Sunday, 26 January 2014

Selfishness != parasitism

There's a longstanding muddle associated with the "selfish gene" terminology of Richard Dawkins. The idea is that genetic selfishness tends to lead to anti-social individual behaviour. This misunderstanding has been transferred by some to memetics. Peter Richerson provides our example of this today:

One of the problems with the meme concept as it evolved is that users of the term focused far too heavily on the selfish potential of memes. But I think it is near to undeniable that cultural variants are sometimes selected to become selfish patthogens along the lines that Dawkins suggested.

Here, Richerson seems to be equating - or associating - selfishness with parasitism. To a memeticist, this is a false equation. Most memes behave selfishly. By that, what is meant that they behave as though they are self-interested agents that act so as to maximize their representation in future generations. Most genes also behave selfishly in this way. That is the meaning of the title of "The Selfish Gene".

Memeticists correctly focused on the selfish potential of memes. Memes are typically selfish - and treating them as such allows you to understand and explain their behaviour. However, selfish genes can reside in deleterious symbionts (like fleas), or mutualist symbionts (like gut bacteria). Selfish memes are the same: they can reside in helpful ideas (such as knots) or unhelpful ones (such as obestity-promoting memes).

Selfishness != parasitism. This is just a misunderstanding of the "selfishness" terminology - when applied to memes and genes.

I've picked on this Richerson quote before - but that was for different reasons.

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