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A correspondent wrote to Q&A recently in a state of near despair to ask what a meme was. Coincidentally, Dr Susan Blackmore, a well-known British academic, writer and broadcaster, has published a book entitled The Meme Machine. I can take a hint.

The idea, and the word, go back to Richard Dawkins’ book The Selfish Gene, published in 1976. He argued that ideas are capable of being transmitted through a population, to the extent that they must be thought of as somehow independent of the human brains that host and spawn them. He coined the word meme for such concepts as skills, habits, stories, songs, inventions or ideas that are passed from person to person by imitation. Dr Blackmore enlarges on this: “Everything you have learned from somebody else is a meme”.

Until recently, academics have thought of the idea as either a suspicious-sounding concept with more pizzazz about it than good research, or as one too banal to be worth serious consideration. None of my scientific dictionaries mention it, and it’s not in any of the works I know of that might have discussed it, such as Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct. But the idea has started to gain adherents — for example, an academic journal on the subject started two years ago.

Susan Blackmore attempts to provide a philosophical underpinning for the idea, with some startling results. She argues that a facility in imitation is our species’ prime characteristic, with intelligence — whatever that means — coming a bad second; she also contends that memes designed the huge human brain for their own replication. And she maintains that the existence of memes means that the whole idea of free will and self in human beings is an illusion, with the brain (the “meme machine” of her title) being just a collection of memes playing out competitive exchanges that invent an illusion of a controlling intellect.

This is so counter-intuitive that she is going to have vast trouble convincing people. I’m not qualified to contribute to the discussion, but I can report on the words the idea is generating.

Richard Dawkins invented the word meme from the Greek mimema, “that which is to be imitated”. That would give mimeme in English, but he deliberately shortened it so that it looked like gene. Pretty soon afterwards the adjective memetic began to turn up, and I’ve recently seen an adverb memetically and another adjective memetical. Someone who works in the field is a memeticist and the subject is memetics. There’s also memeplex (meme + complex) for groups of memes, such as languages, religions, and scientific theories, the study of which has been called macromemetics (studied, as you might guess, by macromemeticists). Several other terms have been coined by analogy with genetics, such as meme pool, memotype and memome.

This plethora of terms suggests the meme meme is doing well. It’s certainly making work for those of us who enquire into language.

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Page created 03 Apr 1999; Last updated 10 Apr 1999