January 17, 2020

Inventions are memes

Richard Dawkins, in The Selfish Gene, referred to cultural norms that get imitated and spread as memes.”1

Cultural memes - such as how we gather for Thanksgiving, the Happy Birthday song, how we drink and greet each other and mourn together - are similar to our biological genes: the successful ones survive generation after generation, even if they slowly change.

Last night when I was driving up snow-covered Highway 50 in a row of other cars with our engines humming, I thought about how not a minute goes by that a combustion engine isn’t running somewhere in the world. They’re always going. And this has been true every single minute of every single day for about 140 years.2

Successful inventions are memes. Their concepts succeed and spread.

The behavior of memes isn’t limited to only cultural and biological realms, but also to academic and mechanical realms. And how many other realms?

  1. We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. Mimeme’ comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like gene’. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. If it is any consolation, it could alternatively be thought of as being related to memory’, or to the French word même. It should be pronounced to rhyme with cream’.” -Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene

  2. The internal combustion engine was invented in 1876.

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