Meet the Memes

Take a bow, Professor Dawkins

I want to introduce a few of the basic concepts that we will be working with on this site: how memes arise, how they spread and flock together, why they are so important to us, and finally what happens when memes and genes compete. But first we must establish exactly what a meme is (and is not) and where the idea came from.
The meme of ‘memes’ was created by Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene.  Dawkins took the ideas of George Williams and popularised the idea that it is genes maximise their chances of survival, rather than individuals.
For example, genes which allow meerkats to stand on their hind legs mean that they can see further, and are therefore less likely to be eaten by a predator. These meerkats have a better chance of passing on those particular genes, and after a few thousand generations, all meerkats will be able to stand on their hind legs.  
If Darwin’s insight was that animals evolve, Williams’ and Dawkins’ insight was to look at it from the gene’s point of view – to them, the successful gene is a 'replicator' and the meerkat is just the gene’s way of making another copy of itself.  The genes we see today are the ones that survived several billion years of selection pressures.
So where does this have to do with memes? In an almost throwaway last chapter to The Selfish Gene, Dawkins noted that the complexity of human culture cannot be fully explained by genes.  His solution was to invent another replicator which allowed ideas to be passed on without involving the genes.  He called it the ‘meme’ after ‘mimeme’, a Greek word which means ‘something imitated’. 
Dawkins developed this idea in a 1994 essay called ‘Viruses of the Mind’. He identified that his memes  carried most, if not all, elements of our culture and that memes would be subject to evolutionary pressures just as genes are.  
The meme of memes was picked up by a variety of other authors, and Susan Blackmore’s 1999 book, The Meme Machine, developed many of the current theories about how memes evolved and the role they play in our brains. 
Since The Meme Machine, writing on memes has developed via a number of strands: research into consciousness, society and religion, and books on personal development, and the key works will be referenced as we go along.  
Very little has been written about memes and organisation theory, and that's what I intend to fix on this site.

Yes, but what is a meme?
Without wanting to expose you to almost four decades of academic arguments about the nature of memes, I’m going to go back to the source: Dawkins’ original definition: a meme is ‘a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation’.
Genes are replicators: they transmitted from parents to child through the process of reproduction.  As we saw with the Meerkats, genes which enhance survivability are more likely to be spread, as their carriers have a better chance of surviving long enough to breed.
Species have evolved because genes copy faithfully from one generation to another (we call this copy fidelity). If that copying process is not perfect, occasional variations arise and we start to see diversity within the species.  If environmental factors favour the survival of one variant of the gene over another, then the favoured variant is more likely to reproduce itself.  This is the mechanism of evolution.  As Dennett (1995) pointed out in Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, natural selection is not a process that is restricted to biology – if copying, mutation and selection all exist in a system, then evolution must occur.  
Memes are also replicators, they also face selection pressures, and they also evolve.
But where are these famous memes? We know where the genes are - they're in our chromosomes. A common complaint from critics of memetics is that no-one can point to a section of the brain and say ‘that bit of the brain is running such-and-such a meme’.  It’s true, we can’t, but as Hughes (2011) points out, ‘the existence of Mendel’s genes was mere speculation for a century before Watson and Crick ‘saw’ them for the first time’.  With rapid advances in brain imaging technology, it won’t take a century for us to see a meme at work.

Next: how memes and mankind
evolved together. Or if that's not your cup of tea, move on to myths about memes.

More on memes