word ‘meme’ was first popularly used by Richard Dawkins
in his book, The Selfish Gene. The word ‘meme’
has come to mean a cultural accretion of knowledge,
a package of several ideas that can be passed onto others.
It’s usually more complex than a single idea, and can
represent a fashion/music/lifestyle or a belief. It
is the mental equivalent of a gene whereby a package
of many attributes is passed on.
The science or study of memes in action has come to
be called memetics.
A meme has been regarded too narrowly I believe, and
I am interested in broadening the definition of a meme.
No matter how narrow a definition you give to a meme,
sooner or later you have to consider more nebulous or
abstract ideas as having acquired enough cultural accretion
to have become memes. It’s easy to conceive of a visual
fad such as the hula-hoop as having a chartable spread
through society and calling it a meme, but surely socialism,
futurism or a new political idea are also memes that
spread through society.
Memes like these, just as in any fad or fashion, have
a zenith before arcing into decline. There will always
be a few adherents of any ‘ism’ who may be the actual
carriers of the meme, but eventually they may find themselves
beached upon a shore that has no tides.
Someone new to the idea of memes might say: why don’t
we just call them ideas? The answer is that memes act
as if they have a life of their own. Whether they do
or not is not the relevant point, but they do replicate
and have a dynamism absent from our common notion of
a simple idea.
Memes seem to have an arc of existence defying simple
replicative models. Indeed, I daresay many memes lie
dormant awaiting resurgence, as might forgotten gods
that can spread like wildfire. Let’s say a meme like
Nazism could be re-established which is why many are
so keen to quash it.
On this model, some memes could be likened to a huge
bull waiting to be let out the gate and into a china
I suspect memes act as living entities with strategies
for survival and aren’t simply replicators. As I use
the word meme, I mean it to be an accretion of mental
energy that acts as if it has a life of its own. This
mental energy can spread through many minds or maybe
it resides someplace as yet unidentified. Whether or
not this is strictly true is less important to me than
the fact this definition allows for insights and explanations
Once you allow a meme to escape the unimaginative
straitjacket that has kept meme theory bound for the
last twenty-five years, you can accept new explanations.
In human affairs and parapsychology, as well as in ordinary
life, we finally have a tool to crack the nut, to explain
which was once considered unexplainable.
Memes as I use them are for the most part something
that appears independent of self, and shared by several
minds. However, we all have a sense of self, an ego
or superego that we create as we grow, which could be
considered our individual meme.
Many thinkers have a problem with the idea of a ‘group
mind’ which is understandable, or that memes can be
anthropomorphised as having characteristics to enable
their survival. One approach to deflect this criticism
is to state they don’t have to be actually like this,
but they act as if they do. Same as flocking
birds might not actually have a group mind but they
act as if they do.
There are experiments that seem to indicate the existence
of group minds. I’ll mention Richard Restak’s experiments
with bees. His work can be found in the journal Mind
(No. 249), and has also been featured in Howard Bloom’s
The Lucifer Principle (page 140). Basically Restak
showed that bees can anticipate future sources of food
despite quite complex mathematical computations. What
he did was position food at increasing distances away
from the first site according to a mathematical formula.
The bees all went to the area they next expected food
to be at, but who or what was doing the calculations
Basically a meme is a concept. It can be shared or held
alone. Memes can have favoured attachments just like
molecules. Certain pairings can be more probable than
others. Memes are not just an explanation for the workings
of human affairs, but a way for things to find each
other. With memes, man can find God, a woman can find
her mate, a customs officer can find a smuggler, and
a hunter can find his prey.
Another area memes make themselves problematic to academia
is we can use them to explain phenomena usually of a
non-repeatable type. I think it was Arthur Koestler
who postulated the existence of the library angel. What
he meant by this was how he often was looking for some
information and he’d open a book to the very page with
the information he needed. Or he found a useful book
shelved wrongly but placed right where he happened to
look. People are known to open the Bible at a passage
unusually apt to their interest. I’m sure we’ve all
had these coincidental experiences, and I doubt we could
repeat them for the sake of a scientific study, but
memes can explain them.
How do memes work? Conscious and unconscious processes
build memes. They aren’t something you can usually identify,
and to devolve them (or use them) seems to work best
when they happen unconsciously.
Let’s take a meme building activity like a new fashion.
