No not necessarily grumpy cat ruling the Internet or the perpetually befuddled, and in an aha moment frozen face, of Keanu reeves asking “What if…”, nor the “One does not simply…”thing, but meme as its original meaning in the work of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins – as the equivalent of a gene in cultural proliferation.
So imagine this. It’s 1976. Two Steves, Jobs and Wozniak, just founded Apple Computer Company, Viking 1 lander lands on Mars and takes first colour photos with the famous “face on Mars” pic , first Star Wars movie was in the cinema, pants had bell leggings, hairs were big and 8-tracks got pushed out by cassettes, while an Englishman Hawkins released his book “The Selfish Gene”. As you may presume it was mostly about genes, but it introduced the term meme as a unit of cultural information that is spread by imitation. Therein lies the derivation of the meme’s name, from the Greek word mimema meaning “imitated”.
Memes run parallel to the biological sequencing of A, C, T, and G and just as these discrete pieces of information memes too carry information, can be replicated, have the ability to evolve and mutate and undergo natural selection. As Daniel Dennett nicely put it: “Genes are not DNA, they are the information carried by a DNA. Saying that genes are DNA would be like saying poems are made out of ink.” Ink is the media in which the information of a poem is transmitted, just as DNA helices are a media for genes to get around with information enacted. Memes are not one specific cultural artefact but can be various things, from phonemes of a language, language as a whole, ideas, skills, behaviours, fashions, products, political or social systems and they can be carried by any medium be it verbal, visual, via books, contemporary, digital media…
So as Dawkins explained himself in an Oxford speech, meme is information that can vary greatly in its delivery and proliferation but it is considered a meme if the message is not lost. So you could have the same phrase spoken in various accents, pitches and voice qualities but it doesn’t matter as they’re all the same. This variation is irrelevant for the meaning, while the meme itself, as adopted from another person or culture, can also mutate within new circumstances. Theories emerge that our mental lives are constructed mostly of memes acquired through interactions with others in our immediate culture and that most of our culture is composed from elements like memes, as a collage of copies from various sources. This doesn’t diminish the value of true ingenuity and bringing about new things, but they are built on what already exists in our sphere of acquired knowledge.
There is also a stance that memes are a sort of a mind virus that is concerned only with what viruses are concerned with – their own reproduction – and that we are just vessels carrying them through time as a flu. Even if this were the case, which can never be empirically proven, most memes are neutral or good and useful, although some bad ones squeeze in and perpetuate as bad habits. Most of the first memes were useless or harmful but as time passed competition for utility naturally arose, which made the beneficial memes (as phonemes of a language or words let’s say) more widespread simply because those who adopted them were better off than those who didn’t. This is what Mr. Dennett called competitive differential replication of cultural items which got complex cultures off the ground. Memes get extinct, they have lineages, they can fuse and change and mutate as genetic information can.
The internet memes of today are also a part of this as they spread through and by various media, mostly electronical now and they carry information about the culture that created them. But their deliberate design and changes don’t quite put them into the same category as the original memes that developed spontaneously. So there you have it, now out can go around as Mr/Miss Smarty Pants knowing the origin of the word meme. You’re welcome.