Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate, mutate, and respond to selective pressures. Proponents theorize that memes are a viral phenomenon that may evolve by natural selection in a manner analogous to that of biological evolution. Memes do this through the processes of variation , mutation , competition , and inheritance , each of which influences a meme's reproductive success.
Memes spread through the behavior that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct , while others may survive, spread, and for better or for worse mutate. Memes that replicate most effectively enjoy more success, and some may replicate effectively even when they prove to be detrimental to the welfare of their hosts.
A field of study called memetics  arose in the s to explore the concepts and transmission of memes in terms of an evolutionary model. Criticism from a variety of fronts has challenged the notion that academic study can examine memes empirically. However, developments in neuroimaging may make empirical study possible. The word meme is a neologism coined by Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins's own position is somewhat ambiguous: he welcomed N. Humphrey 's suggestion that "memes should be considered as living structures, not just metaphorically"  and proposed to regard memes as "physically residing in the brain".
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Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catchphrases , fashion, and the technology of building arches. Dawkins cites as inspiration the work of geneticist L. Cavalli-Sforza , anthropologist F. Cloak  and ethologist J.
For Dawkins, the meme exemplified another self-replicating unit with potential significance in explaining human behavior and cultural evolution. Although Dawkins invented the term 'meme' and developed meme theory, the possibility that ideas were subject to the same pressures of evolution as were biological attributes was discussed in Darwin's time.
Huxley claimed that 'The struggle for existence holds as much in the intellectual as in the physical world. A theory is a species of thinking, and its right to exist is coextensive with its power of resisting extinction by its rivals.
Dawkins used the term to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator. He hypothesized that one could view many cultural entities as replicators, and pointed to melodies, fashions and learned skills as examples. Memes generally replicate through exposure to humans, who have evolved as efficient copiers of information and behavior.
Because humans do not always copy memes perfectly, and because they may refine, combine or otherwise modify them with other memes to create new memes, they can change over time. Dawkins likened the process by which memes survive and change through the evolution of culture to the natural selection of genes in biological evolution. Dawkins defined the meme as a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation and replication, but later definitions would vary. The lack of a consistent, rigorous, and precise understanding of what typically makes up one unit of cultural transmission remains a problem in debates about memetics.
Meme transmission requires a physical medium, such as photons, sound waves, touch, taste, or smell because memes can be transmitted only through the senses. Dawkins noted that in a society with culture a person need not have descendants to remain influential in the actions of individuals thousands of years after their death:.
But if you contribute to the world's culture, if you have a good idea Socrates may or may not have a gene or two alive in the world today, as G.
Williams has remarked, but who cares? The meme-complexes of Socrates, Leonardo , Copernicus and Marconi are still going strong.
Although Dawkins invented the term meme , he has not claimed that the idea was entirely novel,  and there have been other expressions for similar ideas in the past. Memes, analogously to genes, vary in their aptitude to replicate; successful memes remain and spread, whereas unfit ones stall and are forgotten.
Thus memes that prove more effective at replicating and surviving are selected in the meme pool. Memes first need retention. The longer a meme stays in its hosts, the higher its chances of propagation are.
When a host uses a meme, the meme's life is extended. A meme which increases the longevity of its hosts will generally survive longer. On the contrary, a meme which shortens the longevity of its hosts will tend to disappear faster. However, as hosts are mortal, retention is not sufficient to perpetuate a meme in the long term; memes also need transmission. Life-forms can transmit information both vertically from parent to child, via replication of genes and horizontally through viruses and other means.
Memes can replicate vertically or horizontally within a single biological generation. They may also lie dormant for long periods of time. Memes reproduce by copying from a nervous system to another one, either by communication or imitation.
Imitation often involves the copying of an observed behavior of another individual. Communication may be direct or indirect, where memes transmit from one individual to another through a copy recorded in an inanimate source, such as a book or a musical score.
Adam McNamara has suggested that memes can be thereby classified as either internal or external memes i-memes or e-memes. Some commentators have likened the transmission of memes to the spread of contagions.
Observers distinguish the contagious imitation of memes from instinctively contagious phenomena such as yawning and laughing, which they consider innate rather than socially learned behaviors.
Aaron Lynch described seven general patterns of meme transmission, or "thought contagion": .
Dawkins initially defined meme as a noun that "conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation ". Wilkins retained the notion of meme as a kernel of cultural imitation while emphasizing the meme's evolutionary aspect, defining the meme as "the least unit of sociocultural information relative to a selection process that has favorable or unfavorable selection bias that exceeds its endogenous tendency to change".
A meme could consist of a single word, or a meme could consist of the entire speech in which that word first occurred.
