More on Dennett on Memes

Still thinking about Dan Dennett’s conception of memetics. He’s got an article in the Encyclopedia of Evolution (Oxford 2005), “New Replicators, The” that’s worth looking at.

Some bits. From the beginning:

…evolution will occur whenever and wherever three conditions are met: replication, variation (mutation), and differential fitness (competition).

In Darwin’s own terms, if there is “descent [i.e., replication] with modification [variation]” and “a severe struggle for life” [competition], better-equipped descendants will prosper at the expense of their competitors. We know that a single material substrate, DNA (with its surrounding systems of gene expression and development), secures the first two conditions for life on earth; the third condition is secured by the finitude of the planet as well as more directly by uncounted environmental challenges.

The first question, then, is whether or not these conditions are met by human culture. Dennett thinks they are and so do I.

From the end, however:

Do any of these candidates for Darwinian replicator actually fulfill the three requirements in ways that permit evolutionary theory to explain phenomena not already explicable by the methods and theories of the traditional social sciences? Or does this Darwinian perspective provide only a relatively trivial unification?

We do not yet know. But are the prospects for non-triviality good enough to warrant considerable investment of conceptual time and energy? And so

We should also remind ourselves that, just as population genetics is no substitute for ecology—which investigates the complex interactions between phenotypes and environments that ultimate yield the fitness differences presupposed by genetics—no one should anticipate that a new science of memetics would overturn or replace all the existing models and explanations of cultural phenomena developed by the social sciences. It might, however, recast them in significant ways and provoke new inquiries in much the way genetics has inspired a flood of investigations in ecology. Continue reading “More on Dennett on Memes”