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No. 115: Jan-Feb 1998

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Genes vs. memes

Vital to the concept of "gene wars" (mentioned in SF#114) is the assumption that our destiny is controlled by "selfish genes" (or "selfish DNA"). The idea that evolution works only at the gene level has been championed by R. Dawkins, and today it dominates much evolution philosophy. However, this "genetic imperialism" is now being challenged by some scientists who insist that culture also affects an organism's evolution, be it a human or an insect. In fact, it was Dawkins himself who first proposed the term "meme" for the cultural counterpart of the gene. A meme, in other words, is an "element" of culture that can be passed along to progeny by imitation and/or cultural pressures.

In reductionist thinking, environmental challenges are met by gene mutations plus natural selection. In meme theory, the same challenges are confronted by cultural changes (meme "mutation") plus natural selection. The meme approach is holistic rather than reductionist and is appealing because it allows us some control over our destiny.

There are several phenomena in which some scientists profess to see memes overpowering the genes:

  1. Generations of female infanticide have led to more male births than female births.
  2. In dairy-farming societies, 90% of the population has the enzyme lactase that allows individuals to digest cows' milk. In other societies, 80% become ill when drinking cows' milk.
  3. A variety of cultural pressures have raised the percentage of lefthanders in North America to 12% compared with just 2% a century ago. In Taiwan, where cultural pressures are quite different, only 1% of the populace is left-handed.

In the end, of course, neither genes nor memes are in total control. Both genes and societies can be selfish!

(Spinney, Laura; "The Unselfish Gene," New Scientist, p. 28, October 25, 1997.)

Comment. Surely, genes and memes are not all there is. We propose the word "xenes" for those evolutionary influences we haven't thought of yet. See also the later item on "evolvable hardware."

From Science Frontiers #115, JAN-FEB 1998. 1998-2000 William R. Corliss

Science Frontiers Sourcebook Project Reviewed in:


  • "A sourcebook of unexplained phenomena is therefore a valuable addition to a collection of scientific literature. William R. Corliss has provided this in the past with his source books of scientific anomalies in several subjects, and now he has provided it for astronomy. He has done an excellent job of collecting and editing a large amount of material, taken in part from scientific journals and in part from scientific reporting in the popular or semi-scientific press." -- "The Mysterious Universe: A Handbook of Astronomical Anomalies", reviwed by Thomas Gold, Cornell University, in Icarus, vol.41, 1980

  • "An interesting, systematic presentation of unusual weather [..] This book is recommended for a general audience" --"Corliss, William R., Tornados, Dark Days, Anomalous Precipitation, and Related Weather Phenomena, Sourcebook Project, 1983.", revieweed in Choice, September 1983
  • "..the science is necessarily somewhat speculative, but Corliss's symthesis is based on reputable sources." -- "Corliss, William R. (Compiler). Lightning, Auroras, Nocturnal Lights, and Related Luminous Phenomena" reviwed by Joseph M. Moran, Univ. of Wisconsin in Science Books and Films, Sep/Oct 1983

  • "Before opening the book, I set certain standards that a volume which treads into dangerous grounds grounds like this must meet. The author scrupulously met, or even exceeded those standards. Each phenomenon is exhaustively documented, with references to scientific journals [..] and extensive quotations" -- "Book Review: The moon and planets: a catalog of astronomical anomalies", The Sourcebook Project, 1985., Corliss, W. R., Journal of the Royal Astronomical Society of Canada, Vol. 81, no. 1 (1987), p. 24., 02/1987