The term “meme” was first coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. defines it as “a cultural item that is transmitted by repetition in a manner analogous to the biological transmission of genes.” In short, a meme is the cultural version of a gene. As genes are selected biologically, memes are selected culturally.

Here are a few of my favorite examples to explain the concept:

  • In the 2008 presidential election, Barack Obama repeatedly said that “McCain equals Bush.” Regardless of whether or not this is true, it is an idea and phrase that caught on and spread like wildfire. It can very well be argued that the meme “McCain equals Bush” is what won the election for Obama.
  • Dawkins argues that religious ideas are memes that have self-replicated over time.
  • Choruses in music are all memes. Some are catchier and more effective, giving rise to their popularity.

The field of memetics is still very young and new contributions are being made all the time. The theory is controversial to some people, and the limits of its explanatory power are still uncertain. Famous meme-proponents include the psychologist Susan Blackmore, author of The Meme Machine, philosopher Daniel Dennett, author of Darwin’s Dangerous Idea and Freedom Evolves, among others. And, of course, Richard Dawkins.

Here is a quick introduction to memes in the form of a TED talk presented by Susan Blackmore.