Where do memes come from? - The origin of the meme

F- Yeah
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Nowadays the word ‘meme’ is used for pictures, videos and stories on the Internet that reach great popularity amongst people in a short time span. But originally the term was used for something different, though related to the Internet meme. The word was introduced by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene. But why would there be a need for such a word, and what does it stand for? To understand this, I will give you a small introduction into the philosophy of biology. Specifically: applying Darwinism to social sciences.

Now this may be a weird idea. I realize that many of you may only know Darwinism to be applicable to nature, through the concept of natural selection. However, as you will see, it applies to society as well. This is easily demonstrated by looking at those things that we, humans,do without it giving us any personal gain whatsoever. Take something as simple as a favor. If I were to see you walking down the street with heavy groceries, I may offer you some help. Me helping you would not provide me with any real benefits. On the contrary, it would cost me energy and time, making me less prone to survival. Obviously, me helping someone out won’t instantly render me lifeless, but you get the gist. So why would I help you out? My first answer if someone asks me this would be: because it is the nice thing to do. But we all know nature does not work this way, for if we all did solely those things that are nice to do, we wouldn’t have survived for one month. So what benefits does helping someone out give us then? It seems it gives us no direct profit personally, but it does give us profits on a societal level. Furthermore, it is an investment in the future. Maybe next time I will be walking around with heavy groceries, and you will help me. Investing in the future does not correlate however with the idea of acting upon individual fitness. After all, what guarantee do I have that you will actually help me next time? (For those who are interested in our reasons to nevertheless do these things, I would refer you to an experiment called ‘The Wason selection test’ that shows our built-in ‘cheater detection’ capacity.)


So what does this have to do with Darwinism? Like I argued, helping someone out gives society a profit. One would believe that if this wasn’t beneficial, people would’ve stopped doing it a long time ago. But is has been beneficial, and we have been doing it for ages. Now why would we act like this? Is it possible that our genes make us do it? But then, what would explain for the different ways people all across the world act upon each other? We share our genes with people all across the world, but our societies differ significantly. Furthermore, how do genes translate into behavior? Also, many traits have been shown to be very susceptible to environmental causes, so how could they be caused solely by genes? These questions call out a different view: what if there is a form of Darwinism without genes? It would provide an explanation for the way society seems to have developed as if it were an organism; favoring certain behaviors that may not pay off for the individual immediately, but raise the fitness of society as a whole.

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So there is something called social Darwinism, this still doesn’t tell us anything about the origin of memes. Or does it? In natural Darwinism, there is such a thing as a ‘replicator’, units that transmit the information from individual to individual, namely: genes. Now if there is such a thing as social Darwinism, what would be the replicator? This is where Dawkins introduced his term: the meme. To understand what role a meme plays in social Darwinism, reflect upon this example:

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A few centuries ago people didn’t care for hygiene as much as we do now. However, somewhere along the line, someone decided to go and wash their hands before having dinner. This reduced the chances of this person getting sick, and therefore poses a positive contribution to this individuals fitness. This behavior was then replicated by others, also enhancing their fitness.

In this example the meme would be washing one’s hands. Now, memes can be a lot of things. It can also be negative behavior, like doing drugs, and it can be things like a piece of music that someone whistles, and consequently is stuck inside your head. Memes are how designers learn their fans how to dress, because their fans imitate their ideas on how to dress. Memes aren’t unique for human beings. Birds learn their songs by imitating their parents, the songs being copied and transferred from the brain of the parents to the brain of their offspring.

Now, we mustn’t forget that memes sometimes do need genes. Take language for instance. It has been shown that small children have an innate ability to learn languages. Without this ability children wouldn’t be able to learn a language. As with many things in nature; there is no mutually exclusive situation.

So as you see, memes aren’t simply popular subjects on the internet, although the idea behind internet memes is obviously coherent with the idea of the origin of the word meme. Memes are in fact ideas, social conventions, behaviors and all those things one person can transfer to another without it having a physical form. Memes are what makes it possible for Darwinism to be applied to societies, by fulfilling the role of the replicator.

If you are interested in knowing more about classical memes and (social) Darwinism, I refer you to the book Philosophy of Biologya contemporary introduction by Alex Rosenburg and Daniel W. McShea.

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Comments 26 comments

passthejelly profile image

passthejelly 4 years ago from Lakewood Colorado

Love memes. My favorite one is the one about 3rd world success or something like that. Absolutely outrageous.

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

Personally, I love the 'Y u no' memes. I can definitely fill my day with laughing about internet memes ;)

Sunshine625 profile image

Sunshine625 4 years ago from Orlando, FL

Very interesting, yet I'm clueless. I shared and voted!:)

tillsontitan profile image

tillsontitan 4 years ago from New York

Very interesting and deep. Hmm, are you trying to educate us? Will that become a meme? Voted up and interesting.

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

@Sunshine: Thanks for reading, sharing and voting =)

@Mary (Tillsontitan): I may have secretly tried to educate you, yes ;) Did it work?

AudreyHowitt profile image

AudreyHowitt 4 years ago from California

Such a well written hub and very interesting subject matter. Thank you!

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

Thank you for reading Audrey! I'm glad you liked it.

Cyndi10 profile image

Cyndi10 4 years ago from Georgia

This was very interesting and well written, but I'm afraid I must echo what Sunshine said. But it will prompt me to read more about it. Voted up.

