Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Rivals to gene-based terminology

In my memetics book, I propose that we use the term "gene" for the heritable elements in evolution - and ignore or discard the numerous dictionaries and textbooks that claim that genes are "molecular units of heredity" - or that they have anything to do with DNA or RNA.

There have been some other proposals for terms that convey this meaning:
  • Mneme. Richard Semon (1904) wrote:

    Instead of speaking of a factor of memory, a factor of habit, or a factor of heredity and attempting to identify one with another, I have preferred to consider these as manifestations of a common principal, which I shall call the mnemic principal.
  • Meme. In his book The Mocking Memes - A Basis for Automated Intelligence, Evan Louis Sheehan writes:
    I define memes to include every sort of pattern that serves as a template for its own replication.
  • Replicator. David Hull (1988b) proposed replicators fill the role of the carriers of heredity in evolving systems.
Deploying Richard Semon's term "mneme" in the modern era seems rather impractical.

Evan Louis Sheehan's "meme" tries to hijack an existing term. "Meme" has an established meaning which does not obviously need to change. I think the attempt fails.

The proposals of David Hull and Evan Louis Sheehan also suffer from a technical problem - since they only include copyable heredity information, and not all heritable information is capable of being copied.

How do genes differ from ordinary information? In other words, what is an example of information that is not inherited? Conventionally, there is no inheritance without some living thing being involved. Also, information that is destroyed is not inherited. Other forms of information could potentially be inherited by some living thing or another.

So: "gene" still seems to be better overall. Of course, this raises the issuse of what name should we give to small chunks of nucleic acid. Im my book, I wrote:

Those are "genes" too, of course, and can normally simply be referred to as such - but if a term is really wanted to refer specifically to nucleic acid chunks while excluding other forms of inheritance - they could be called "organic genes", "cellular genes", "nuclear genes" or "DNA genes" - depending on exactly what you actually meant.
What about snappy abbreviations?

"Denes" is my pick for "DNA genes" - with "denetics" referring to their study.

"Nenes" is my pick for "nuclear genes" - with "nenetics" referring to their study.

Update 2013-05-19: Dawkins said:

Completely unknown to me when I coined "meme" in 1976, the German biologist Richard Semon wrote a book called Die Mneme (English translation The Mneme (London, Allen & Unwln, 1921)) in which he adopted the "mneme" coined in 1870 by the Austrian physiologist Ewald Hering.

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