Re: "The Selfish Gene"

From: Stevan Harnad (
Date: Sat Oct 11 1997 - 23:09:18 BST

Klair, your summary and excerpts were very helpful but I would have
liked to hear it in your own words, with your own comments on it all.

> From: Spencer Klair-Louise <>
> "Darwin's 'survival of the fittest' is really a special case of a more
> general law of survival of the stable" p.12

or the survival of the survivor...

> "One way for genes to solve the problem of making predictions in rather
> unpredictable environments is to build in a capacity for learning"p.57

And this is where the big questions for cognitive psychology start.
Because learning organisms are not just genetically programmed
organisms. The medium of learning has rules of its own; it's no longer
the same replicator game.

> " Memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically
> but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally
> parasitize my brain turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in
> just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host
> cell." P.192

Here again, we are getting into material that is controversial: It is
ANALOGOUS to biological evolution, but there are also huge
disanalogies. It is true that DNA, chromosomes, and organisms are real
things you can point to, whereas individual "genes" are more distributed
entities (though they must all be in the cell somewhere). But from the
fact that the fundamental concept of Dawkins's book, the gene, is an
abstract entity it is hard to localise exactly in space, it does not
follow that there is another abstract entity, the "meme" that serves in
the cognitive world the same role as the gene in the noncognitive

> "Selection favours memes that exploit their cultural environment to their
> own advantage. This cultural environment consists of other memes which are
> also being selected" p. 199

But this allows no difference between an idea that propagates because
it is correct and an idea that propagates because a dictator forces
everyone to adopt it.

I had the feeling that in the nonbiological medium of planets and rocks
and glaciers, the notion of a PHYSICAL "replicator" did not really make
sense. It's clear that life "evolved" out of those conditions, but it's
not true that every physical, causal process in the world is an
"evolutionary" one (if evolution is not to be used so vaguely and
abstractly that it is not longer explanatory (planets evolve, stars
evolve, volcanos evolve, etc.).

I also found that on the other side of biology, in the area of
cognition, I again didn't find the idea of evolution all that helpful.
Sure people pass on ideas and practises, but thinking of the mechanisms
underlying the passing on of ideas and practises as "memes" analogous to
"genes" does not cast more light on them (for me).

These are the kinds of points you should be commenting on rather than
just repeating,

> "We should not seek immortality in reproduction. But if you contribute to
> the world's culture, if you have a good idea, compose a tune, invent a
> sparking plug, write a poem, it may live on intact, long after your genes
> have dissolve in the common pool" p.199

We knew that already, and did not learn anything new from the
evolutionary analogy, did we?

> "We alone on earth can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish
> replicators" p.201

Now that's more interesting -- but not if we see it is "memes vs genes".
It's more sensible to ask: In what ways has cognition freed itself from
its deterministic, biological, adaptation-based origins? (If it HAS
freed itself: Has it?)

> "Many wild animals and plants are engaged in ceaseless games of Prisoner's
> Dilemma, played out in evolutionary time" p.203

Define the Prisoner's Dilemma.

> "An animals behaviour tends to maximise the survival of the genes ' for'
> that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the
> particular animal performing it" p.253

This is a tricky concept and deserves to be thought about.

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