Re: memetics-digest V1 #1480

From: Steven Thiele (
Date: Thu 19 Feb 2004 - 23:29:14 GMT

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    The theoretical debate in biology about the importance of genes, organisms, species or ecosystems is, for all practical purposes, largely irrelevant. Biological life can be, and is, examined at all of these levels. If one level is exaggerated over the others, then questionable notions arise - for example, at the 'lower' level you get 'the selfish gene', at the higher level you get 'gaia'. But mostly biologists just do what they do with considerable success without paying attention to this exaggeration. Darwin, after all, had a lot to say about species without knowing anything about genes.

    But when it comes to understanding social life, this debate becomes enormously important. First, the idea of memes derives, by analogy, from one of the exaggerations (the selfish gene), and suffers massively from it. Second, it is necessary to lay out the 'levels' that exist in social life, such as individuals and social organisations. Memeticians would, obviously enough, like to include memes. Some social theorists have suggested
    'selves' and have argued that individuals have multiple selves. Others have argued for the existences of 'discourses', that is, ways of thinking liked to sets of practices.

    Memeticians are so caught up in the idea of memes that they are like a biologist who sees only genes (with the rest as phenotype and environment). Of course, in recognition of this, some have suggested, for example, that social insitutions are memes, but this is doubly deficient because it is the result of an attempt to repair an irrepairable narrowness. The repair just adds to the problem.

    If anyone claims to be explaining social life, the first thing they need to do is to lay out what they are trying to explain. What are the phenomena that constitute social life? This requires both investigation and a long conversation with sociology. To begin with the assumption that there are memes and then to look around to see what it explains (and to turn a blind eye to what it doesn't) is to approach matters back to front isn't it?

    Steven Thiele

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