Re: Wilkins on the meme:engram relation

Date: Wed Dec 05 2001 - 23:02:21 GMT

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    Subject: Re: Wilkins on the meme:engram relation
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    In a message dated 12/4/2001 10:40:28 PM Central Standard Time, John Wilkins
    <> writes:

    > Exactly this sort of confusion arises in the context of "gene" -
    > initially it was well-defined (by Johannsen, IIRC) as a Mendelian
    > hereditary factor (ie, anything that assorted in the Mendelian ratio).
    > As the context broadened, it was gradually less exact, and people had to
    > coin new terms like cistron, intron, codon, and the like to become more
    > exact. When molecular biology realised that a "functional" gene could be
    > anything at all from a single codon to an entire karyotype (in the case
    > of some asexuals), it became clear that the term had exceeded its useful
    > life. You generally will find people being very restricted in their use
    > of the word in the primary literature (eg, the Bcl-2 gene, or the
    > eyeless gene), so that it has an implicit subscript or index.
    > Memes do not assort in a ratio that requires this sort of definition.
    > They are defined (by Dawkins) as those things that are transmitted "with
    > appreciable frequency" after the definition by GC Williams in his 1966
    > book. This makes memes definitional objects - they are nominal things,
    > not actual ones. A meme is whatever we can recognise as being
    > transmitted, for whatever reason, with appreciable frequency, and so is
    > subject to selection.

    Hi John.

    In the case of "meme," we already have some more specific terms available for
    the kinds of things to which the term "meme" has been applied. These include
    "idea," "artifact," "behavior," "institution," etc. Because these terms are
    older and used by as many as a billion people, their meaning cannot easily
    make a dramatic change in the course of a scientist's career. Both the wide
    prevalence and the slowness of change in meaning can reduce the possibility
    of confusion when using these terms.

    The word "gene" also did not suffer any confusions arising from analogy to
    some other field. The word "meme," on the other hand, does suffer such
    confusions. Its meaning evolves not only by the influence from studies of
    culture, but also according to how closely it resembles various meanings for
    "gene." One of the distractions, for instance, is the idea that someone must
    be able to view a "meme" under a microscope -- an idea that Dawkins himself
    introduced in The Extended Phenotype (1982).

    --Aaron Lynch

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