Richard Dawkins: How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think : Reflections by Scientists, Writers, and Philosophers

By Alan Grafen; Mark Ridley | Go to book overview
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THE GENE MEME

David Haig

IN the final chapter of The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins explored the analogy between genetic and cultural evolution. Cultural traits, he suggested, evolve by a process of natural selection in which there is preferential proliferation of traits with properties that promote their own transmission. 'We need a name for the new replicator,' he wrote, 'a noun which conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. [Mimeme] comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like [gene]. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme.' Dawkins concluded his discussion, 'However speculative my development of the theory of memes may be, there is one serious point which I would like to emphasize once again. This is that when we look at the evolution of cultural traits and at their survival value, we must be clear whose survival we are talking about.' He entertained the possibility 'that a cultural trait may have evolved in the way that it has, simply because it is advantageous to itself.1

The 'meme' has exhibited admirable powers of replication and persistence in the thirty years since its conception, but its cultural spread pales before that of the monosyllable it was chosen to imitate. In the first half of this essay, I will consider the diverse meanings that have become associated with that simple meme, the 'gene'. Not every scientist means the same thing when they refer to a gene and these differences in nuance can be a source of confusion. In particular, I will discuss Dawkins' explicit definitions of the selfish gene and, in the guise of the strategic gene, propose what I believe to have been Dawkins' implicit definition of the selfish gene. We can think of the changing and diversifying concepts of the gene as an example of memetic evolution. The second half

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