Common misunderstandings of memes
(and genes): The promise and the limits of the genetic analogy to cultural
Gil-White, F. J. / Fonte
Abstract: Memetics suffers from conceptual confusion and not
enough empirical work. This paper will argue that, although memes are
not, in fact, selfish replicators, they can and should be analyzed with
Darwinian models. The selfish meme conception does more to distort than
enlighten our understanding of cultural processes.
There is now a vigorous debate on how Darwinism should be applied to
culture (see Aunger 2000). Following Dawkins (1989), many now
refer to units of cultural transmission and evolution as memes,
regard replicators as essential for a Darwinian process,
assume selfish memes, and adopt a memes eye
Analogies and borrowed yardsticks are often useful for a new field,
but may also cause misunderstanding. I will argue that Dawkins
legacy for cultural Darwinism has not only given rise to confusion but
itself results from misconstruals of Darwinian theory.
I will not define a meme as a selfish replicator 1 but will
adopt the broad Oxford English Dictionarys definitionan
element of culture that may be considered to be passed down by non-genetic
means.2 Selfish replication, then, is a hypothesis about the behavior
of the stuff that gets transmitted through non-genetic means. The relevant
questions, then, are: (1996) has emphasized, anthropologists have tended
to mystical approaches to culture that put it out there
in the ether somewhere rather than in peoples brains, and have
failed to examine the processes of transmission in phenomenal and cognitive
detail. By contrast, the idea of memes in any of its forms makes units
of cultural transmission analogous to genes. This produces an entirely
new perspectivea revolution of sorts.
1) Does this stuff behave like a selfish replicator?;
2) If not, does this make Darwinian analyses of culture impossible?
3) If not, is it impossible to find the boundaries of memes?
4) Can we simply appropriate the 'selfish gene' idea from biology?
I will answer no to each but will still call what is culturally
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