Pioneers will wear and parade the new fashion, and the
media acts as a platform for others to espouse it. Everyone
quickly becomes aware of it, but not everyone adopts
it unless it fits in with the zeitgeist. Instead of
a fashion we can view, imagine this applying to a new
philosophy or belief. The longer this meme is built,
the more it accretes levels of meaning and spreads to
include lifestyles, food, clothes and outlooks, all
of which can indicate a particular meme.
For example, consider the meme of an artist, or what
it would mean to be a beatnik, hippy or a rasta. A meme
that started as a fashion can soon be taken to include
preferred foods or political viewpoints and philosophy.
The views held by a person can now be deduced, simply
by looking at the hat they wear.
Like a plate resting upon a table where there are only
a few disparate molecules in direct contact, or a brain
where an idea can lodge in one of several areas, a meme
could be said to lodge in some of many possible minds.
It may change minds often and doesn’t have a constant
When I first read Richard Dawkin’s book a quarter of
a century ago, I had already formed a nebulous theory
of mental energy. Living in what seemed to be a vast
population of like-minded people, where everyone similarly
reacted or used the same expressions, I envisaged a
gigantic group mind. Similar to ants or bees or flocks
of birds, it seemed to me we all acted in a predictable
manner linked to the group. I’d started to consider
this a gigantic psychic generator that could be tapped
in some way.
Another thought was there would be nodes where you could
find certain phenomena like a very lucky person or someone
that could do no wrong. When I discovered the word ‘meme’,
I realised this was a descriptive term I could utilise.
It took a couple of years to simmer before I knew how
to use it, and about 15 years before I suddenly realised
the further implications of memetics. The mechanistic
model of building and devolving memes wasn’t the crux
of the matter, though undoubtedly this is what hooked
people in the first place.
Consciousness seems to be a factor in the transmission
process, though not an absolute. It’s just that memes
seem to operate better the less aware we are of their
Unaware as well as conscious effort build memes so they
can have a growth period, and once built, are able to
be devolved by others often unconnected to the building
process. This devolvement works best by unconscious
effort and is a process for knowledge to become distributed
in ways once thought to be science fiction. The potential
of telepathy, although fantastic, can be explained in
memetic terms. Similarly, memetics enables unconnected
people to have a shared knowledge or belief system.
Thousands of years ago, when scattered cultures on different
continents built pyramid structures, there was a memetic
diffusion of similar goals. This is exemplified by the
phenomenon known as the 100th monkey effect,
to which I’ll come back to later in this article.
Animals can share memes. As their consciousness is taken
as being more simplistic, they act alike. When flocks
of birds and schools of fish turn, feed, or flee all
at the same time, it is difficult to explain this as
a totality of separate, independent decision making.
Are they all plugged into a group mind or acting in
an identical way just for being biologically similar?
And it’s not just animals that act identically. Human
children can act and react in the same way. Are they
similar for being closer to the mould? Are they more
telepathic for being more similar?
This is the real advance of memetics. By looking at
memes as a potential indicator of both group and individual
consciousness, we can unseal some previously closed
In the last section I mentioned nodes as a place where
memes could be better able to be devolved. To posit
such nodes is only helpful to explain why some people
are vastly better in attracting phenomena than others.
Like a very lucky person or vice-versa. Another illustration
would be a really good artist. Many people assume a
successful artist simply has the right idea at the right
time, but world class artists appear to have more than
this simple formula working for them. A good artist
tells us something we recognise as truth in an original
way, and a great artist draws on something that makes
their work and originality speak to other times. They
draw on a muse with many strands and are often at a
loss themselves to explain how they weave it into art.
They are distilling the essence of the zeitgeist. Somehow,
they are devolving the spirit of the age and telling
us something we recognise as a truth. Something we knew
all along without having enunciated it. When this happens,
we call it a masterpiece.
Could it be the artist has positioned themselves on
a node that devolves this creative energy? Their brains
are a receiving medium for something they have unconsciously
sought. It certainly seems there have been geographical
distilleries of genius like in Athens or Paris in the
I’ve noticed a similar thing happen with music. I know
the success of one local band can fuel the aspirations
of others, and certain places seem to throw up on occasion
not just a singular bloom but a whole bouquet. Most
bands, unlike artists, seem to make a handful of distinctive
rousing music and then atrophy. They never better their
first original work, and plough the same furrow making
their later compositions just variations on a theme.
Yet there are rare artists who define an era, and their
work both embodies and propagates memes.
Bubba Sparxx once rapped, “Rhyming chose me”.
