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From: Steven Thiele (sthiele@metz.une.edu.au)
Date: Thu 29 Jan 2004 - 01:13:43 GMT

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    Second posting:

    It is true that the great bulk of sociology is intellectually empty. It is a combination of such things as ideology, wishful thinking, careerism and professionalism. But sociologists are right about one thing  - that social life must be explained in its own terms (just as biologists, like Darwin and Dawkins, are right when they explain biological life in biological terms). Memetics can be understood an attempt to do this, but has too many problems, and this is the case no matter what definition of memes is accepted. The idea that there is something being replicated, in some particulate sense, by jumping from brain to brain has problems enough, but the idea that this something can express itself in such a way as to generate the basic features of social life, such as complex social organizations (like the state) or social emotions (like shame and practices like shaming), makes little sense. For a start off, if memes operate at the level of individuals, then memetics is immediately burdened with the problem of individualism - it is impossible to get an account of social life by adding up the actions of individuals.

    The issue of ‘the relations between biological and social life’ is one of the biggest intellectual challenges remaining. Memetics cannot assist much in meeting this challenge, except in moving the debate away from genetics. This is the main contribution of memetics. It is time that sociologists and biologists/neo-Darwinians got together to work out a productive strategy for confronting this challenge. The sociologists’ refusal to deal with biology at all (thereby creating the nature/nurture dualism) is an intellectual scandal, but so is the conceit of neo-Darwinians that they have the key to understanding organised life in all its forms. Social life might have evolved out of biological life, but it is a novel from of life.

    Steven Thiele
    University of New England
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