Memetic Theory versus Mimetic Theory

Anthropologists have spent decades trying to explain the enormous diversity between different groups of people. How did tipping twenty percent become the norm in the U.S. but not in Europe?  Why do Japanese business people greet one another with bows instead of handshakes? Why do some organizations have cultural “lingo” and others don’t? (And why is there so much lingo in the business world, period?) One of the few things they agree on is this: imitation is the primary transmitter of culture

Two separate theories purport to explain the role of imitation in the development of culture. Meme theory (or memetic theorywith an “e”) explains the development of culture through the imitation of things: ideas, behaviors, and styles that are encoded as memes so they can be easily imitated. A meme is the cultural counterpart to a biological gene. 

The evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins first coined the term meme in his 1976 book The Selfish Gene. He wrote that meme is a noun that “conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation.”

It’s worth pausing for a moment to explore the difference between memetic theory and mimetic theory because they represent two different approaches to thinking about how non-material things—like ideas and desire—spread in groups. 

Dawkins intentionally named it meme to sound like gene. A meme is an element of a culture that gets passed on by non-genetic means—by way of something broadly called imitation. “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs,” wrote Dawkins, “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.”

Musical tunes (Happy Birthday), catch-phrases (“studmuffin”), fashion (men wearing ties), and even religious dogmas (eternal life) are memes in Dawkins’ view. Memes spread because people imitate them as closely as possible.  

According to Dawkins, there’s no human creativity in the spread of a meme. It has a life of its own. If a meme undergoes slight changes, that happens like the mutation of a gene—part of a mysterious and hidden natural process—and not by human choice. Likewise memes seek their own survival as if they were a living organism. The people who transmit them are merely their vehicles, no more important than a particular body is to a virus. 

But experience shows the opposite is true: people are models that endow random objects with value and make them worthy of imitation. Would people have been belting out the song “Shallow” in bars in 2019 if they’d first heard it from some busker in Santa Monica instead of as a duet between Lady Gaga and Bradley Cooper in the film A Star Is Born? The film’s premise revolves around the idea that Lady Gaga’s character isn’t a star until Bradley Cooper models her desirability as a singer. A more immediate example is this: why do some people wear MAGA hats and why would others not wear a MAGA hat if their lives depended on it? This is an example of negative imitation. The determination never to wear a hat that says “Make American Great Again” has nothing to do with the color red, nor a political critique of the idea of American greatness. It has to do with the person modeling the hat: Donald Trump.

By ignoring negative imitation, Dawkins makes no account of the harmful effects of rivalrous, destructive imitative behaviors. In meme theory, imitation is a positive force:  the best memes are propagated through imitation. 

In mimetic theory, imitation can have—and usually does have— negative consequences. Because the imitation of desire causes people to compete for the same things, it eventually leads to conflict and sometimes collisions.