The meme metaphor

Paul Marsden (
Mon, 16 Mar 1998 16:58:17 -0000

From: "Paul Marsden" <>
To: <>
Subject: The meme metaphor
Date: Mon, 16 Mar 1998 16:58:17 -0000

>Dear memeticists,
>I am looking for references of important people stating that thinking
>by analogy of metaphor is a good way of thought, science,
>introduction of conceptual innovation and so on.
>I think aristotle, some systems science people and so on have stated
>such things.

Hi Hans, I don't want to state the obvious but don't forget our founding
father Darwin as the paradigmatic example! Darwin was prompted to write an
new introduction to the Origin after criticisms that his theory of natural
selection was only an analogy/metaphor. Here's a short excerpt from my Lit
Review including a quote form Darwin.

"Apart from the problem of accounting for variation, Darwins theory of
evolution by natural selection was ambiguous in a more general way. It is
not clear from the Origin whether Darwin originally intended natural
selection to be understood as an analogy based on his experience of
artificial selection or as a metaphor for understanding the process of
evolution, or indeed as a literal force of nature. He defended his tendency
to anthropomorphise and reify natural selection by arguing scientific
theorising is more or less obliged to do this for the sake of brevity:
It has been said that I speak of natural selection as an active power or
Deity; but who objects to an author speaking of the attraction of gravity as
ruling the movements of the planets? Every one knows what is meant and is
implied by such metaphorical expressions; and they are almost necessary for
brevity. So again it is difficult to avoid personifying the word nature;
but I mean by Nature, only the aggregate action and product of many natural
laws, and by laws the sequence of events as ascertained by us. With a
little familiarity such superficial objections will be forgotten. (Darwin
1859; 164-165)
This confusion as to the status of natural selection was an important factor
in convincing Darwin to adopt Wallace's suggestion of using Herbert Spencer
s term survival of the fittest as a synonym for natural selection (Hodge,
1992). This suggests that Darwin intended for natural selection to be
understood as a process that occurred under specific conditions of
variation, fitness variation, and inheritance rather than a force per se.
Interestingly the issue of whether natural selection should be understood as
a metaphor or a real process remains an unresolved debate in contemporary
evolutionary biology, and whilst the solution to the problem depends largely
the ontological and epistemological a prioris that are brought to bear on
the theory, we will return to the parallel debate in evolutionary sociology
in Chapter 5."


Paul Marsden
Graduate Research Centre in the Social Sciences
University of Sussex
tel/fax (44) (0) 117 974 1279

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