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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