A meme ( /ˈmiːm/, rhyming with "cream"), a relatively newly-coined term, identifies ideas or beliefs that are transmitted from one person or group of people to another. The name comes from an analogy: as genes transmit biological information, memes can be said to transmit idea and belief information.
A meme acts as a unit for carrying cultural ideas symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. (The word is a blend of "gene" and the Greek word μιμητισμός (mimetismos, [mimetisˈmos]) for "something imitated".) Supporters of the concept regard memes as cultural analogues to genes, in that they self-replicate, mutate and respond to selective pressures.
The British scientist Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme" in The Selfish Gene (1976) as a concept for discussion of evolutionary principles in explaining the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. Examples of memes given in the book included melodies, catch-phrases, fashion, and the technology of building arches.
Advocates of the meme idea say that memes 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 influencing a meme's reproductive success.
Memes spread through the behaviors 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 which replicate the most effectively spread best. Some memes 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 1990s 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 scholarship can examine memes empirically. Some commentators question the idea that one can meaningfully categorize culture in terms of discrete units.
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