Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance

Ton Maas (
Wed, 16 Sep 1998 17:51:38 +0200

Message-Id: <v0310280cb2258ab6ce56@[]>
In-Reply-To: <>
Date: Wed, 16 Sep 1998 17:51:38 +0200
From: Ton Maas <>
Subject: Re: On Gatherer's behaviourist stance

Bill wrote:

>But, can't one say that a meme is to culture as the gene is to biology and
>then look for it? If that's what you do, then it is my belief that you
>aren't going to find memes inside people's brains. It's one thing to define
>memes by saying that "those things there" are memes. It's a bit different
>to define memes by asserting that they must play a certain role in an
>evolutionary story.

Says Biology to Gene: "And who are you?
Last time I looked, they were still calling me Natural History."

The problem we're dealing with here is that the relationship between genes
and biology is as troubled and ambiguous as the supposedly similar
relationship between memes and culture. By emphasizing the genetic
(=digital) process biologists have actually de-historialised (how's that
for a word?) nature. The Human Genome Project is one enormous pipe-dream if
there ever was one. Why? Because the underlying assumption is the old
craving for monocausal explanations explaining away those intolerable
complexities of reality. Detailed descriptive knowledge about our genes
will _never_ enable us to kick death (or stay healthy ever after), but it
sure as hell will make administrators and insurance companies extremely
happy. They're going to have unchallenged scientific backing for excluding
all sorts of medical risks. Brrr.

OTOH glimpses of a more poetic and historical view on nature can be found
in the works of Varela and Maturana, as well as in those of Gregory Bateson
[ironically named after Gregor Mendel by his father William, who coined the
term "genetic"] and D'Arcy Wentworth Thompson. Maybe there is still hope.


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