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Definition

meme

A meme is an idea that is passed on from one human generation to another. It's the cultural equivalent of a gene, the basic element of biological inheritance. The term was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. Dawkins speculated that human beings have an adaptive mechanism that other species don't have. In addition to genetic inheritance with its possibilities and limitations, humans, said Dawkins, can pass their ideas from one generation to the next, allowing them to surmount challenges more flexibly and more quickly than through the longer process of genetic adaptation and selection.

Examples of memes might include the idea of God; the importance of the individual as opposed to group importance; the belief that the environment can to some extent be controlled; or that technologies can create an electronically interconnected world community.

Today, the word is sometimes used to describe ideas deemed to be of passing value. Dawkins himself described such short-lived ideas as memes that would have a short life in the meme pool. Meme is an abbreviated form of the Greek word "mimeme," which means "something imitated."

This was last updated in May 2008

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