Meme Defined

Harrison Owen owenhh at
Thu Feb 1 14:06:24 PST 2001

At 11:26 AM 2/1/01 -0800, you wrote:
>I like seeing this term "meme" show up on the list.  I first ran across it
>in Art Kleiners book "The Age of The Heretics." He said it is a term
>coined by Geneticist Richard Dawkins, referring to the "Secular
>Millennium" a time when a fervent aspiration of Millenarians emerged in
>the twelfth century and came to be known as the "brethren of the free
>spirit.. And that a meme is a cultural element such as an idea, that
>replicates itself, moving through conversation and media through cultural
>forms of natural selection, acquiring new traits as it evolves.  The Agora
>all over again?

You are right -- meme (pronounced meeme to rhyme with gene) is the
invention of Richard Dawkins in his 1974 book, "The Selfish Gene." Dawkins
tossed it in almost as a throw-away when he started speculating about the
cultural equivalent of genetic transmission. So the proper definition of a
meme is a unit of cultural transmission, which might vary in size from the
first three notes of  a Beethoven Symphony (The 5th?) to the story of
Christianity. I found the notion curious and appealing, if only because it
apparently related to work that I had been doing since the early '60s in
which I had characterized myth and ritual as the DNA of culture. If you are
interested in such arcane esoterica you might check out my last book "The
Power of Spirit." And for an earlier and more scholarly treatment, my first
book, "Spirit: Transformation and Development in Organizations (1987). That
is no longer in print, but I have put the relevant material on the web at in the section marked Papers.

Since 1974, a whole mess of folks have taken up the notion of memes in an
attempt to refine and extend the thought. I find it all very interesting,
but I am not sure what the practical application might be. Personally, I
still like fussing about with myth, ritual -- and of course stories. Which
in the current nomenclature are all memes.


Harrison Owen
7808 River Falls Drive
Potomac, MD 20854 USA
phone 301-469-9269
fax 301-983-9314
Open Space Training
Open Space Institute
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