As with art, science and theory leaps forward from singular
people or places that seem truly inspired. There are
often people working on similar things but only one
gets the credit and is remembered. If it could ever
be shown radical ideas and advances come from on high,
it must be a scattergun approach where several people
are simultaneously trying to establish it, and it doesn’t
really matter who will win the race – just that one
on Learned Behaviour Via Memes
The above are speculative asides. My main thrust is
that ideas, fads or philosophies can be transmitted
without local contact. These are memes that can be devolved
and spread within limitations or throughout all society.
Consider personal experience. Haven’t we all done something
for the first time and then discovered how natural it
seems? Like riding a bicycle, it can take a few moments
and then seems like we always could do it.
Don’t we all know someone who did something by chance
and then it became a life’s work or career? Let’s consider
a body of knowledge, a recently evolved meme such as
A new or trainee heart surgeon consciously learns the
craft, but he/she is also memetically guided by the
prior experience of others. Like acting or any trade,
this memetic devolvement is best felt to be working
when the subject is relaxed and has ‘let themselves
go’. The examples of those that did it before us are
like invisible spirit guides once we are ‘in the groove’.
Great men are said to sit on the shoulders of others
before them, and so it is with all activity, whether
it be carpentry, mothering, lying or fighting. No matter
how harmful or mundane, others have built tramlines
of the mind. In careers, apprentices or trainees can
experience this as an arbitrary choice ‘fitting like
a glove’. They have discovered an aptitude or somehow
‘picked it up’ without really being able to explain
how. In animals of lesser consciousness, this becomes
a pure instinct in which all eat, fight and sleep in
practically identical ways.
Is there evidence learned behaviour is carried to others?
One example would be when a rat finds its way through
a maze. A second rat seems to find its way through the
maze even quicker. In experiments, rats have been killed
(to prevent telepathy) or identical new mazes substituted
(to prevent scent trails), yet despite this, rats are
progressively able to get through these mazes faster
than the earlier ones. Where does this knowledge reside?
They are accessing a meme that is being built, a meme
of knowledge about the maze.
I doubt a meme is entirely independent of living things,
but the crucial thing is that it acts as if it is. A
meme has an arc of existence that, like the life of
a living organism, is a self-contained pocket of energy.
Perhaps the best analogy of memes in the world is they
are akin to numbers. The fantastic science of mathematics
has enabled us to go to the moon and inspire computers.
But we wouldn’t be able to point to a number or say,
“this is a six”, we could just say there are six of
something. Like memes, we use the concept of number
to find linking commonalities and to make something
have sense for us. To grasp that which has no obvious
One of my favourite examples of memetics in action is
that referred to as the 100th monkey effect,
which is the result of studies from 1952-1958 of monkeys
living on a string of Japanese islands.
What happened was that one monkey started washing the
sand off sweet potatoes, and then others started doing
it. At some point, a critical mass was reached and monkeys
on other islands, though there was no obvious contact,
started washing their food to remove the sand. This
is almost a perfect example of a meme growing and then
becoming accessible to all. A way for knowledge or learning
to transmit to others not in physical contact. In human
affairs, this is best seen in fashion, whereby there
seems to be zeitgeist (spirit of the age) sweeping through
disparate and otherwise unconnected populations.
The 100th monkey effect was first popularised
in Lyall Watson’s book Lifetides. Another book
by Ken Keyes simply called The Hundredth Monkey further
propagated this novel idea. There have been a few articles
that ‘revisit’ these experiments (e.g. one from Elaine
Myers) but they miss the point.
Pseudo rebuttals to this theory usually harp on that
not all monkeys adopted this new way of washing sand
off potatoes. Ken Keyes clearly says in his foreword
this phenomenon included “almost all” the monkeys, so
he wasn’t claiming a universal spread.
Furthermore, the 100th monkey mechanism
isn’t negated by this. The sceptics are confusing a
hundred monkeys as somehow meaning 100%. Think of a
meme such as a fashion. A few people adopt it, perhaps
to widespread ridicule, but at some threshold point
it becomes widely accepted. Now obviously, not every
single person adopts the exact same fashion, but does
this detract from the mechanism causing its explosive
growth? Of course not. Indeed, there will always be
adherents to memes of other fashions or the antithesis
of the one currently in vogue. It’s a bit like the scene
in the sci-fi movie ‘Fahrenheight 451’ where in a book
burning society individuals each keep a certain book
alive by reciting it and memorising it.
Similarly, fashions might be kept alive by adherents.
