Re: Online Paper: "Ideas are Not Replicators but Minds Are" by Liane Gabora

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sat 18 Oct 2003 - 17:26:30 GMT

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    At 12:01 AM 17/10/03 -0600, you wrote:

    >I think Gabora's work is postulating as given many aspects that are still
    >in debate or outright wrong in Evolutionary Theory and in Biology.
    >Her main point is that ideas per se cannot be considered as replicators
    >since they by themselves do not replicate, and need to be embedded in a
    >worldview to be copied. This point is also raised in Biology, but only
    >substituting 'idea' with 'gene' and 'worldview' with 'genome' or
    >'organism'. This problem has spawned heated debate, and is most certainly
    >not a resolved question (ex. Gould vs. Dawkins).

    There is no doubt it is a *messy* question (see Dawkins' long and ultimately operational definition in _Extended Phenotype_) but I would say it doesn't matter that much as long as you understand the physical basis of the arguments.

    >To be fair, she does dedicate section 4.1 to this problem, but
    >nonchalantly states that genes always come packaged with other
    >complementary genes that dynamically in context act as replicators, and
    >since ideas not necessarily come packaged, only worldviews (a package in
    >itself) can work as replicators.

    Does a new popular song, a new hair style, a new way to lace up shoes, spreading in a population amount to a new worldview? We have seen novel genetic elements cross into fruit flies in the last 50 years and become virtually universal among wild flies. Gabora's argument applied to genetics would require considering such flies a new species.

    >Genes not only do not need to be packaged with others to replicate, as can
    >be proven with molecular biology techniques (which she parenthesizes,
    >presumably to minimize its implications), but also in nature, as with
    >single gene plasmids and free floating DNA fragments that can be
    >internalized by protozoa.

    Viruses as well. People can debate endlessly if viruses are "alive," but I doubt anyone with a cold would doubt they are replicators! (Nasty ones at that.) And there is no question that viruses lack most of the molecular machinery needed to replicate.

    >By this I am not daring to make stand as to whether the single gene or the
    >whole genome is the unit of evolution,

    I don't think you need a hard answer to this question to understand that evolution is changes in the frequencies (of something) in the genome as a result of selection. The typical operational effect is that a different protean is produced, for example the one for sickle cell that--where malaria occurs--conveys a survival advantage. Dawkins eventually opted for an operational definition, a length of DNA that was not so long as to be broken up by crossovers before it had a chance to affect its own frequency in the population (paraphrase). He was not happy with this definition, but felt it was the best he could do. (It was a long time ago, but I doubt anyone has done better. Some words are like "string" simply don't have a fixed length dimension.)

    > but I am merely making the point that this is debatable even in
    > Evolutionary biology, so that importing one of the sides of the debate as
    > a given in biology, so that she can apply them to cultural evolution,
    > really demerits the point of the argument.

    It certainly does. There is an attraction to taking contrary positions you think will get attention even if it doesn't make a lot of sense. I know this motivates some people (not to name names here). If this is what is going in Gabora's case, it makes me very sad. I do know that papers which present memes as I have done get very little comment.

    >The point that was interesting, was the argument for cultural evolution
    >using non coded primitive replicators, whatever they may be.

    "Non coded primitive replicators" reminds me of "arithmetic without numbers" or perhaps "chemistry without elements."

    Keith Henson

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