Re: re.Cultural Evolution (units of analysis)

Mario Vaneechoutte (
Mon, 16 Jun 1997 09:01:33 -0700

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 16 Jun 1997 09:01:33 -0700
From: Mario Vaneechoutte <>
Subject: Re: re.Cultural Evolution (units of analysis)

Bill Benzon wrote:
> Mario Vaneechoutte says,
> >Bill Benzon wrote:
> >>
> >> >From Alex Brown
> >>
> >> >The problem in the usage of the term 'meme' is
> >> >that it is applied to (interchangable with) several different levels of
> >> >analysis at the same time leading to all sorts of confusions in the
> >> >search for the mechanisms of cultural evolution. I offer the following
> >> >for discussion:
> >> >
> >>
> >> yes
> >
> >Yes, yes. I hate to say this, but Dawkins is to be blamed.
> >
> Fine by me. Seems to me he recognized the possibility of treating culture
> as a Darwinian evolutionary system, but really hasn't given much thought
> about how to realize that notion. But he wrote a very popular book or two
> on evolution and coined a catchy term, so we seem to be stuck with his
> superficial formulations as well. Given that the term "meme" has been
> around awhile etc I sort of feel obligated to use it. But I'm not happy
> with the baggage which seems to come attached to the term.

Agreed. Still, having reread the last chapter of the Selfish Gene this
weekend, I keep finding it impressive. The problems I have with it are
1. Naming genes and memes replicators; 2. Naming behaviour, common day
thoughts, religions, science, ... with a single term (OK, they have
something in common, but one name obstructs further insights); 3. The
selective force he offers to explain different replication of memes:
brain computing space.

Writing a chapter like the one on memes in TSG is even more impressive,
when you consider the fact that it is written by someone who is so
deeply impressed by genes. Others tried to explain all cultural
phenomena as having been selected by genetic processes.
This idea is still widely present. E.g., I reacted some years ago to
some correspondence letters in Nature which claimed that religious
people or societies had biological selective advantage over nonreligious
people or societies, which explained why most people were religious.

So, at least I still owe a lot to Dawkins. Our criticisms can as well be
considered as tributes.

Mario Vaneechoutte
Laboratory Bacteriology & Virology
Blok A, De Pintelaan 185
University Hospital Ghent
Belgium 9000 Ghent
Tel: +32 9 240 36 92
Fax: +32 9 240 36 59
Editor J. Memetics:

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