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The meme (neuter; plural: meme , from ancient Greek μίμημα mīmēma , "imitated things", to ancient Greek μιμεῖσθαι mimeisthai , "imitate") is the subject of meme theory and describes a single content of consciousness , for example a thought. It can carry communication forwarded, copied it and so socioculturally be perpetuated in a similar way as genes on biological heritable way. Accordingly, memes are subject to a socio-cultural evolution that can largely be described using the same theories. In the same way, changes are possible when it is passed on - for example due to misunderstandings or differing views - whereby (external) environmental influences can intensify or suppress further dissemination. According to the scientist Mihály Csíkszentmihályi , a meme is created “when the human nervous system reacts to an experience”.

In various specialist sciences (especially psychology , social sciences , cultural sciences ), meme theory , as far as it is taken into account, is subjected to harsh criticism. On the one hand, the terms (replicator, unit of selection, etc.) are defined too vaguely to be empirically confirmed or refuted, on the other hand, meme theory simply ignores the results of psychological and social science research. Another contributing factor to the controversy of meme theory is that the knowledge gained by the theory is unclear.

Since the turn of the millennium, the term has also been used - often in its English spelling, meme - for Internet phenomena that spread “virally” on social media .

Etymology and terminology

The word meme is an artificial word . It is etymologically based on the English word gene and has several other references:

  • to the Greek μιμεῖσθαι mimeisthai (imitate) and μῖμος mimos (mime, actor)
  • to the French même (same)
  • to the Latin memor (mindful, remembering)
  • to the English mime (mimes) and memory (memory, memory)

The English name meme was introduced in 1976 by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins ; he named as examples: " Ideas , convictions , behavioral patterns ". With this cultural counterpart to the biological gene ( English gene ) he illustrated the principle of natural selection , the basic unit of which is replicators of information. He described the term meme as a self-chosen made-up word that refers to the Greek term μίμημα, mimema ("something copied").

The principle of information transfer derived from this is called memetics . The meme is reflected in the meme template (in the brain or another storage medium ) and the meme execution (for example communication : a score (memotype) is used to make music reproducible. The music that actually sounds in the concert hall is accordingly the so-called phenotype) . For the terms meme template and meme execution , in analogy to the pair of terms genotype and phenotype from genetics , the terms memotype and phenotype are often used. The networking of each conditional memes Dawkins was first as "koadaptiver Mem complex" ( coadapted meme complex called), which later became portmanteau Memplex was contracted.

History of theory

Dawkins took up the 1975 expressed theses of the US by his own admission anthropologist F. Ted Cloak Jr. (born 1931) about the existence of corpuscles of Culture , of Kulturkörperchen on neuronal back level, as the basis of cultural evolution. Dawkins does not differentiate whether information is on a section of DNA, stored as a thought in the brain, printed as a sentence in a book, or as a spoken word moves from person to person. According to Dawkins, information multiplies, regardless of whether as a gene through cell division and the associated replication of the DNA strand or through communication in the meme. The transmission of the meme through communication is not a copy ("blueprint") of a thought in the brain Understanding the brain, but rather - by capturing and passing on the essential core of the message - more like a "baking recipe" to reproduce the same thought. Descriptive models of thought memes are therefore subject to very similar laws to those of evolution in biology. In this context, Dawkins speaks of "universal Darwinism".

As a replicator of cultural evolution, memes have a limited analogy with other replicators. In addition to genes, Dawkins also mentions viruses , computer viruses and prions . In analogy, processes of cultural replication - as in the theory of evolution - are also explained with variation and selection . Correspondingly, the imperfect replication leads to different reproductive success of different replicators. As with other replicators, collective autocatalytic associations of memes are formed.

The philosopher Daniel Dennett supported the concept of memetics in his work Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life . The cultural ethology formulated by Otto Koenig in 1970 can be described as an independent but spiritually related theory . She also deals with the evolution of culture, but does not use the meme construct for this, but works purely descriptively .

From 1997 to 2005 there was a regular Journal of Memetics . The three-month magazine Memetic Computing has existed since 2009 .


Natural sciences

Partial aspects of the evolution of the bird dialects can be explained by the meme hypothesis . According to the considerations of symbiosism, language is to be understood as analogous to a 'biological organism', more precisely as a mutualistic symbiont whose carrier is the human brain . Language conveyed memes, the smallest replicable elements of extra- genetic information, and is therefore of great importance in the history of human development .

Various attempts are also made to shed light on complex social phenomena such as language change or the spread of various missionary religions and cults with approaches from memetics . In addition, the proponents of this hypothesis show co-evolutionary correspondences between genetic and “memetic” evolution (brain development).


To illustrate the concept, Dawkins calls the monotheistic fixation on “one” God a successful cultural replicator (measured e.g. by his dissemination). B. the belief in the effect of rain dances could not gain global acceptance, at some point even fell victim to cultural selection and now leads a niche existence. The meme "only one god" can be seen as part of an extraordinarily large association of mutually supportive memes and the respective religion as a memplex. This idea is taken up by the novelist Wolfgang Jeschke in his book Dschiheads , published in 2013 , in which he looks from the future to the present and its religious conflicts, especially around militant Islamism .


