Monday, 4 November 2013

Ernst Mayr on memes

Ernst Mayr disapproved of Dawkins and his gene-centric view of evolution. He wrote in The objects of selection:

Dawkins (19) has introduced the term “meme” for the entities subject to selection in cultural evolution. It seems to me that this word is nothing but an unnecessary synonym of the term “concept.” Dawkins apparently liked the word meme owing to its similarity to the word gene. In neither his definition nor the examples illustrating what memes are does Dawkins mention anything that would distinguish memes from concepts. Concepts are not restricted to an individual or to a generation, and they may persist for long periods of time. They are able to evolve.
By long convention, memes are socially transmitted - whereas concepts and ideas need not be. All memes are concepts - whereas not all concepts are memes. This simple observation destroys the criticism that "meme" is a synonym of "concept". "Meme" and "concept" refer to different sets of things - and have done so since 1976.

Memetic terminology offers a benefit which the term "concept" does not. As I put it in 2008:

One good thing about the term "meme" is its link to the term "gene" - which immediately conjours up the intended association. The term "concept" does not do this. This association helps people to grasp the basic idea of cultural evolution.
Of course, we still need the idea of conceptual evolution - since individually-learned ideas evolve too.

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