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Darwin-L Message Log 5:111 (January 1994)

Academic Discussion on the History and Theory of the Historical Sciences

This is one message from the Archives of Darwin-L (1993–1997), a professional discussion group on the history and theory of the historical sciences.

Note: Additional publications on evolution and the historical sciences by the Darwin-L list owner are available on SSRN.


<5:111>From SMITGM@hawkins.clark.edu  Wed Jan 19 18:55:54 1994

To: darwin-l@ukanaix.cc.ukans.edu
From: "Gerard Donnelly Smith"  <SMITGM@hawkins.clark.edu>
Organization: Clark College, Vancouver WA, USA
Date: 19 Jan 94 16:54:06 PST8PDT
Subject: memetic vs. mimetic

    The theory of mimetic desire postulated by Rene Girard in THE
SCAPEGOAT, VIOLENCE AND THE SACRED and DECEIT AND DESIRE IN THE
NOVEL, should be mentioned when discussing Dawkins' meme. The
transmission of ideas through cultural rituals either in language
(oral or print), dance, plastic arts, etc., are selfish in Dawkins'
sense.  "Memes," if we must use the term to stand for abstract
concepts or technological advances in a culture, compete with each
other within the culture's "genetic" field, the system of checks
and balance (taboos, rules, laws) which keep the society from
fragmenting due to internal conflict caused by biological
competition.  Paradigms exist to suppress fear of nature, fear of
"the other", fear of the unknown.  We replace paradigms when new
technologies or new religions (science?) explain nature, both human
and nonhuman, better.  Selection, in this case, is not random, but
more precisely fits the "survival of the fittest" metaphor.  The most
fit paradigm proceeds.
    True, no metaphysical system ever dies, but continues to compete
within the cultural "meme" pool. Yet, the characteristics of that
genome, shall we say menome," can be rejected by the offspring,
whereas, genes may not.  We may be able to alter genes in the future,
which does create an interesting analogy between cultural
transmission and biological transmission.
    Christianity, an new paradigm, which met with stiff resistence
can be discussed in these terms, as can almost all new ideas which
were seen as heretical (ie. Galileo theories were heretical to the
Catholic church and continued to compete with church supported
theories for 600 years).
    Individual etymologies might also be discussed using the "meme"
analogy.  "ain't" has been in direct competition with "am not" for
years and regardless of grammar teacher's insistence on the latter,
has been "selfish" enough to replicate.  But this is where I have to
draw the line.   Personification may be useful in poetry, prose and
may help in explaining the activities of some biologically driven
processes, but using terms like "selfish," and "conscious" to describe
competition between words doesn't help the matter.
    I would much rather stick with mimetic theory to describe the
cultural transmission of ideas and technologies, and, yes, I think
mimesis can be applied to linguistics and language change as well.
Mimetic theory has a long an illustrious history and it is a serious
science.  Dawkins' work is insightfull, but mimetic rather than
memetic theory explains the parallels the list wishes to make.

"If a wise man gives thee better counsel, give me mine again.  I
would know that a fool follows it, for a knave gives it."

Dr. Gerard Donnelly-Smith            e-mail: smitgm@hawkins.clark.edu
English Department, Clark College

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