Victims of fashion are the one’s gripped by a meme that
has no hold on other people.
Critics of memetics similarly miss the point about statistics.
I am not asserting twins will all have the same experiences
or that coincidences can be statistically explained
or expected, like the likelihood of two people at a
gathering sharing the same birthday. In fact, memes
explain why not everything will be the same in every
case and every time.
What interests me are the astronomically improbable
coincidences that can’t be configured. The one in a
billion chance. The events that deserve some consideration
instead of being dismissed as a one-off. These incredible
coincidences are amenable to memetic explanation. I’m
not claiming fantastical coincidences are the rule.
Indeed, they are the exceptions that prove the rule,
but these exceptions have underlying mechanisms making
are other examples of mass learning within species if
you don’t buy the 100th monkey theory.
In particular, one was the study done on blue tits pecking
at foil on milk bottles to get at the milk. Once one
or two started doing it, within a short time, blue tits
everywhere were doing it.
Another form of memetics in action would be the phenomenon
known as stigmata. In my model, the conscious dwelling
on Christ’s wounds by Catholics or other Christians
creates a meme which grows like clouds gathering moisture.
When it has reached optimum size, then like lightning,
the meme devolves or is discharged upon some unwitting
subject. This explains why the stigmata phenomenon can
appear on people who aren’t religious or even Christian.
Padre Pio, made a saint by the Pope in 2002, displayed
the stigmata. Church enquiries couldn’t find any evidence
of fraud or deception. Indeed, the profuse bleeding
was deemed of unknown origination. The padre was especially
venerated as being one of the clergy who rarely display
Phenomena described as paranormal, unexplainable or
baffling in human affairs could have a memetic explanation.
Reincarnation can be explained as people devolving memes
built up by others. This is akin to the parable of reaping
that which others sow.
The reason some people think they are Cleopatra or some
famous character is a meme built by people thinking
about these ‘larger than life’ historical personages.
I suspect the person claiming to be a reincarnation
has taken onboard several cultural connotations that
were embedded into the personage when the meme was being
Because of our memetic nature, whatever mental paths
we follow, it will always be amenable to memes. Some
memeticists treat memes as an infective virus and although
some are devolved unwillingly and unconsciously, I don’t
find it helpful to use this model of contagion. Even
when we have a meme we identify and get rid of, we still
have others at work albeit unidentified.
Whether memes use individuals as entry points or rain
down en masse upon numerous subjects, there always seem
to be loci, some nodal points of focus.
As I claimed earlier, all coincidence is a form of memetic
correspondence. We can see this correspondence in things
that aren’t especially coincidental. I’ll give you an
example from when I lived in Ocean Park, California,
in the mid 80’s. There was a lot of ‘street people’
in the area and especially in the evening you would
come across several grubbed out people mumbling, talking
and outright ranting to themselves. They were in their
own private world that excluded passers by.
Now fast forward several years beyond the gentrification
and yuppiefication of the area, where property prices
had soared. Visiting Main Street, I was surprised to
find numerous people walking and talking on mobile phones
in their own little world. Most staggeringly, I saw
someone yelling (though with a mobile ear piece) at
the very same spot a notorious street alcoholic had
once staked out as his patch. It’s not really a coincidence,
but an echo.
Perhaps certain places can attract or devolve a meme
that recurs in certain actions? Perhaps certain places
are much more amenable to holiness or criminality so
that there is an architecture shaping behaviour? Going
up a mountain and coming down with a changed memetic
reality may have truth. A sense of place may very well
be necessary for certain memes to be devolved. These
are certain areas that need consideration.
The cycles of life are rarely viewed as something recurring
in all generations and times. Love is an emotion intensely
experienced by each generation as if for the first time.
Only those that can take a step back through wisdom
or age may see the constantly recurring tides.
This is where memetics is able to provide explanations
for the puzzle. This tide, this governing of life, the
recurring of events, is a correspondence echoing through
all generations. For instance, we think we might have
left the bacchanalian rites of village festivals behind,
but all we have done is supplanted them. Package holidays
of booze and sex are just an evolved echo of what was
and always will be.
Anytime we see an echo or correspondence, especially
in things or events that we normally would not consider
related, we are seeing the action of a meme.
