“Meme”

From a German zoologist to internet burns, Dominic Green charts the history of the word meme

Dr Green's Dictionary

This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.


A meme is an image or text that spreads virally among internet users. All art, Aristotle wrote, is mimesis, imitation, from mimos, “actor”. The word meme comes from the same source, via the Greek muse of memory, Mneme. So the meme is to thought as the mime is to action. But is the relationship literal or metaphorical?

The first modern meme-maker was the Twitter personality Richard Dawkins. In The Selfish Gene (1976), Dawkins proposed that memes were to cultural evolution as genes are to genetic evolution: self-replicating chunks of imaginative DNA, recombining and competing for intellectual survival.

The idea was not new. German evolutionary theory, preferring Romanticism to English materialism, had always argued along these lines. In 1904, the German zoologist Richard Semon proposed a theory of organic memory, The Mneme, in which memory is encoded in the body. 

German Romantic philosophers believed that society and the body politic ran on the same lines: hereditary memory, collective memory. Our scientists almost unanimously discount these theories, with occasional Jungian outliers like Richard Sheldrake. The public believes in them regardless. We are the weavers of memes.

When Dawkins moved the meme from the individual’s tissues to the body of society, he diluted the question of origins by diffusing it as a metaphor. Like genes, internet memes survive by replication. The spreaders of digital memes imitate each other.

The memes purport to imitate reality. But do they shape it in the way of genetic expression? Or do their expressions imitate only the conventions of our digital theatre, the echo chamber?

Aristotle had his doubts about theatrical mimesis. It looked real because it was highly selective, but it also seemed real despite the evidence of its selections. In which case, memes might replicate not by natural selection, but in the way that Darwin identified in animal husbandry: unnatural selection, where selection is for immediate social value, not long-term species survival.

You can take charge of your memetic posterity by using an online meme generator. This control of the memes of production allows you to caption your choice of image. Most memes are deployed to bond an in-group through humour. 

In June, Esquire ran a “Best Memes of This Cursed Year 2020”, with the emphasis on “funny and demented” memes. But the humour, and the memes themselves, are often designed for calling out ideological rivals.

When rivalry escalates into a meme war, the combatants launch salvoes of images and captions at each other. Likes and retweets are awarded to especially sick burns. If you find yourself in a meme war, remember: no punching down when you’re dunking on your enemies. And go easy on the tropes.

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