American singer Pharrell Williams’ feel-good hit of 2013, Happy, is one of the best examples of a meme done right, according to a new Tel Aviv University study.

“Memetics,” or the study of memes, is a very popular discipline among cultural researchers now, but no one seems to know what a meme really is. Originally coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, the “meme” transfers cultural information much the way that genes inherit biological properties.

Williams’ song is one of many on the soundtrack of the film Despicable Me 2. But after thousands of similarly-formatted cover videos – including ISRAEL21c’s popular Tel Aviv-Yafo version, the song took on new meaning and became a true display of memetic cultural transference, the study shows.

According to the research by Prof. David Eilam of the Department of Zoology at TAU’s Faculty of Life Sciences, together with Dr. Michal Fux, Dr. Joel Mort, and Dr. Tom Lawson of Queens University Belfast, idiosyncratic acts — the common actions that form the basis of traditions — are actually essential for their survival in a culture. The study showed that conducted alongside a few fixed memes, individualized gestures ensured the very survival of a ritual or practice by providing simplicity, flexibility, and creative license.

“The common acts of the memes are always accompanied by idiosyncratic acts that establish identity and preserve behavioral flexibility,” said Prof. Eilam. “In other words, idiosyncratic acts, or ‘behavioral variability,’ appear to be an essential component that participates in the evolution of behavioral patterns, similar to genetic variability in biology.”

Prof. Eilam and his team analyzed a wedding dance called the “Umsindo,” performed by the Zulu tribe in South Africa. In this dance, only one act — the high kick, the standard meme of the dance — was performed by all 19 participants. But all the dancers engaged in additional idiosyncratic movements resembling free-style dance before and after executing the high kick. The researchers found these idiosyncratic movements to be crucial to the preservation of this long-practiced cultural ritual.

“There are a limited number of common acts that lead to the continuation of any given tradition,” said Prof. Eilam. “On the one hand this is surprising, but on the other it makes sense. You can’t teach or transfer very complex things. In the Umsindo dance, there is just one common gesture. The rest you are free to improvise.”

Prof. Eilam is continuing his research on memes, exploring how these fixed actions emerge and why they are specifically selected in the evolution of cultural and other behavioral practices.