Do Memes Have a Life of Their Own?

We had better start with a clear definition of the term, meme.

“Meme: (biology) a cultural unit (an idea, value, or pattern of behaviour) … passed from one person to another by non-genetic means (as by imitation)” (WordWeb).

Portrait photo of science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer.

SF writer Robert J. Sawyer often jokes that he is more interested in the survival of his memes than his genes. (Photo:

In other words, memes are the cultural counterpart of genes. Like genes, anyone can pass on his or her memes. Unlike genes, individuals who are willing to do the work can create memes.

Canadian science fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer has said on more than one occasion that, “… I like to quip that I’m more interested in the survival of my memes than my genes …” Sawyer knowingly works his memes into his stories and novels thereby making it possible for others to see and adopt them, and then, hopefully, pass them on yet again. Anyone who deliberately includes their own ideas and values in their work shares Sawyer’s openly expressed desire to spread his memes. However, they may be considerably less conscious of what they are doing. I want to play with the sometimes poorly understood impulse to spread one’s memes so let me pose a suggestive question.

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