I know they are a big deal and all, but where the heck did they come form?
They weren’t, per say, as memes can’t really be created. It’s a complex subject, if I’m honest.
Memes are something you can’t really explain. The phrase itself was coined in a book. (Which I’m not really remembering at the moment).
First the Earth cooled and then the dinosaurs came but they got too big and fat so they all died and they turned into oil and then the Arabs came and they bought Mercedes Benzes and Prince Charles started wearing all of Lady Di’s clothes. I couldn’t believe it. He took her best summer dress out of the closet and put it on and went to town….
Memes are ideas that are shared and spread between people, so they have existed as long as any sort of communication has been possible. Religions, languages, signs, all are memes.
The idea and word “meme” were coined by Richard Dawkins in The Selfish Gene. He writes about an approach to evolution that takes the gene as its most important unit, rather than groups of organisms. The gene, for Dawkins, ultimately acts in pure self-interest.
A “meme” is analogous to a “gene” as a unit of culture that replicates itself, spreads throughout culture, and mutates. He writes:
Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. He mentions it in his articles and his lectures. If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. As my colleague N.K. Humphrey neatly summed up an earlier draft of this chapter: `… memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically.(3) When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme’s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn’t just a way of talking -- the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over.’
So, “memes” have always existed, it’s just that the idea of a meme hasn’t been around until the books publishing in 1976. Its usage and popularization on the Internet is relatively recent.
If you’re interested in reading Dawkins, the chapter is transcribed here, though I would highly recommend reading the book in whole.
Oh boy, it’s this question again.
@Sean, memes have existed as long as lifeforms have been able to think.