When the lifestyle aggregation of music, fashion and
outlook called ‘punk’ started, it really seemed to spread
during 1978. I went to the USA
that summer and hitchhiked about. One thing which puzzled
me was I kept running into people who seemed to be ‘punk’
yet had not yet heard of the term. They had the philosophy,
torn or bound clothing and sometimes the spiky hairstyle,
yet they hadn’t yet heard of the ‘Sex Pistols’. I suspected
some kind of cosmic con especially when I met one guy
almost a clone of Sid Vicious who insisted he’d never
heard of him.
How was it possible people had adopted a fashion in
advance of widespread media attention? With this phenomena
to ponder, I started developing my ‘one in every town’
theory. I postulated that every small town has a drunk,
a real redneck, a punk kid etc. As the towns get larger,
the cast of characters increase.
Added to this was the strange sense of déjà vu when
I met someone who was 90% of somebody else I’d met or
the spitting image of someone from my hometown. I was
regularly surprised to find a Dave who liked wrangler
clothes, drank hard and had a girlfriend called Sue
just like someone else I’d already met. I started to
make boyfriend/girlfriend name pairings that seemed
to recur often enough to seem a standard. If I met a
‘Carl’, I’d guess he had a girlfriend called Sarah before
he told me he did. In life, there are all manner of
possible permutations or simple juxtapositions, but
memes can make them into regular pairing, a temporary
Each bar I went in had its resident lush (alcoholic)
and a ‘Mr can get it’. Each place I went had the same
types of people. I’d talk about this phenomenon with
friends and claim “there’s one in every town”. Like
a hen’s pecking order, I’ve come to realise human types
are similarly governed. You remove one and another will
take up that role.
Mystics and Memes
Would be devolvers of memes who don’t really understand
how they work are laying themselves open to be used
by an amoral force. I’m thinking of occultists who use
ceremonies and other inducements as a way to devolve
power and affect the universe. Like the energy attributed
to a poltergeist, these memetic energies aren’t readily
controllable and attempts to do so can result in the
demise of the attempter. The inherent contradictions
of a meme will disrupt any attempted containment.
Having had some experience at meetings of occultists
for my own curious quest for knowledge, I was struck
by the disproportionate share of cripples and generally
unhealthy appearances at such gatherings. I can only
assume those that chant or wave wands to attract a river
of universal energy are merely inviting a dissipation
of their own. Now I do think you can focus this river
of universal energy and you can use memes to power your
activities, but this inculcation is subtle and diffuse.
A practical aspect of advanced memetics is divination.
The memetic ripples that percolate through our universe
are readable to the adept. Astrology operates not by
the commonly supposed causal connection but is supposed
to indicate a correspondence. Memetics can operate a
corresponding system that involves looking for potential
ironies. Linguistic irony and fictional foreshadowing
are all tools for a memetic prophet. Random and trivial
events are all grist for the mill with which to grind
out a prognosis and read the signs.
This system of memetics, regardless of its origins and
outer limits, can be used to explicate all kinds of
esoteric phenomena. It can also make sense of some of
today’s baffling events. For instance, the spectacular
terrorist success in destroying the World Trade Centre
towers can be explained by operating on an auspicious
date (for them) of 9/11. The meme of calling 911 emergency
empowered their goals. I’m sure they hadn’t picked the
date for any numeric quality, but just because a Tuesday
flight would have less passengers to subdue than a Monday
or a Friday. Their bold plan was correspondingly enabled
by memetic forces, which they weren’t conscious of.
The unconscious energy in the meme of 911 empowered
them, but now that everyone is conscious of the date,
it won’t work again.
Yet the mental energy, the meme generated by that event,
will empower another date and as long as there is no
conscious focus upon it, a terrorist or some such could
easily find his unselfconscious action empowered. I
predict something could happen in September 2011, as
it has a 9/11 link which isn’t immediately obvious to
Memetics suggest there are auspicious and inauspicious
dates or days for various activities.
The above points show memetics is a unique and universal
theory of explanation. Surely more research can develop
this potential and make all phenomena, even that once
considered esoteric and occult, into an understandable
Memetics holds the promise of the philosopher’s stone.
By explaining all things, it can be the key to the secrets
of the universe. For the philosopher, the theologian,
the parapsychologist, it could be the dawn of a golden
Jack Hardy is a world traveller and non-academic
philosopher. He has written articles and produced celebrity
interviews for numerous small magazines and newspapers.
The above is abridged from an e-book by the author called
Memetics. The book covers other aspects of memes
and more detail on the subject matter discussed above,
including how memetics theory helps explain unexplained
phenomena and the process by which we can predict societal
trends. To obtain
the complete text of the book, email the author at email@example.com.