Common misunderstandings of memes (and genes): The promise and the limits of the genetic analogy to cultural transmission processes.
Gil-White, F. J. / Fonte /
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.
I. Introduction
There is now a vigorous debate on how Darwinism should be applied to culture (see Aunger 2000). Following Dawkins (1989[1975]), 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 ‘meme’s eye view’.
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 Dictionary’s definition—“an 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 people’s 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 perspective—a 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 transmitted ‘memes’.
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