TD02 – Dawkins on Memes

Former Oxford Professor, Richard Dawkins, is well known for his witty and elegant explanations of how Darwin’s Theory works in genetic detail. It’s all about replicator power!

Fitness survives!

In Dawkin’s acclaimed book on Darwin’s Theory, The Selfish Gene, he showed how fitness survives not only in biology but wherever we can find replicators at work.

As another example he coined the word meme as a unit of culture which gets passed on from person to person. A meme is a replicator like a gene. Successful genes replicate from DNA to DNA and successful memes replicate from brain to brain via word-of-mouth (WOM).

(An internet usage of the word meme has mutated to refer to pics of cats and other catchy but unimportant things to spread around to pass away idle time).

“Memes can be good ideas, good tunes, good poems, as well as drivelling mantras.” says Richard Dawkins in Unweaving the Rainbow. “Anything that spreads by imitation, as genes spread by bodily reproduction or by viral infection, is a meme … As with genes, we can expect the world to become filled with memes that are good at the art of getting themselves copied from brain to brain … It is enough that memes vary in their infectivity for darwinian selection to get going … We may think this spreading for the sake of spreading rather futile, but nature is not interested in our judgements, of futility or anything else. If a piece of code has what it takes, it spreads and that’s that … In Climbing Mount Improbable I explained that an elephant’s DNA and a virus are both ‘Copy Me’ programmes. The difference is that one of them has an almost fantastically large digression: ‘Copy me by building an elephant first’. But both kinds of programmes spread because, in their different ways, they are good at spreading.

The meme is a very useful tool for understanding how WOM in marketing works because it allows us to harness much of the power of Darwin’s Theory. Today, memetics is one of the fastest growing ideas in science. Memetics allows us to understand not only how people get ideas but, more importantly, how ideas acquire people or how minds become memed.

NOTE: Just a note on repetition. As you’ll see, repetition is a very powerful tool when we’re establishing new brain patterns. For example, you’ll notice repetition in this training course and the main point is that it is deliberately put there for your benefit. It’s to help your brain acquire these ideas more easily, or, to put it another way, to help these ideas acquire your brain more easily. The most important memes are the ones that are invested with the most repetition.

Susan Blackmore in her enlightening book The Meme Machine explains, “We do copy each other all the time and we underestimate what is involved because imitation comes so easily to us. When we copy each other, something, however intangible, is passed on. That something is the meme. And taking a meme’s eye view is the foundation of memetics.”


— Click through here to Susan’s delightful TED talk

In marketing, nothing is more important than taking the meme’s eye-view because nothing is more important than WOM.

WOM is the meme that gets itself passed on from one customer to another. Or, a meme is the WOM that allows one customer’s brain to become ‘infected’ by another brain.

Memes reside in the brain (like genes reside in DNA) and how they get from one brain to another is what memetics is all about. Only the fittest memes survive.

Think of the marketplace as the meme pool. There are vastly more memes than there are brains to shelter them.

Which ones will survive? Why? Which ones will fail? Why?


DFQ TD02 Feedback Question:

What is a meme?

Give an example of a meme that has been good at getting inside and surviving in your brain …

281 thoughts on “TD02 – Dawkins on Memes

  1. My kids joined a cycling club and started racing bikes, now I have joined the same club and also started racing bikes.

  2. An interesting concept that I’ve never given thought to before, but so profound and thought provoking. I’ve had an interest in marketing and always give thought to what methods are used to push peoples buttons, another awakening moment coming on… Memes, PTO, WOM… all intertwining.

  3. X10…got into my brain nearly 30 years ago…when I was introduced to CVS2BVS…I have only recently realized how much of an impact it has had. Letting go of limiting beliefs and reassessing values seems easy to me when I compare my doing this to the way colleagues seem to strain and stress with theirs. Working thru the ATLT course has given me more practice to do and whilst the exercises naturally challenge me I find it at the same time simple. Lovely really….

  4. A meme is like a thought virus. A pattern that gets accepted as factual. Such as “common knowledge”

    One meme that I have found to be good at getting inside of me is the notion that a higher price tag means greater quality.

  5. An aspect of what is loosely defined as culture, tangible or intangible, that is passed from one person to another.
    Organic produce, especially locally grown, is far superior to all other produce.

  6. Meme started in 1970s from the Greek mimema — an idea that is imitated on the pattern of genes — not genetically but rather personally.
    A meme that has helped me and those with whom I have shared it is: “grace plus humility equals harmony.”

  7. Any thing that can survive by imitating another and continue to replicate.

    WOM is the oldest and the most power medium of meme that survived since the beginning of man kind. I was influenced by WOM that if we continue to improve a product or process, we will continue to raise to a higher level of competency and practice.

  8. A meme is a unit of culture which gets passed on from person to person.

    A meme that has been good at getting inside and surviving in my brain is a current “look” in design. For instance for a while there, sleeves with interesting details were everywhere; now it’s maxi dresses,say,We know for sure what is NOT the current look ( albeit not available to purchase!). Sometimes I see a design look that I like, but is not a meme – it’s a once off, is not replicated and fizzles ( Anyone remember Beta videos?) In a way memes make the zeitgeist!

  9. Anything that replicates from one human to another through either imitation or deliberate communication via any medium such as WOM.

    A good recent example for myself would be the CVS to BVS switch.

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