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From: Steven Thiele (sthiele@metz.une.edu.au)
Date: Thu 29 Jan 2004 - 01:12:08 GMT

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    It is a good rule of thumb to assume that whenever people start arguing about the definition of a word, no inquiry of any consequence is going on because there is no shared sense about what is to be inquired into. 

    The term memes has never referred to a particular phenomenon. This has been the problem right from the time Dawkins proposed it because he was arguing analogically, and not from evidence of any kind about the existence of something that he decided to call memes. He just assumed that there must be something in social life analogous to genes in biological life, namely memes. Because there is no justification for doing this, memetics was doomed from the start to a Babel about meaning. This is exactly the same problem that bedevils most of the social sciences. It is instructive that scientifically oriented thinkers should end up this way whey they attempt to explain social life.

    The interesting question is why memetics has been so attractive. The answer is that there is an intellectual vacuum in the area of what can simplistically be called ‘the relations between social life and biological life’. Sociologists (and other social scientists) have failed to fill this vacuum, so biologists are constantly tempted to have a go at filling it. Biologists first tried to do this by directly extending genetics, but, as Dawkins clearly acknowledged when he came up with the term memes, this couldn’t get anywhere because social life is clearly a different form of life that biological life - it can't be explained genetically.

    But instead of going out and studying social life and finding out what it is made up of and how it works, in the same way as he studied biological life, Dawkins extended biological explanation, specifically neo-Darwinian explanation, by recourse to analogy. This was never going to work. If social life is qualitatively different from biological life then it needs a qualitatively different explanation which an analogy could never provide.

    Steven Thiele
    University of New England

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