The Meme-Unit

It is possible that this appearance of non-particulateness is illusory, and that the analogy with genes does not break down. After all, if we look at the inheritance of many genetic characters such as human height or skin-colouring, it does not look like the work of indivisible and unblendable genes. If a black and a white person mate, their children do not come out either black or white: they are intermediate. This does not mean the genes concerned are not particulate. It is just that there are so many of them concerned with skin colour, each one having such a small effect, that they seem to blend. So far I have talked of memes as though it was obvious what a single unit-meme consisted of. But of course it is far from obvious. I have said a tune is one meme, but what about a symphony: how many memes is that? Is each movement one meme, each recognizable phrase of melody, each bar, each chord, or what?

I appeal to the same verbal trick as I used in Chapter 3. There I divided the 'gene complex' into large and small genetic units, and units within units. The 'gene' was defined, not in a rigid all-or-none way, but as a unit of convenience, a length of chromosome with just sufficient copyingfidelity to serve as a viable unit of natural selection. If a single phrase of Beethoven's ninth symphony is sufficiently distinctive and memorable to be abstracted from the context of the whole symphony, and used as the call-sign of a maddeningly intrusive European broadcasting station, then to that extent it deserves to be called one meme. It has, incidentally, materially diminished my capacity to enjoy the original symphony.

Similarly, when we say that all biologists nowadays believe in Darwin's theory, we do not mean that every biologist has, graven in his brain, an identical copy of the exact words of Charles Darwin himself. Each individual has his own way of interpreting Darwin's ideas. He probably learned them not from Darwin's own writings, but from more recent authors. Much of what Darwin said is, in detail, wrong. Darwin if he read this book would scarcely recognize his own original theory in it, though I hope he would like the way I put it. Yet, in spite of all this, there is something, some essence of Darwinism, which is present in the head of every individual who understands the theory. If this were not so, then almost any statement about two people agreeing with each other would be meaningless. An 'idea-meme' might be defined as an entity that is capable of being transmitted from one brain to another. The meme of Darwin's theory is therefore that essential basis of the idea which is held in common by all brains that understand the theory. The differences in the ways that people represent the theory are then, by definition, not part of the meme. If Darwin's theory can be subdivided into components, such that some people believe component A but not component B, while others believe B but not A, then A and B should be regarded as separate memes. If almost everybody who believes in A also believes in B-if the memes are closely 'linked' to use the genetic term-then it is convenient to lump them together as one meme.


Like genes, there is no particulate unit for memes. Sometimes we must look at a whole symphony, sometimes it's just a few notes.

Folksonomies: memetics genes

/art and entertainment/shows and events/classical concert (0.534605)
/science/medicine/genetics (0.456361)
/religion and spirituality/atheism and agnosticism (0.447002)

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Darwin:OperatingSystem (0.853710 (positive:0.589581)), Charles Darwin:Person (0.442281 (neutral:0.000000)), Beethoven:Person (0.253464 (positive:0.890291))

Natural selection (0.957842): dbpedia | freebase
Gene (0.787422): dbpedia | freebase
Charles Darwin (0.777027): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago
Evolution (0.756011): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Lamarckism (0.694693): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Genetics (0.693569): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
Richard Dawkins (0.670902): website | dbpedia | freebase | opencyc | yago | musicBrainz
Biology (0.647601): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc

 The Selfish Gene - First Edition
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Dawkins , Richad (1976), The Selfish Gene - First Edition, Oxford, Retrieved on 2007-01-09