MEME [meem]: a cultural factor that replicates over time, much as a gene is carried from generation to generation

The word meme “was coined by the British evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene (1976)… as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catch-phrases, fashion and the technology of building arches.” (Wikipedia)   It has become a popularly-employed term  to account for such factors as religious belief, artistic style, musical themes, and even political ideologies.

Much like a genetic strain that is embedded in the transfer of physical characteristics, language peculiarities, and even idiosyncrasies in behavior, memes can be beliefs, preferences, curiosities, or themes that spread through relationships, even organizations.   The Urban Dictionary spells it out in very clear terms when describing the meaning of memes:

“an idea, belief or belief system, or pattern of behavior that spreads throughout a culture either vertically by cultural inheritance (as by parents to children) or horizontally by cultural acquisition (as by peers, information media, and entertainment media) “

I found the vertical and horizontal reference to be helpful in understanding and describing what is meant by meme.  The point is that a meme may be intentional or biological in its origin.   The Tea Party Movement, for instance,  spawned themes, words, concepts and ideological statements that spread like wildfire through an energized segment of American Society over the past couple of years.  For some in the movement the memes were already in existence, seeking a petri dish in which to be nourished.  For others, however, the memes of the movement were learned and absorbed by newcomers to the phenomenon.

Spiritual or religious (there is a difference) memes are mysteriously passed from generation to generation, while some are embraced by seekers who have no previous reference to them.   Conversion is, in a sense, a morphing from one set of held beliefs to a new set.  One’s propensity for embracing commonly held beliefs may,in itself, be a sign of an existing meme.  Many times, in researching one’s genealogical history it is shocking to find ancestors who followed the same pattern of belief system or ideological appreciation, unknown prior to the discovery.   It raises the question as to whether a nearly-genetic presence of a meme has existed through generational unfolding.

Recognizing one’s memes and assessing them and their influence on one’s life is an adult inquiry process worthy of choice.   To be able to identify the origin of one’s urges, thoughts, preferences, biases or even passions assists in determining their priority in a life and lifestyle.


Photo Credit: David Walker Banks

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  1. Picky, you’re probably right. My interest is more in the realm of proclivity than genetic substance. Thanks for your attention.

  2. I think we need to be careful about the genealogical analogy because if memes follow an evolutionary path at all (rather than a path which can be metaphorically likened to evolution) it would surely be Lamarckian rather than Darwinian. Of course, as you say, ones genetic inheritance may give one a propensity to certain cultural acquisitions, but this is complicated ground.

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