According to Susan Blackmore , the essence of every memplex is that memes replicate internally as part of the group rather than on their own. As an example of a memplex , she cites the chain letter , which typically contains the following ideas:

  • any untrue or meaningless information,
  • alleged evidence of the seriousness of the information source,
  • the claim that the information is important to the recipient,
  • the assertion that the information is important for other people,
  • the request to forward the letter to these persons.

On its own, each of these memes would have a relatively poor chance of spreading within a society. As a group, however, they are often able to convince a certain number of people of the importance of their dissemination.

Writing and language

According to Blackmore (1999), writing is , in cultural history, a useful step in increasing the 'lifespan' of the spoken word. Writing is the first step in creating a more durable language transmission.


Analogy to the evolution mechanism

With its analogous application of the evolutionary mechanism to mental and cultural processes, meme theory assumes that memes are discrete units that can be clearly distinguished from other memes in a manner comparable to genes; otherwise the unit of selection could not be determined. But this is denied by cultural scientists and psychologists. Furthermore, Dawkins' model of cultural evolution requires a relatively high level of copying accuracy, which only leads to mutations in exceptional cases due to errors and inaccuracies. There is no other way of explaining the high constancy of cultural representations from meme theory. The appropriation of cultural representations by individuals only takes place in rare borderline cases without a transformation. An empirical study by Scott Atran has shown that normal students grasp the metaphorical meaning when reproducing proverbs, for example, and reproduce them analogously, whereas autistic people refer only to the literal meaning and are most likely to "copy" linguistic utterances. Because of this weak scientific foundation, among other things, meme theory has so far not been able to establish itself in the social sciences, but has been widely received by the public. In addition, the gene theory of Dawkins on which the meme theory is based is rejected in evolutionary biology .

Gaining knowledge and empirical foundation

It is unclear which knowledge gain could result from the borrowings of the meme concept in the biological evolution theory for research in the humanities, social and cultural sciences. In the opinion of the psychologist Gustav Jahoda (1920–2016), the convincing elements of the meme theory popularized by Susan Blackmore, among others, were known as early as the 19th century, but the newer elements are "speculative and highly questionable". If the meme hypothesis claims to analyze social and cultural developments in a way that corresponds to the scientific understanding of reality, then memetics must show that it can come to different, more far-reaching and more reliable statements than the social, Conventional cultural and human sciences. If, on the other hand, mem is a naturalizing word creation for ideas or thoughts, then Occam's razor must be used: entities should not be unnecessarily multiplied.

In contrast to the dispute over the biological theory of evolution, critics of meme theory can point out that, unlike genes, there is no empirical evidence for the existence of memes and their replication mechanisms. Even those who consider meme theory to be plausible must therefore ask for empirical evidence .

It was also criticized that memetics is not in harmony with a materialistic ontology : “The supporters of memetics expect their approach to be a selection-theoretical explanation of the transmission and spread of ideas. However, on the one hand, memetics is conceptually so unclear that it borders on senselessness, on the other hand, it practically ignores all psychological and sociological research on human communication (...). Idealistic fantasies are not made more acceptable by the fact that they come along in an evolutionary-biological guise. "

See also


  • Scott Atran: The Trouble with Memes. In: Human Nature. 12, 4 (2001), p. 351 ff.
  • Robert Aunger: The Electric Meme. A New Theory of How We Think. Free Press, New York, NY 2002, ISBN 0-7432-0150-7 .
  • Antoinette Becker, C. Mehr, HH Nanu, G. Reuter, D. Stegmüller (Eds.): Genes, memes and brains. Mind and Society as Nature. A debate. Suhrkamp-Taschenbuch Wissenschaft, Volume 1643, Frankfurt am Main 2003, ISBN 978-3-518-29243-3 .
  • Susan Blackmore : The Power of Memes, or the Evolution of Culture and Mind. Discussed by R. Schäfer in: Skeptiker. 1/2004, pp. 33-34.
  • Rolf Breitenstein : Memetics and Economics. How the memes determine markets and organizations. LIT, Münster 2000, ISBN 3-8258-6246-1 (Download as PDF, 213 p. 1.5 MB).
  • Richard Brodie: Virus of the Mind. Integral Press, Seattle 1996; ISBN 0-9636001-1-7 .
  • Mihály Csíkszentmihályi : Giving the meaning of life a future. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 2000, ISBN 3-608-91018-2 .
  • Richard Dawkins : The Selfish Gene . Revised and exp. Edition. Rowohlt, Reinbek near Hamburg 1998, ISBN 978-3-499-19609-6 .
  • Olaf Dilling: Hypochondriac of the mind. Critical Notes on Richard Dawkins Theory of Cultural Evolution. Marburger Forum, issue 2008/3, .
  • Maria Kronfeldner: Darwinian Creativity and Memetics. Acumen, Durham 2011, ISBN 1-84465-256-4 .
  • Aaron Lynch: Thought contagion. Basic Books, New York 1996, ISBN 0-465-08466-4 .
  • Andreas Osterroth: The Internet meme as speech-image-text. IMAGE, issue 22, July 2015, pp. 26–48 [1]
  • James W. Polichak: What are memes for? A critique of memetic approaches to understanding information processing. In: Skeptics. 1/2004, pp. 4-12.
  • Limor Shifman, Yasemin Dincer: Meme: Art, Culture and Politics in the Digital Age. Frankfurt a. M .: Suhrkamp, ​​2014. ISBN 3-518-12681-4 .

