On the History of Memes

An article by AHP founding editor Jeremy Burman on the history of memes was recently published in the journal Perspectives on Science. Burman’s “The misunderstanding of memes”  is currently the journal’s most downloaded article and may, for the moment at least, be downloaded for free from MIT Press here.

In this article, Burman traces how the original meaning of memes became distorted over time. Intended originally to be a mere metaphor, “memes” have come to stand for the notion that ideas spread like viruses. The full title and abstract follows below.

“The misunderstanding of memes: Biography of an unscientific object, 1976–1999,” by Jeremy Trevelyan Burman. The abstract reads,

When the “meme” was introduced in 1976, it was as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind. (In the UK, this occurred slightly later.) It is also now clear that this becoming involved complex sustained interactions between scholars, journalists, and the letter-writing public. We must therefore read the “meme” through lenses provided by its popularization. The results are in turn suggestive of the processes of meaning-construction in scholarly communication more generally.

You can find the full article here.

About Jacy Young

Jacy Young is a professor at Quest University Canada. A critical feminist psychologist and historian of psychology, she is committed to critical pedagogy and public engagement with feminist psychology and the history of the discipline.

1 thought on “On the History of Memes

  1. I look forward to reading Jeremy’s article. The brief description, however, reminds me of the common use of the word “factoid” by people who believe that it means a small or trivial fact. Yet a factoid is a “fact” that is not a fact. It is, in fact, an untruth. So all you factoid users who don’t know your facts — STOP IT!!!! Did you hear me? STOP IT!!!

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