Saturday, 1 November 2014

Peter Richerson's olive branch

Recently Peter Richerson wrote:

I don’t have a big problem with the concept of memes so long as the meme-gene analogy is not excessively rigid. Susan assures is that Rob’s, Joe’s and my old fears in this regard are unfounded.

There is good and bad here. It is good if it means that one source of anti-meme FUD in academia will quit with the misguided criticisms based on an unsympathetic interpretation of memetics. I have become pretty fed up over the years with people citing Peter Richerson as a reason for not using the "meme" term. Peter may be an expert on cultural evolution, but his criticisms of memes were generally feeble and inaccurate. As I see it, this situation is his fault - since he is the aggressor. If he quits with the invalid criticisms of the efforts of his fellow researchers, hopefully we can all get along a bit better.

However, I see two negative points. Firstly, memetics is not based on an analogy. Instead we have the Darwinian algorithm playing itself out in multiple media.

As Susan Blackmore put it:

memetics is not based on analogy but on the principle of universal Darwinism: the idea that memes undergo the same evolutionary algorithm as genes.

Just so. Secondly, according to my favored classification scheme, memes are not just like genes, they are genes. Genes are the units of heredity in evolution. Genetics is the science that studies heredity. Memes are the units of heredity in cultural evolution - and so they are a subset of genes - just as cultural evolution is a subset of evolution.

Of course, this is an argument about terminology. However, according to a literal reading of his comment, Peter would have a "big problem" with the position that memes are not just like genes - they are genes.

I've though long and hard about this over the years, and the terminology I favor is the best that I can think of - given the history of the field. I don't see much of a "big problem" here. Indeed, if there is a "big problem" in the area, it is with those who try and use the terms "gene" and "genetics" for something else. The science of heredity and the unit of heredity are ideas that deserve to be taken seriously. Parochial treatments of these topics are not acceptable as science.


  1. If memes is a subset of genes, then is DNA and RNA a subset of genes also? Dawkins coined memes as cultural equivalent of genes in biology.

  2. DNA and RNA are the names of molecules - not genes. However, the heritable information carried by DNA and RNA would be classified as being genes.

  3. So in your classification of the heritable information, apart from genes, do you give a specific name to the information carried by these molecules?

  4. I sometimes use the terms "DNA genes", "RNA genes", "nucleic genes", "nuclear genes" and "mitochondrial genes" - when I want to be more specific than just "genes". Apart from "genes", "DNA genes" is the most common one. It's a bit long-winded, it is true; but most of the other main alternative terminology proposals seem even less attractive to me.

    Incorporating cultural evolution into evolutionary theory isn't a walk in the park. Some things need to bend - and we have to weigh the costs of making changes against the costs of saddling our descendants with a messed-up classification scheme.