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I am an undergraduate, Marine Biology major from the University of Rhode
Island who has recently come across the theory (or theories) of memetics while
learning the basics of Neo-Darwinian theory. My readings of Richard Dawkins
"Selfish Gene" as well as Daniel Dennetts "Darwins Dangerous Idea" occurred
simultaneously with my course in Systematics, and has led me to again pose the
question that Darwin seems to have never answered: What is a species?
The Neo-Darwinian conception is excellently expounded by Ernst Mayr in a
number of original works which are generally known in the fields of
Systematics and Evolution, but there are definitions, other than the
Biological Species Concept, that are equally acceptable in the biological
professions. These are, admittedly, less specific, but in some cases these
other species concepts are the only way to resolve what is sometimes a very
"gray world" where similarity of form can be deceiving and actual reproductive
events invisible. Molecular genetics has improved the situation a great deal
and revolutions in the area of cladistics is proving an invaluable tool in
determining which organisms are reproducing with which organisms, but the fact
remains that any time an organism is visually examined a much older concept is
being used: the concept that Carlos Linnaeus used, the Typological Species.
This is the beauty of Neo-Darwinism and that beauty is brilliantly translated
and communicated in the science that utilizes and supports the Biological
Species Concept. It clarifies and organizes the disorder and uncertainty in
nature and allows the science of genetics to proceed.
The usefulness of the Biological Species Concept, or sometimes called the
Genetic Species Concept, is unparalleled and cannot be praised enough. It
however, in my readings, has simplified what is in essence a very messy
natural world, full of random (or perhaps seemingly random, for what can be
random if science is to persist as a unique way of knowing)events and chaos
theory. What is a species of Bacteria or other self-reproducing organism? Is,
then, the individual the species, for the population of genes that it can pass
on to the next generation are packaged neatly within its own nuclear membrane?
No, this definition will not suffice for such situations. The Phylogenetic
Species or Evolutionary Species Concepts may perhaps deal better with issues
such as these. It is unfortunate that these definitions are vague and
difficult to apply, but I feel a certain amount of vagary is necessary due to
the diversity of life on earth. So, I have taken the Evolutionary Species
Concept, put forth by George Gaylord Simpson, to be the philosophical essence
of what a species concept should include. Roughly (I am writing this from
memory, the library is closed today) the Evolutionary Species Concept is "A
lineage with a separate and distinct evolutionary and ecological role....".
Very vague but applicable in all cases. Further, Simpson describes the Genetic
Species Concept as a "subset" of his wider, philosophical concept.
It is a very interesting time for us to question the efficacy of the Genetic
Species Concept since the problems of causation in biological organism is
deemed to be mostly ironed out through the decoding of various animal genomes.
Why do frogs have webbed feet? Genes! Then a researcher goes and finds the
genes that make a foot and the Hox genes that tell an aggregation of cells to
become a foot. Why would I question such powerful entities? Because the genes
are not the only units of information that reside in biological organisms! Do
the genes tell the Inuit to make a spear (perhaps indirectly, for stomachs
have been known to growl from time to time)? Do they tell him to build a
house, or wear the fur of a seal? I don't think they do, and where those men
ever got any of those ideas, I will not pretend to know, but I will however
say this. Without such information their biological being would cease to exist
and thus the memes that reside within them. Their genes cannot be propagated
without the information contained in their memes, and vice versa, the memes
will not propagate if the stomach doesn't growl, indicating that the memes
must spring into action. The extreme importance of memes in human beings is
such that the human genome would cease to exist, or at least be severely
curtailed from its current position of favor, if memes did not exist.
Here I will now propose another such "subset" to the Evolutionary Species
Concept: The Memetic Species. Memetic information aggregates into distinct
"meme pools" and resides in individuals that share certain attributes and
modes of production and reproduction. From a Typological perspective an Inuit
and a Yanomamo are as different as a Littorina littorea and Littorina
saxitilis. As different as Asterias vulgaris and Asterias forbesii. From the
Genetic Species concept, mixture of genes is potential, and thus they are the
same species. But the fact the the two have separate and distinct evolutionary
and ecological roles is undeniable and the reason for these separate roles,
equally undeniable, admittedly still theoretical, is the meme.
So right about now you may be saying "What does this guy think he has
proved?What does he think a Memetic Species is?". That is a very good
question. Is a culture a memetic species? Is a race a memetic species? How
about modern nation states? Are political borders the boundaries of memetic
species? I don't think any of these is an accurate definition of memetic
species, especially since many are ill-defined or not universally recognized
by any one coherent definition.
So, as far as I can figure, a memetic species must be almost analogous to the
Biological Species Concept. The boundaries must be defined by language
barriers. They must have a "culture" which is distinct from other populations
by a significant "number" or different kinds of memes. I suppose those are the
only two requirements : 1)the population must be separate from other
populations 2)the population must be distinct in its informational content
Finally, I feel the need to point out one other point about memetic species.
It may soon loose its usefulness as a concept since technology in
communications, the increase travel that a global economy of capitalism
brings, and, hopefully, a feeling of peace will prevail in the world will
allow for significant cultural exchange and soon render the term useless. It
is upsetting that some things that are held dear, perhaps "memetic vestigial
appendages", will be lost as knowledge about the world and its other
inhabitants is gained, but perhaps it is that knowledge and freedom which will
finally lead to an understanding of the world and the position we hold in the
context of the universe. In this way I feel memetic species will be a term
that will rarely be applied except in theoretical circles and historical
accounts of species diversity.
Thanks for reading,
P.S. Anyone need a grad student next year? I am available and eager to learn
anything and everything I can (except Marine Biology).
This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
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