The Surprising Link Between Memes and Genes

Warda Mansur

There is never a boring moment on the internet. Every day, millions of new pictures and videos are made and shared on social media. Some of these may even become internet memes.


An internet meme is a type of content, such as a picture, video or challenge, that spreads online in a short period of time to a lot of people. They can be spread via social media, apps and even the news. Memes are usually funny, using generic, niche or political humour. You have probably seen memes all over the internet. ‘Keep Calm and Carry On’, the Ice Bucket Challenge and Grumpy Cat are all examples of memes!


But did you know that memes actually existed well before the internet?


The idea of a meme was first introduced in 1976 by an English biologist called Richard Dawkins in his book ‘The Selfish Gene’. The word ‘meme’ comes from the Greek word mimētḗs’, which means imitator. Richard describes a meme as any cultural idea or behaviour that spreads verbally or through repeated action between people and even compared memes to genes!


Genes are tiny packets of information that get passed from parent to child. Genes contain DNA, which is short for deoxyribonucleic acid and looks like a twisted ladder. The DNA in a gene gives instructions to the cell to make molecules called proteins, just like a cookbook! Proteins are the building blocks of our bodies; they do different jobs to help our bodies grow and stay healthy. One example of a job they do is helping to determine how children will look. Genes affect so many of our physical characteristics, such as the colour of our hair and even our height! Not only do they affect our physical features, but they also affect our biology. Our blood type and even some health conditions and diseases can be passed on through genes too. Did you know that most cells in the human body contains about 25,000-35,000 genes? There are some cells in the human body that don’t have any DNA, such as red blood cells.

So, you’re probably wondering how genes have anything in common with memes? Surprisingly, there are a lot more similarities between the two than you might think!


Genes and memes are both little packages of information. While genes contain information about how your biological features, memes carry information about culture. These little packages can be transported between people. Memes can be passed on from person to person, just as genes are passed on from parents to their children. They both rely on ‘hosts’ to be transmitted.


The speed at which memes are transmitted from person to person depends on how popular they are. Memes compete against other memes to become popular. They can become popular if they have a ‘competitive advantage’. A competitive advantage is something that gives you a better chance at surviving than others. For a meme, an example of a competitive advantage is being easy for the human brain to remember and copy. These memes are remembered more easily and shared more widely, becoming more popular. Similarly, genes with competitive advantages survive, get copied and passed on.


There is a surprisingly strong link between memes and genes. So, next time your parents try to tell you off for spending too much time on the internet, you can tell them that memes are a part of science!