Sunday, February 22, 2009

of mechanisms and metaphors...,

It's been a minute since I had a case of Dawkins on the brain. When last I did, it was with regard to his interesting and perhaps tragically overused neologism, the "meme". Some folks, myself included, have been so taken in by the seductive novelty of this Dawkinsian metaphor, that it has entered into and permeated our lexical fields as if it expressed something definite and real.
Dawkins defined the meme as a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation, but later definitions would vary. The lack of a consistent, rigorous, and precise understanding of what typically makes up one unit of cultural transmission remains a problem in debates about memetics.
A "meme" is a seductive metaphor in much the same way that "IQ" is a seductive metaphor. In each case, however, the lack of a consistent, rigorous, and precise understanding of what makes up a unit of "intelligence" or a "unit of cultural transmission "renders the enterprises grown up around these metaphors both pernicious and acutely unscientific. Careless folks have become persuaded on that fundamentalist level of belief that in each instance they're talking about properly defined mechanisms. It never occurs to most to carefully examine the nature of the "thing" in question. But I digress......,

The Selfish Gene is a book on evolution by Richard Dawkins, published in 1976. It builds upon the principal theory of George C. Williams's first book Adaptation and Natural Selection. Dawkins coined the term selfish gene as a way of expressing the gene-centred view of evolution, which holds that evolution is best viewed as acting on genes and that selection at the level of organisms or populations almost never overrides selection based on genes. An organism is expected to evolve to maximize its inclusive fitness—the number of copies of its genes passed on globally (rather than by a particular individual). As a result, populations will tend towards an evolutionarily stable strategy. The book also coins the term meme for a unit of human cultural evolution analogous to the gene, suggesting that such "selfish" replication may also model human culture, in a different sense. Memetics has become the subject of many studies since the publication of the book.