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

Hi Cyndi! I can definitely recommend the book I listed at the end of the hub if you want to read some more. But any book about the philosophy of social Darwinism should cover this subject so if you happen to stumble upon something else; don't hesitate to read it!

ThePracticalMommy profile image

ThePracticalMommy 4 years ago from United States

This is a very interesting analysis of memes. I had no idea it was used as a word before memes became popular on social networks. Voted up and interesting!

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

When I first learned about it I was surprised as well. It makes sense though; internet memes are after all type of meme. Thanks for reading!

Pamela N Red profile image

Pamela N Red 4 years ago from Oklahoma

Interesting. I didn't know this. I've enjoyed a few of these silly pictures, always good for a laugh.

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

I agree, I often find myself looking at memes when I have nothing to do and I'll forget everyting and will just be looking at them for hours!

molometer profile image

molometer 4 years ago

'Nicely done', 'at the end of the day' it 'a done deal' lol

Thought you might 'like' a few memes!

Voted up and interesting.

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

Hello Molometer! I see you definitely understand what original memes are, those are some very good examples indeed!

Alecia Murphy profile image

Alecia Murphy 4 years ago from Wilmington, North Carolina

I didn't know what a meme was but this is definitely interesting. Maybe if I continue to say please and thank you it'll be a meme again. Great hub!

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

I hope saying 'please' and 'thank you' will one day be popular again ;) At least know that I will be helping you on your quest to bring back common courtesy!

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Sebastian Tyrrell 4 years ago

Hi Robin, not quite convinced you've completely caught what Richard Dawkins was trying to say, and the term "Social Darwinism is generally used to refer to a very different (and much darker) concept - see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Social_Darwinism.

Your example about washing hands would not contribute directly memetically (if that is a word) to the survival of a "washing hands" meme, it is telling people (whether children or others) about washing hands that is the meme and their positive experiences with it ensure that they tell others: this transmission (and occasional mutation) of ideas leading to a cultural evolution and development. Meme transmission requires the use of language (using the term very generally - some non-human animals have sufficient "language" to enable the transmission of ideas in this way).

Anyway, thought provoking stuff. Thanks

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

Hey Sebastian! First of all; it's great to see that you definitely know what you're talking about. To react to your notions: I may have not made myself clear enough in this hub. I did say that the word 'meme' was introduced by Dawkins, but my definition of it was based on analysis by filosophers who wanted to broaden Dawkins' idea to explain behaviour that transmits without language. Partially, and perhaps mostly, because of your notion where some non-human animals are still able to transmit behaviors and the question wether or not this would be a meme. (After all; humans are the only animals with a spoken language, so memes would be limited to humans. However, cultural development is apparent in other species as well.) I apologize, I should have made this more clear in my hub and for this I am sorry.

Furthermore, I realize that the term Social Darwinism has been used and abused by many people trying to right their wrongs, using it to justify horrible views. However, Social Darwinism is a scientific concept that, though misused, is still the theory at hand when one wants to explain social structures from a evolutionary view. I don't want to suggest I agree with those who misuse scientific theories for their own twisted ideas, but I also do not want to abandon a term simply because it has been butchered and misinterpreted by people who have done awful things. I suppose this is my idea of not letting them affect something that should be a constant in this world.

P.S. I haven't heard of 'memetically' but I'll be sure to use it after today!

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KDuBarry03 4 years ago

I have always thought about where memes originated, but I never thought it could be so closely linked to Darwinism! Now that I think about it, memes can also be linked to something else: linguistic relativity (or Sapir-Whorf's hypothesis). We have the premise that the understanding of language and our innate ability to learn language(s) is strongly linked to how we interpret memes and ongoing online jokes. Adding to that, depending on the language used, some memes are more popular than others. Would Americans be able to understand Korean memes? It is possible; however, with the lingua franca being English, English memes are generally more popular because a larger array of people can understand them.

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

You make a very good point, I hadn't thought of it that way. Although it seems that some memes are understood globally, but that could also be because the internet makes other cultures (American culture specifically) reachable for everyone. Also, a lot of American culture is transferred to, for instance, Europe through TV and music. I can't imagine people not being influenced by this, so I suppose the popularity of English memes is no surprise.

theclevercat profile image

theclevercat 4 years ago from Massachusetts

Very interesting stuff, and well put together. Great job! Voted up, interesting, and G+.

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

Hi theclevercat!

Thanks for reading! I'm glad you liked it :)

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KDuBarry03 4 years ago

You are correct in your point, Robin. You are right; quite frankly, American memes are so well understood (on the global scale) could possibly be because English is the Lingua Franca in the modern world. You could say that it is a square/rectangle rule going on with the world understanding our jokes, but we cannot understand the world jokes, you know?

Robin Oatley profile image

Robin Oatley 4 years ago Author

It goes to show learning about other cultures can be quite an enrichment. After all, all those other countries made an effort of learning their natives how to speak English and because of that they are able to understand us, whereas we don't understand them at all!

GlstngRosePetals profile image

GlstngRosePetals 4 years ago from Wouldn't You Like To Know

Never knew the origin of this word i always thought it was that sarcatic large lady with crazy make-up fron the Drew Carry Show. :0) Great Hub . Voted up !!!

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