Friday, January 4, 2008

Here it is, a brief overview of my theory of memetics. Please read, critique, etc. I also have created a collaborative version on Google Docs. If interested, contact me.

Meme Replication and Mutation


A meme is the smallest atomic unit of information that is stored in the mind that can be socially transmitted and reproduced (Heylighen 1998, Moritz 1990). This includes, but is not limited to thoughts, behaviors, emotions, ideas, and beliefs. Since memes are replicators that may or may not successfully replicate, an evolutionary model may be applied. Memes that successfully replicate more will displaces memes that don't. Memes can also mutate, which allows new memes to be created. A model must be used to understand and study meme mutation and replication. The included model is based most heavily on Heylighen's model of meme selection (1998) and Blackmore's work on memes (1999).

A clarification of what a meme is is necessary before the included model is explained. Some information stored in the mind is not memetic. Information that is not capable of social transmission is not a meme. For example. a personal experience is not a meme, since that experience cannot be given to someone else. A description of the experience is a meme, because it is capable of being retold and is not unique to an individual. Also, memes being the smallest atomic unit of information means that a meme is the smallest unit of thought that cannot be subdivided without losing meaning. An example is the first sentence of this paper. The first sentence retains its meaning without the rest of the paragraph, but becomes incoherent if the sentence itself is subdivided. Therefore, it is a meme. The first paragraph is not a meme, since it can be broken down and the component parts retain meaning. It is therefore a memeplex, a conglomeration of memes.


Recall is the first step in meme replication. This is where a meme is recalled from memory and becomes salient to a host. It may be induced by external triggers or other memes becoming salient. When a meme becomes salient, it can either be expressed, transmitted, it can interact with other memes, or any combination of the three.

Expression and Transmission

Expression is the process of acting upon a salient meme. This usually happens because the meme itself is an action. For example, if a person recalls a familiar tune, they may hum along as an expression of that meme.

Transmission is the process of a meme being explicitly passed on by means other than directly acting upon it. This is more common for memes that are not actions, but more abstract things like ideas, beliefs, or emotions. Transmitted memes can be packaged in a meme vehicle, which is any non-imitative substrate that can store the meme. These can include text, video, audio, pictures, or any other way that memes can be stored outside minds. An example of how memes are transmitted is this paper. The paper itself, be it in printed, electronic, or whatever other form it is presented in, is a meme vehicle for the memes the paper contains. Since memes about memes are especially abstract, there is no way of acting to express these memes, so transmission is necessary.

Exposure and Assimilation

Exposure is when a meme that is being either expressed or transmitted is exposed to a potential host or hosts. A person watching a dance is exposed to an expressed meme, while a person hearing a description of the same dance is being exposed to a transmitted meme.

Assimilation is the process of a meme being introduced into the mind. This occurs when meme exposure causes the meme to become salient to the new host. To clarify the distinction, a person who walks by a sign is exposed to the meme the sign contains. When that person reads the sign, they have assimilated the meme.


A meme is processed by the mind after it has been assimilated by the new host. This would include comprehension and interacting with memetic and non-memetic information already present in the host. A person who is reading a book processes information immediately after reading it, where it is put in the context of the memes and other information which is in that person's mind.


Retention is a meme being held in short-term memory before being either stored in long-term memory or discarded. A person who is given a phone number will remember it for a short time without making an effort to. It can either be forgotten quickly or stored.


Storage is the process of a meme being transferred to long-term memory. Any piece of information that can be recalled over a long period of time has been stored. Memorized poems and songs are common examples.


A meme mutation is whenever a meme changes in any way. Mutations can occur almost anywhere in meme replication and vary widely in nature. The most common mutations that occur during replication manifest either in assimilation or replication.

Mutations during assimilation can either be caused by incorrect information received, such as misunderstanding a word, or can be caused by adding or deleting information, such as a word being lost due to noise. Mistakes in expression or transmission would also manifest as mutations during assimilation. Someone singing the wrong words in a song would be assimilated as a mutated meme in a new host.

Mutations during replication occur due to misunderstanding information on a cognitive level. For example. a person who is listening to a story may perceive a part of it as more relevant than it actually is, causing a different version of the story to be stored in their mind. Stored memes can also influence other memes in a mind. When multiple memes become salient, they can be altered radically.

Mutations can either have positive or negative effects on their effectiveness. Mutations can affect fidelity, which is resistance to mutation over time and replication, fecundity, which is the ability to reproduce, or longevity, the ability to remain in a host over time. These are the factors that affect meme viability.

External Factors

Other factors affect all aspects of meme replication and mutation. These factors can be categorized as either environmental, physiological, phenomenological, or memetic. They can inhibit or promote replication or mutation, or change the nature of mutations in memes.

Environmental factors include anything ranging from heat or noise levels to the layout and composition of an area. Physiological include any brain damage, hormone levels, infections, or drugs that are currently inside the body. Phenomenological factors are any pieces of information inside a mind that cannot replicate, such as spiritual experiences or other personal experiences. Memetic factors are the effects of other memes.

Memeplexes and Other Interactions

Memes often interact with other memes in elaborate ways. A memeplex is a group of interdependent memes that replicate as a group. Many memes exist within memeplexes, presumably because it offers a competitive advantage in reproduction or resistance to detrimental mutation. Functionally, a memeplex can often be treated as a meme in terms of behavior.

Sometimes the association between memes is not quite as strong. Some memes may only be complementary, which means they strongly promote the replication of the memes they compliment. Other inhibitory memes may strongly prevent other memes from replicating,


This model has several major implications. The most successful memes are expressed and transmitted most often over time, and can be successfully assimilated and retained without significant mutation. Also, this implies that the rate of meme mutation is directly proportional to number of times it has replicated. The more memes replicates, the more mutations will be introduced. Finally, how often a meme is recalled controls how much a meme replicates and mutates. Neither replication nor mutation can occur until a meme is recalled from memory.


This model for meme replication and mutation can furnish a basis for researching memes and memeplexes, either in the wild or under laboratory conditions. The initial research would be to verify the validity of this model, and modifying it if necessary. Isolating small portions of the model, such as exposure or recall, would be the most accurate way to verify its usefulness.

After verification, using this model to map mutations and replication patterns of memes may allow for some prediction in meme replication and mutation. This may also allow for creating and modifying memes to have certain characteristics.


Blackmore, Susan (1999). The Meme Machine. New York: Oxford University Press.

Heylighen, F. (1998). What makes a meme successful? Selection Criteria for Cultural Evolution. Proc. 16th Int. Congress on Cybernetics, Association Internat. de Cybern├ętique, Namur.

Moritz E. (1990). "Memetic Science: I - General Introduction", Journal of Ideas 1, p. 1-23