This forms an analogy to the idea of a gene as a single unit of self-replicating information found on the self-replicating chromosome. While the identification of memes as "units" conveys their nature to replicate as discrete, indivisible entities, it does not imply that thoughts somehow become quantized or that " atomic " ideas exist that cannot be dissected into smaller pieces. A meme has no given size. Susan Blackmore writes that melodies from Beethoven 's symphonies are commonly used to illustrate the difficulty involved in delimiting memes as discrete units.
The inability to pin an idea or cultural feature to quantifiable key units is widely acknowledged as a problem for memetics. It has been argued however that the traces of memetic processing can be quantified utilizing neuroimaging techniques which measure changes in the connectivity profiles between brain regions. To illustrate, she notes evolution selects for the gene for features such as eye color; it does not select for the individual nucleotide in a strand of DNA. Memes play a comparable role in understanding the evolution of imitated behaviors.
Lumsden and E. Wilson proposed the theory that genes and culture co-evolve, and that the fundamental biological units of culture must correspond to neuronal networks that function as nodes of semantic memory.
They coined their own word, " culturgen ", which did not catch on. Coauthor Wilson later acknowledged the term meme as the best label for the fundamental unit of cultural inheritance in his book Consilience: The Unity of Knowledge , which elaborates upon the fundamental role of memes in unifying the natural and social sciences.
Dawkins noted the three conditions that must exist for evolution to occur: . Dawkins emphasizes that the process of evolution naturally occurs whenever these conditions co-exist, and that evolution does not apply only to organic elements such as genes. He regards memes as also having the properties necessary for evolution, and thus sees meme evolution as not simply analogous to genetic evolution, but as a real phenomenon subject to the laws of natural selection.
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Dawkins noted that as various ideas pass from one generation to the next, they may either enhance or detract from the survival of the people who obtain those ideas, or influence the survival of the ideas themselves. For example, a certain culture may develop unique designs and methods of tool -making that give it a competitive advantage over another culture. Each tool-design thus acts somewhat similarly to a biological gene in that some populations have it and others do not, and the meme's function directly affects the presence of the design in future generations.
In keeping with the thesis that in evolution one can regard organisms simply as suitable "hosts" for reproducing genes, Dawkins argues that one can view people as "hosts" for replicating memes.
Consequently, a successful meme may or may not need to provide any benefit to its host. Unlike genetic evolution, memetic evolution can show both Darwinian and Lamarckian traits.
Cultural memes will have the characteristic of Lamarckian inheritance when a host aspires to replicate the given meme through inference rather than by exactly copying it. Take for example the case of the transmission of a simple skill such as hammering a nail, a skill that a learner imitates from watching a demonstration without necessarily imitating every discrete movement modeled by the teacher in the demonstration, stroke for stroke.
Clusters of memes, or memeplexes also known as meme complexes or as memecomplexes , such as cultural or political doctrines and systems, may also play a part in the acceptance of new memes.
Memeplexes comprise groups of memes that replicate together and coadapt.
As an example, John D. Gottsch discusses the transmission, mutation and selection of religious memeplexes and the theistic memes contained. Similar memes are thereby included in the majority of religious memeplexes, and harden over time; they become an "inviolable canon" or set of dogmas , eventually finding their way into secular law.
This could also be referred to as the propagation of a taboo. The discipline of memetics, which dates from the mids, provides an approach to evolutionary models of cultural information transfer based on the concept of the meme. Memeticists have proposed that just as memes function analogously to genes , memetics functions analogously to genetics.
Memetics attempts to apply conventional scientific methods such as those used in population genetics and epidemiology to explain existing patterns and transmission of cultural ideas. Principal criticisms of memetics include the claim that memetics ignores established advances in other fields of cultural study, such as sociology , cultural anthropology , cognitive psychology , and social psychology.
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Questions remain whether or not the meme concept counts as a validly disprovable scientific theory. This view regards memetics as a theory in its infancy: a protoscience to proponents, or a pseudoscience to some detractors. There seems no reason to think that the same balance will exist in the selection pressures on memes.
Luis Benitez-Bribiesca M. As a factual criticism, Benitez-Bribiesca points to the lack of a "code script" for memes analogous to the DNA of genes , and to the excessive instability of the meme mutation mechanism that of an idea going from one brain to another , which would lead to a low replication accuracy and a high mutation rate, rendering the evolutionary process chaotic.
British political philosopher John Gray has characterized Dawkins's memetic theory of religion as "nonsense" and "not even a theory Another critique comes from semiotic theorists such as Deacon  and Kull.
The meme is thus described in memetics as a sign lacking a triadic nature. Semioticians can regard a meme as a "degenerate" sign, which includes only its ability of being copied. Accordingly, in the broadest sense, the objects of copying are memes, whereas the objects of translation and interpretation are signs. Fracchia and Lewontin regard memetics as reductionist and inadequate.