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Memes vs. Ideas

One criticism of memetics I used to see fairly often is that memes are just ideas, and memetics is just a bunch of obvious statements wrapped up in unfamiliar language. As I said in What Would Memetics Look Like?, I more or less agree with the second point, but I don't agree with the first. I think the word “meme” is a useful one, and now I want to explain why.

I already gave a short answer, in Feedback.

It's like the argument one often hears about memes, that if a meme is just an idea, what's the point of making a new word for it? In both cases, I'd say the point is to remind us of an analogy—ideas are like genes, financial entities (and other things) are like organisms—and thereby suggest interesting new ways of thinking about things.

Here's a slightly longer answer. Ideas are like genes in two significant ways: first, they propagate; second, they survive if they propagate well, regardless of whether they're beneficial to their hosts.

The same answer shows up in the dictionary entry I wrote.

For me, the word “meme” is basically a synonym for “idea”, but with emphasis on the fact that ideas are transmitted from person to person.


Memes, like genes, are selfish—they exist and propagate not for our benefit, but for their own.

By the way, I made a mistake in the dictionary entry: a synonym is a word that's similar, not identical, in meaning, so “meme” is a synonym for “idea”. (Are any two words identical in meaning? I don't think so.)

In a hierarchical language, a meme would be a memetics.idea, except for a slight chicken-and-egg problem.


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@ August (2003)