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Sunday, March 3

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Science states that genes are essentially a form of information -- a specific set of instructions written in our DNA for building proteins. Traditional evolutionary theory, as formulated by Charles Darwin, holds that genes control our physical traits. Our genes are copied and passed on through our offspring, and those genes that provide a survival advantage generally tend to proliferate at the expense of others.

Yet, how do we explain the traits and abilities we possess that seem to have nothing to do with our essential survival? We compose music, create art, tell stories, and play games. Some theorists believe the answer lies in memes.

Richard Dawkins, a professor of science at Oxford University, coined the term "meme" in his best-selling book, The Selfish Gene, first published in 1976. In this book, Dawkins presented the theory of Darwinian evolution in terms of three general processes -- replication of information, the development of variations amongst the copies, and the selection of some variants over others. However, he took it a step further to propose that evolution can be based on any replicator and proposed the idea of the meme to attempt to explain human cultural evolution just as our genes ensure our physical evolution. He wrote, "Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation." (p.192)

Though Richard Dawkins proposed his theory in 1976, the theory of memes was slow to propagate in the scientific community. However, since the popularization of the World Wide Web, the interest in memetics, the formal study of memes and their social and cultural effects, has exploded. The rise of the Internet directly affected the dynamics of meme replication because memes communicated digitally are far more likely to be copied and imitated than communication through other means.

A new idea no longer needs to diffuse gradually through a group from a center outwards as would happen if you were to verbally tell your friends about that great new restaurant down the street. Ideas transmitted verbally, or through other non-electronic means, are easily stopped by physical or geographic barriers, but computers can transmit millions of identical copies of a message nearly instantaneously, or an idea can appear simultaneously in different parts of the world and spread independent of the proximity of senders and receivers.

My intention here, however, is not to write a long, theoretical paper about memes. (I could, but I won't.) I just wanted to provide a brief introduction to memes in the hopes of provoking your interest in the following bibliography. Meme is a word that gets bandied about a lot on the Web (and not always correctly), so if you have never taken the time to explore the theories behind the idea, now is your chance.

Resources for Memes and Memetics

Getting Started

Meme Central. This site is the homepage for author Richard Brodie and includes a memetics FAQ, a free newsletter, excerpts from his book, and links to more resources.

Memes: Introduction. A short introduction to memes written by Glenn Grant in 1990.

Journals and Articles

Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission. The Journal of Memetics is a peer-reviewed academic journal that was founded in 1997. All articles from the journal are free online.

Dawkins, Richard. Viruses of the Mind. Text taken from Dennett and His Critics: Demystifying Mind, ed. Bo Dalhbom (Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1993). Required reading from the man who started it all.

Downes, Stephen. (1999) Hacking Memes. First Monday. Vol. 4, no. 10.

Memetics Papers on the Web. Comprehensive webliography with links to well over a hundred memetics articles available online.


Science: Biology: Sociobiology: Memetics. Over two dozen links from the DMOZ Open Directory Project.

Social Science: Psychology: Branches: Social Psychology: Memetics. More than 20 links from the Yahoo! Directory.

Bibliographies and Recommended Books

A Bibliography of Memetics. Compiled by Liane Gabora in May 1997. A comprehensive list of 190 books and articles published through mid-1997.

Aunger, Robert. (2002) The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think. New York: The Free Press.

Blackmore, Susan. (2000) The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press.

Brodie, Richard. (1996) Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme. Seattle: Integral Press.

Brown, John Seely and Paul Duguid. (2000) The Social Life of Information. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

Dawkins, Richard. (1976) The Selfish Gene. New York: Oxford University Press.

Gladwell, Malcolm. (2000) The Tipping Point: How Little Things Make a Big Difference. New York: Little, Brown and Company.

Lynch, Aaron. (1996) Thought Contagion: How Belief Spreads Through Society. New York: Basic Books.

Have a topic you would like to see in "Ask the Librarian" or want to argue about memetics? Send your suggestions to librarian@gapersblock and it may be featured in a future column.

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suzanne / January 22, 2004 12:02 AM

hmm,i was just thinking about memes today. funny how that works....


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