Naga women from the Patkoi hills, Assam


Passing cultural information from person to person

In ‘The Selfish Gene’, Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ to describe cultural information that could be transmitted from person to person. Just as genes contain biological information in neat packages, so memes are units of cultural information passed between people.

These operate in a similar way to genes but exist in a world of ideas rather than molecules. Examples might include superstitions (black cats are lucky/unlucky) or cultural beliefs (sacred animals). Jingles, jokes or catchphrases could be considered memes. A provocative suggestion is that religious belief is a meme.

Since the invention of social media, memes have come to include images, videos, hashtags and other virtual constructs that spread rapidly through the internet. Commercial and other organisations attempt to exploit this concept to promote their products or ideas – viral marketing. Dawkins himself likened memes to viruses, so the idea of internet memes spreading virally is consistent with the meme concept.

Although the meme concept has its enthusiastic supporters, it also has its detractors. It might have some descriptive value, but it is not clear whether it’s a useful scientific theory.

Lead image:

collection of old photos/Flickr CC BY NC


About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Evolution’ in January 2007 and reviewed and updated in December 2014.

Microbiology, Ecology and environment
Education levels:
16–19, Continuing professional development