Mindworks’ Weblog

Thinking Matters

Infectious ideas

Posted by Andrew Cooper on July 18, 2008

Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ when he was writing the book that first brought him to public attention.

Another replicator

Another replicator

He was looking for an example of something which had the same properties as DNA – the abiliity to replicate, mutate and be selected – and ideas are just like that.  He started a very controversial debate which has rumbled on in academic circles ever since.  On holiday in Italy once I read Sue Blackmore’s The Meme Machine – which like all the other books I’ve mentioned on this blog is available as one of the prizes in the Brainies Awards.

In the Meme Machine, Blackmore argues that memes could explain not only why our big brains came to be that way but that memes could also be responsible for the phenomenon of consciousness – the ‘hard problem‘ that psychologists, neuroscientists, philosophers and others have yet to solve.

One of the reasons that meme theory is controversial is that it is difficult to pin down exactly what a meme is.  Anthing from a song to the idea to my nuclear powered teapot concept can be a meme.  But the notion that ideas replicate, mutate and are selected from a vast pool of other ideas is, to my mind, incontrovertible.

Here’s Susan Blackmore talking about memes at the annual TED conference.  The TED website is well worth exploring – its tag line is ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’.

As you’ll see, she has coined a meme of her own: ‘teme’ – an idea which spreads itself by means of technology.  Nice meme, Susan.


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