FunNature & AnimalThe origin and evolution of 'memes'

The origin and evolution of 'memes'

In reality 2.0, everyone understands what a ‘meme’ is: a still or moving image, with or without text, sent by social networks, which transmits a message as a response or reaction to something, generally expressed with humor or caricature.

All those images and ‘gifs’ that we commonly call ‘memes’ are actually a very specific type of meme, which has become fashionable in recent years, and which is massively used as a way of communicating emotions or reactions on social networks. . The internet meme.

But there are many more memes, which are not even recognized as such, and in reality they have been with the human being since long before the arrival of the Internet in our lives.

“Hi, I’m Edu, Merry Christmas,” is a meme.

The equation E = mc2 is a meme.

Ride of the Valkyries , by Richard Wagner, is a meme.

“And yet it moves” is a meme.

The semicircular arch is a meme.

God is a meme.

A clay tablet engraved in cuneiform script is a meme.

The technique used to hit one stone against another to make a tool that cuts is a meme.

There are even memes beyond the human world. A macaca washing a sweet potato while its peers observe it is a meme. And the song of an orca imitating a dolphin is also a meme. Because a meme is actually a unit of transmittable cultural information .

La cabalgata de las valkirias

Wagner’s ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ is a meme

Cultural evolution, whose basic unit is the meme, is analogous to biological evolution. Although the latter has much more complex aspects, it can be summarized in the effect that environmental pressure has on the selection of genetic variations.

The gene functions as the basic unit of genetic information, an entity that can be transmitted from generation to generation, which constitutes a coherent unit and, at the same time, mutable over time. An individual entity, independent of other genes, that stores a content with its own meaning, which, together with the expression of the rest of the genes, is later reflected in the phenotype of the living being —the exteriorized expression of that gene—, and which forms, together to the genes of other organisms of the same species, the gene pool of its population.

Changes in genes —such as mutations, duplications, or the appearance of new genes by horizontal transfer— then cause changes in phenotypes , and depending on whether these changes are beneficial, harmful or neutral in the environment in which the being develops. alive, the environment will select it or not.

Cultures, like living things, also evolve over time. Perhaps the most obvious example is languages: if a ninth-century Castilian nobleman or peasant were to ‘land’ in Spain today, he would have serious difficulty making himself understood.

Changes, alterations occur in common speech , either due to failures during learning, for comfort, due to the appearance of new terms, due to loans with other languages… in the same way that mutations, duplications or transfers occur in genes. horizontal from other living beings.

As was the case with genetic information, these changes in cultural information are subject to environmental pressure , produced by the same society and its individuals. Some variations may have a temporary root and then disappear – today almost nobody “moves the skeleton” as they did in the 80s -, and others are fixed in the culture and integrated, as a new adaptive trait would be integrated into a species . An example of this rooting can be, directly, the mere concept of ‘meme’.

La técnica para fabricar herramientas

The technique for making flint tools is a meme.

In educational and even academic terms, cultural evolution and biological evolution are analogous . It is very common that one is used as an example when trying to explain the other, or vice versa. Where we speak of genetic heritage, we have a cultural heritage; where we have species, we have cultures; and the phenotype of living beings is analogous to the cultural expressions of a society.

The term ‘meme’ was coined by the British biologist Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene , in 1976, in response to the need to find a term that would allow a cultural analogy to be established with respect to what the gene is in biology.

An individual and independent entity from the rest, which stores content with its own meaning, which together with the expression of the rest of the memes, is reflected in the cultural expression, and make up the cultural heritage or ‘memetic’ of its population.

The meme functions as the basic unit of cultural information , an entity that can be transmitted from generation to generation, which constitutes a coherent unit and, at the same time, mutable over time.

“Just as genes spread in a gene pool by jumping from body to body via sperm or egg cells, so memes spread in the meme pool by jumping from brain to brain by a process that, considered in its entirety, broader sense, it can be called imitation.”

Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene.

Genes and memes are, of course, analogous entities, but they are not the same thing at all. Memetic processes are much faster than genetic processes, since genes are transmitted by reproduction, while memes are transmitted by imitation. Memetic processes are inherent in almost all social interactions, especially communication.

Just by thinking about how many people and how many times we interact throughout our life, and compare it with the number of people and times we reproduce, the reason for this difference in speed is obvious.

And for that reason, the phrase «hello, I’m Edu, merry Christmas», the equation E = m × C2, the cavalcade of the Valkyries, by Richard Wagner, the misattributed quotation «and, nevertheless, it moves», the arc of half a point, the idea of god, a clay tablet engraved in cuneiform, the technique used to make a cutting tool are, in all cases, memes . They are cultural units with meaning, which at some point in our history have been transmitted in one way or another through the generations, changing and making our cultures evolve.


Dawkins, R. 2976. The egoistic gene: the biological bases of our behavior .

Sartika, TD 2004. Tracing Cultural Evolution Through Memetics. In Departmental Working Papers (No wpf2004; Departmental Working Papers). Bandung Fe Institute.

Situngkir, H. 2004. On selfish memes: Culture as a complex adaptive system . 13.

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