Web links

Individual evidence

  1. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Giving the meaning of life a future. Klett-Cotta, Stuttgart 1995, p. 164.
  2. a b Mario Bunge , Martin Mahner : About the nature of things. Materialism and science . Stuttgart (Hirzel), 2004, p. 126.
  3. ^ Manuela Lenzen: Theories of Evolution in the Natural and Social Sciences , Campus Verlag, 2003, ISBN 3-593-40050-2 , p. 118.
  4. Richard Dawkins: Meme, The New Replicators. In: The selfish gene . (Original: The Selfish Gene. Oxford University Press, 1976). Anniversary edition 2007, pp. 316–334. ISBN 3-499-19609-3 .
  5. Susan Blackmore : The Power of Memes. Heidelberg, Berlin: Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 2000, ISBN 3-8274-1601-9 .
  6. What is memetics? , Introduction of the University of Münster
  7. HC Speel: Memetics: On a conceptual farmework for cultural evolution. Symposium “Einstein meets Magritte”. Brussels, Free University, 1995
  8. HC Speel: Why memes are also Interactors ( Memento from May 16, 2012 in the Internet Archive ) 15th International Congress on Cybernetics - Namur (Belgium) 1998
  9. Richard Dawkins: Meme, The New Replicators. In: The selfish gene . Anniversary edition 2007, p. 326. ISBN 3-499-19609-3 .
  10. ^ Richard Dawkins: Foreword. In: Susan Blackmore: The Power of Memes. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg, Berlin 2000. pp. 20–21.
  11. Stuart Kauffman: The oil drop in the water. Munich 1996, p. 463.
  12. ^ Daniel C. Dennett: Darwin's Dangerous Idea: Evolution and the Meanings of Life. New York (Simon & Schuster), 1995 ( Darwin's dangerous legacy. )
  13. website of the Journal of Memetics, old
  14. website of the Journal of Memetics, new
  15. Memetic Computing website
  16. Susan Blackmore: Die Macht der Meme , Heidelberg, Berlin: Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 2000, p. 52.
  17. Susan Blackmore: Die Macht der Meme , Heidelberg, Berlin: Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, 2000, pp. 50-51.
  18. Susan Blackmore: The Power of Memes. Spektrum Akademischer Verlag, Heidelberg / Berlin 2000, ISBN 3-8274-1002-9 , p. 326
  19. ^ M. Bloch: A well-disposed social anthropologist's problems with memes. In: Essays on cultural transmission. Oxford: Berg, 2005, pp. 87 ff.
  20. ^ S. Atran: The trouble with memes. Inference versus imitation in cultural creation. In: Human Nature. Volume 12, No. 4, 2001, p. 351 ff.
  21. David Mihola: We are all born with native minds. Contributions of cognitive anthropology to cognitive science using the example of "folk biology". Diploma thesis, University of Vienna, 2008, p. 16 ( PDF).
  22. Cf. Dan Sperber : Why a deep understanding of cultural evolution is incompatible with shallow psychology. In: N. Enfield & S. Levinson (eds.), Roots of human sociality , Oxford: Berg, 2006, p. 431 ff.
  23. ^ Scott Atran: The trouble with memes. Inference versus imitation in cultural creation. In: Human Nature. Volume 12, No. 4, 2001, p. 351 ff.
  24. Dirk Richter: The failure of the biologization of sociology - On the status of the discussion about sociobiology and other evolutionary theoretical approaches. In: KZfSS Cologne journal for sociology and social psychology. Volume 57, No. 3, September 2005, p. 523 ff.
  25. So by Ernst Mayr and Lynn Margulis . See Joachim Bauer : Principle of humanity. Why we cooperate naturally. Munich 2008, pp. 140–149, 152, 155
  26. G. Jahoda: The Ghosts in the Meme Machine. In: History of the Human Sciences. Volume 15, No. 2, 2002, pp. 55-68.
  27. D. Sperber: An Objection to the Memetic Approach to Culture. In: Augner (Ed.): Darwinizing Culture: The Status of Memetics as a Science. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2000, pp. 163, 173.
  28. Joseph Poulshock (2002): The Problem and Potential of Memetics. In: Journal of Psychology and Theology. “Memetics is rife with conceptual problems and utterly lacking in empirical support”.