one way when in actual fact it was another (such as the “cold shoulder”). Other good examples can be found in urban myths, which persist even when scientifically proven wrong. My girlfriend’s anatomy lecturer told her that your heart stops beating when you sneeze. This has been proven false already, what’s an anatomy lecturer doing not knowing this?

Now that we understand that memes are ideas and information transmitted over time, we have to accept that memes are prone to mutation and cannot be considered fully reliable. Here’s the interesting thing though – religion is also a meme. We can see evidence of religion changing or “mutating” over time as the Church changes its public stance on certain issues (heliocentric solar system, evolution, etc.).

It’s interesting that memes are often subject to “survival of the fittest”. It is for that reason why we don’t practice human sacrifice, because that is a weak idea from an evolutionary point of view (it doesn’t promote growth). There’s a whole scientific side to memes that I didn’t get into (I was focusing more on its power as a language tool). For those of you interested in finding out more, this is a good article: