Re: facets of meme-talk

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Sat, 28 Aug 1999 13:40:00 EDT

From: <>
Date: Sat, 28 Aug 1999 13:40:00 EDT
Subject: Re: facets of meme-talk

The following is something that I wrote for the Critical Cafe that I think is
appropriate for this thread here.


I wrote:

"Debate has raged in biological circles whether it was the individual
organism, the group, or an entire species that was the primary concern for
natural selection in evolution. Richard Dawkins has taken it down to the
level of the gene. According to his theory, it is the gene as a basic unit
of biological information that is the primary concern for natural selection,
thus transcending individuals organisms, groups and species."

I continue musing in a tangent:

And thus by transcending individual organisms, groups, and species --
dispensing with questions about how it is that individual organisms, if
conceived as the primary replicator under some other theories, can behave
apparently "altruistically" toward each other when they would otherwise be
considered competitors. In Dawkin's theory, natural selection is
fundamentally reduced to the level of genes. This makes more sense because
on biological evolutionary scales -- individual organisms, groups, and even
some extent species, are more fleeting than the genetic information that are
carried through those mediums.

There is an ironic implication, however, for the more philosophically astute.
I am not sure that Dawkins himself considered the implications of doing this
in biology. If genes are now considered to be the replicator in the
evolutionary algorithm for this theory, then "genes" have not been defined in
terms of DNA. They have been defined in terms of the evolutionary algorithm.
Strictly speaking "genes" are now primary biological replicators. Certainly
DNA will have a major role to play, but all by itself it is not a
*complete*replicator*. By itself, DNA is an inert string of nucleotides, not
a gene. When considered in light of its phenotypical expression, it
definitely becomes the repository for genotypical information for selective

But in this theory "gene" has to be more than just DNA. In fact, there is no
reason in principle that other things can take the role of DNA in genes. For
example RNA in retroviruses, or proteins in prions to give examples of other
replicators. Indeed some of these display the characteristic that
alterations in the phenotype necessarily causes alteration in genotype,
making them more Lamarckian than DNA replicators. Certainly doesn't
demonstrate that Neo-Darwinism is wrong in any significant measure for
biological considerations - DNA along with geno/phenotype dichotomy is
definitely dominant throughout the biosphere and has a stability that other
strictly biological templates cannot match.

But it does give one pause to reflect on whether Lamarckian thought has no
role to play in evolution abstractly or biology in particular as some
Neo-Darwinists would insist. Certainly one might legitimately consider what
more Lamarckian mechanisms were at work in the chemical evolution that
preceded the initial emergence of DNA as the dominant genotypical mechanism.
(Example, are DNA-less autocatalytic sets Lamarckian? If not, on what basis
can we draw a distinction between genotype and phenotype that would remove it
from that categorization?) And once that is understood, the question becomes
legitimate whether those mechanisms have any role left in biology today.

Furthermore, prospectively thinking, once DNA based life (humans) reach the
point where they both easily and habitually directly alter their own DNA germ
line (which, by the way is only a question of "how soon?" and not "if?"), how
is this going to be distinguishable from Lamarckian evolution? If cultural
evolution is Lamarckian, which I think it is to some extent, and it comes to
dominate biological evolution, which I think it already has in some respects,
then how are we going to describe the resulting chimera -- of cultural
evolution superimposed on biological evolution? While Neo-Darwinism
undeniably has practical explanatory advantages in the current questions
being addressed in biology (and so in that capacity I regard it as truth), I
don't think it will do as well beyond that with these bigger questions.
Indeed, one day memetics may also be a theory of neo-biology, and not just of


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