Entry updated 12 November 2021. Tagged: Theme.
Term coined by the biologist Richard Dawkins (1941- ) in The Selfish Gene (1976), denoting "a unit of cultural transmission", a pattern of information which – analogous to the gene in Biology – tends to propagate itself. The general concept had previously been discussed by the biologist Jacques Monod (1910-1976) in Chance and Necessity: An Essay on the Natural Philosophy of Modern Biology (1971), and may in fact be traced indirectly back to Die Mneme (1908; trans as The Mneme 1921) by Richard Semon (1859-1918), where memory traces are seem working through time as patterns of information, which the author calls "engrams" (see Dianetics; Memory Edit); Dick Semon was an evolutionary biologist. A crude example is a chain letter claiming that desirable consequences will follow, or unpleasant ones will be averted, if only the message is copied to others. Sf and fantasy treatments generally amplify this propagational tendency into a compulsion, perhaps irresistible, which is experienced by the meme-infected mind.
Approximations of this notion existed long before the word was coined, most typically taking the form of some unnaturally compulsive tune or jingle (see Music). Examples of such aural memes appear in "Die heilige Cäcilie" (15-17 November 1810 Berliner Abendblätter; trans variously as "Saint Cecilia or the Power of Music", etc) by Heinrich von Kleist (1777-1811); in Mark Twain's "A Literary Nightmare" (February 1876 The Atlantic Monthly; vt "Punch, Brothers, Punch" 1878), though the verse itself is not by Twain but was written in 1874 by Isaac H Bromley; in Rudyard Kipling's borderline-fantastic "The Village That Voted the Earth Was Flat" (in A Diversity of Creatures, coll 1913), which concludes with the UK House of Commons helplessly in the grip of its memetic music-hall song; in Henry Kuttner's "Nothing but Gingerbread Left" (January 1943 Astounding), where the Allies create an unforgettable German-language ditty which cripples the Nazi war effort (see World War Two); and in Fritz Leiber's "Rump-Titty-Titty-Tum-TAH-Tee" (May 1958 F&SF), which also features a visual equivalent of the title's addictive musical phrase. An unforgettably, hauntingly banal song is ingeniously deployed as an anti-Telepathy shield in The Demolished Man (January-March 1952 Galaxy; 1953) by Alfred Bester.
Jorge Luis Borges's Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius (May 1940 Sur; trans James E Irby 1983 chap) treats its invented world Tlön as an engulfing meme which can invade and displace consensus reality. More often, complex sf memes behave like mind viruses or trojan programs (see Basilisks). In Damon Knight's "Definition" (February 1953 Startling Stories) an Alien creed or ethical code has such irresistible logical force that any hearer is immediately converted to an ardent proselyte unless protected by comprehension-inhibiting Drugs. Alan Moore's short Comics story "Eureka" (July 1983 2000 AD) introduces another infectious alien meme taking the form of a philosophical proposition about Time. The "War of the Memes" in John Barnes's loose sequence The Century Next Door ends with much of humanity absorbed into the more or less benign Hive Mind called One True, whose human components are said to be "running" the mind-meme known as Resuna. Fearing such invasiveness, worried Posthumans in Greg Egan's Diaspora (1997) are quick to destroy an ancient artefact imprinted with parasitic cultural memes: this appears to be a Coke can. [DRL]
- Richard Dawkins. The Selfish Gene (Oxford, Oxfordshire: Oxford University Press, 1976) [nonfiction: hb/Desmond Morris]
- Douglas Hofstadter. "On Viral Sentences and Self-Replicating Structures" in Metamagical Themas: Questing for the Essence of Mind and Pattern (New York: Basic Books, 1985) [nonfiction: coll: essay first published January 1983 Scientific American: hb/Douglas Hofstadter]
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