"A meme (pronounced /miːm/) comprises a unit or element of cultural ideas, symbols or practices; such units or elements transmit from one mind to another through speech, gestures, rituals, or other imitable phenomena. The etymology of the term relates to the Greek word mimema for mimic. Memes act as cultural analogues to genes in that they self-replicate and respond to selective pressures.
Richard Dawkins coined the word "meme" as a neologism in his book The Selfish Gene (1976) to describe how one might extend evolutionary principles to explain the spread of ideas and cultural phenomena. He gave as examples melodies, catch-phrases, and beliefs (notably religious belief), clothing/fashion, and the technology of building arches.
Meme-theorists contend that memes evolve by natural selection (in a manner similar to that of biological evolution) through the processes of variation, mutation, competition, and inheritance influencing an individual entity's reproductive success. Memes spread through the behaviors that they generate in their hosts. Memes that propagate less prolifically may become extinct, while others may survive, spread, and (for better or for worse) mutate. Theorists point out that memes which replicate the most effectively spread best, and some memes may replicate effectively even when they prove detrimental to the welfare of their hosts."
Let me introduce Dan Sperber - a french cognitive and social scientist whom I've grown to love in the last couple of years in the hallowed walls of the UVM Religion department building. Sperber has refined the field of memetics, which was very loosely defined by Dawkins BTW, so I kind of feel like I'm employing a straw-man argument using his definition. Point is: Generating the field of memetics wasn't the goal of Dawkin's book. He just threw some stuff out on the table. But that stuff needs to be re-assessed - like a good meme should (as we will see!)
Cultural transmission (what some call memetics) in Sperber's own words:
Just as the human mind is not a blank slate on which culture would somehow imprint its content, the communication process is not a xerox machine copying contents from one mind to another. This is where I part company not just from your standard semiologists or social scientists who take communication to be a coding-decoding system, a transmission system, biased only by social interests, by power, by intentional or unconscious distortions, but that otherwise could deliver a kind of smooth flow of undistorted information. I also part company from Richard Dawkins who sees cultural transmission as based on a process of replication, and who assume that imitation and communication provide a robust replication system.
...What happens is this. Although indeed when things get transmitted they tend to vary with each episode of transmission, these variations tend to gravitate around what I call "cultural attractors", which are, if you look at the dynamics of cultural transmission, points or regions in the space of possibilities, towards which transformations tend to go. The stability of cultural phenomena is not provided by a robust mechanism of replication. It's given in part, yes, by a mechanism of preservation which is not very robust, not very faithful, (and it's not its goal to be so). And it’s given in part by a strong tendency for the construction — in every mind at every moment— of new ideas, new uses of words, new artifacts, new behaviors, to go not in a random direction, but towards attractors. And, by the way, these cultural attractors themselves have a history.
In my interpretation, Sperber has proposed that there is more to cultural transmission than the copying and preservation of memes between minds. In fact, the thrust of one of his most distinct theses is that it is highly ANOMALOUS for memes to be flawlessly copied in transmission, and in fact most memes (he uses the less disputed over term "cultural representations") naturally transform when they are transmitted. We've all been variably seduced by the characterization of memes as "symbionts" or "parasites" for which we are the "hosts", and it can be fun to think of it that way. But the cognitive truth is that the transformation that cultural representations undergo throughout their residence in human minds is in fact what their "transmission" is contingent on! Thus it isn't the flawless copying of memes that accounts for how and why they move through culture, but rather it is the possibility that ideas are transformed to some degree in transmission. It seems like it would be interesting to investigate what exactly is meant by "transformed". When we think of information being transformed, we often think of it being changed semantically. But perhaps this is not the operative mode of transformation that culturally significant memes undergo. Rather than "transforming", a meme being "retrofitted" seems a good way to think about transmission because it denotes the circumstantial accommodation of something - the "installment" of something into an existing framework or system. Notably, minds don't just change memes, memes can change - or "reprogram" -minds. From a brief glance at Sperber's theory it might be hard to imagine how any representations endure through time! Indeed, this is precisely the focus of so much interesting discussion - why do "core" parts of the "code" of certain memes (or memeplexes) persevere, and what exactly constitutes the "core" components of them? And to what extent are these memes are malleable? This is when Sperber's discussion of "cultural attractors" can become relevant. Emphatically, a certain level of "optimal malleability" seems absolutely necessary to enduring cultural representations, and we can assume that ways of representing gods, deities and saints in enduring religious traditions possess an 'optimal scale' - a special ratio of 'stickiness' to 'malleability'.
Thus is the direction of the science of cultural representation/memetics. The social sciences are presently becoming infected accordingly. Hooray!
I quoted from an interview with Sperber that you can find here. I recommend the people and informations he links to. Good stuff.