The Origin of the Word “Meme” Isn’t What You Think

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Selfish Gene" by Richard Dawkins. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What is the origin of the word “meme?” How was the word used before it became a core part of our internet vernacular?

The origin of the word “meme” comes from a Greek word. The first use of the word meme was in the book The Selfish Gene, but is now better known as a funny captioned image.

Read more about the origin of the word “meme” and how it is used in The Selfish Gene.

Culture and the Origin of the Word “Meme”

Not all replicators are biological—ideas can be observed to spread through populations like genes do. This is likely not a direct result of gene survival, but more of a side effect of how brains are wired to learn.

If the unit of biological inheritance is the gene, it could be said that the unit of idea inheritance is the meme. The origin of the word “meme” is based on the Greek word mimeme, meaning “something that is imitated.”

(Shortform note: The Selfish Gene is the origin of the word “meme,” though its meaning was quite different from the funny captioned images it refers to today.)

Genes tend to survive if they give advantages to the creatures that carry them. Memes, on the other hand, survive if they can take root in people’s minds. Like genes, memes are self-replicating units. 

In The Selfish Gene, the origin of the word “meme,” a “successful” meme is one that reaches more people and survives in the cultural consciousness for long periods of time. A catchy song, for example, will be successful in the sense that it replicates itself and survives as people spread it. A song will likely spread through imitation, recognized by hearing people sing or whistle the song.

Also like genes, memes have to compete with one another for limited resources. In this case, the resources are people’s time and attention. 

According to The Selfish Gene, the origin of the word “meme,” the one area memes seem to suffer in the comparison to genes is accuracy. If a selfish gene wishes to pass itself on, by definition it wants to create exact copies of itself. However, memes do not seem to be copied accurately at all—like a game of telephone, everyone the meme passes to will put their own interpretations, spins, and mistakes on it before passing it on again.

On the other hand, many genetic traits appear to be blended or overwritten during inheritance, but that doesn’t mean the genes themselves were. The genes are unchanged, but express differently depending on what other genes are present. It’s possible that ideas work the same way.  

Qualities of Successful Memes

The idea of God is one of the most successful memes ever. It’s not clear how the idea entered the “meme pool,” but it has survived through almost all of human history. One explanation is that the idea of God has great psychological value—it’s comforting to think that there’s order to the universe, and that injustices suffered in life will be repaid after death. 

The God meme is spread through word of mouth, writing, music, art, and religious ceremonies. Over time the God meme has become linked with the Hell meme, which also has deep psychological impact—although for very different reasons. The two co-adapted memes reinforce each other and help ensure each others’ survival, just as some genes do. 

Religions tend to last for a very long time, reach a huge number of people, and be slow to change. In other words, they meet all the requirements of a successful meme—or gene. Biologists, therefore, may be inclined to wonder how memes such as God came to exist in humans. They would ask, “What is the survival value of believing in God?” 

However, it may be a mistake to think of memes in terms of survival or reproductive value. They may simply be a side effect of how human brains developed—or, to further the comparison to genes, they may be naturally evolving replicators that exploit how our brains work. While cultures and fads can be seen to change and adapt in a way that mimics biological evolution, there is no reason to believe the two processes are connected. 

As an interesting side note, cultural inheritance has also been observed—to a much lesser extent—in certain animals. Some species of songbirds learn their songs by mimicking other birds, not through genetics. Occasionally new songs are created when birds incorrectly copy each other. These new songs are taken up by other individuals, spreading like a meme spreads through a human population. 

The Origin of the Word “Meme” Isn’t What You Think

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  • Why organisms don't matter, only genes do
  • How all life forms begin with a replicating molecule
  • How species need to balance aggression and pacifism to survive

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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