Re: Defining the word "replicator" (was Re: Silent memes)

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Thu 07 Aug 2003 - 00:16:22 GMT

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    At 01:02 AM 06/08/03 -0400, Scott wrote:


    >>I think as long as we understand that culture can be divided into
    >>some-kind-of-units and those units are subject to variation and selection
    >>over time, then exactly what terminology we use is not so
    >>important. Those in broad agreement to this view can go on to more
    >>interesting study where memetics plays a powerful role such
    > as the misfit
    >>between our evolved psychological tendencies and the world
    > in which we
    >>find ourselves.
    >We might want to back up the truck to your hyperdarwinian variation and
    >selection scheme. That emphasis on selection is quite too dogmatic for my


    Selection is one of the two fundamental points of Darwinism, hyper or not. But selection "forces" on genes vary all the way from highly negative--like progeria where as far as I know not a single case of this particular mutation has reproduced--to highly positive like the supposed genes for language that people have been speculating about here. And the range goes right through zero where there are no significant selective forces and drift prevails.

    >If we go on the memetic bandwagon analogizing these
    >some-kind-of-units to genes, there's some serious implications if we take
    >this analogy all the way to modern evolutionary theory. Variants of genes
    >are alleles. You've got your variation bit covered there. There would
    >*supposedly* be analogous variants of memes. Cultural evolution would thus
    >be defined as changes in the frequencies of these memetic variants in a
    >population over time.


    >The catch, which avid Dawkins and Dennett
    >worshippers probably fail to acknowledge as they see evolution through the
    >wantonly selectionist lenses of their chosen gurus is that selection
    >would, bringing *modern* evolution into the spotlight, only be *a*
    >possible factor in changing these frequencies. Drift would be another factor.
    >OTOH, why couldn't so called memetic variants be neutral? Could there be a
    >neutral theory of cultural evolution to parallel that of molecular

    Certainly! Fashion or fads might be examples. (How did Western culture get stuck with the business man's suit?) Drifts in common expressions, accents, popular sports.

    Then there are obvious cases where a cultural element's selection would be conditional on what other memes were common in the culture. Which side of the street people drive on is a typical example. In the large scale it does not matter *which* side, but there is a major local advantage in doing it the way everyone else is doing it.

    Also, conditions change for both genes and memes. Genes for accumulating fat were advantageous when food commonly was in short supply part of the year. A change in the environment to constant food availability and these genes become a major liability. Memes come and go depending on external factors as well. At one time there were thousands of names for various parts of sailing ships or steam locomotives that are almost unknown today. Likewise, the skills associated with these obsolete technologies are rare to non existent. How many know how to use a hand ax for water hole hunting today?

    >If memeticists want to wear the hats of analogizing geneticists, they've
    >gotta go all the way. Wanton selectionism is just one pet peeve I've got
    >with memetics.

    I think your objections on this point would go away if you had a similar view of the range of selection (negative, positive and none) as a factor in both memetic and genetic evolution that I do. (And that is, I think, mainstream thinking among students of evolution.)

    Of course the whole business is massively complicated by multiple replicators and multiple feedback loops, some of them rather perverse. For example a meme could persist if it were good at spreading and still had very bad consequences on the reproduction of its host. (The Chinese/Taiwan custom of swapping girls and raising a son with his future wife was like that or look up sim-pua in Google.)

    Keith Henson

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