Replicator Definition

Piers YoungNotes1 Comment

Erm, there seems to be lot of disagreement here. Two views that kept popping up were:
a) Dawkins’ idea that a hen is an egg’s way of making another egg, and
b) Daniel C. Dennett’s extension of that view into meme territory, the idea that scholars are libraries ways of making more libraries.

Right. Back to replicators. They come hand in hand with phenotypes. Dawkins – and I’m going to stick with you on this one if that’s all right Rich? – has explained them like this:

It is legitimate to speak of adaptations as being ‘for the benefit of’ something, but that something is best not seen as the individual organism. It is a smaller unit which I call the active, germ-line replicator. The most important kind of replicator is the ‘gene’ or small genetic fragment. Replicators are not, of course, selected directly, but by proxy; they are judged by their phenotypic effects. Although for some purposes it is convenient to think of these phenotypic effects as being packaged together in discrete ‘vehicles’ such as individual organisms, this is not fundamentally necessary. Rather, the replicator should be thought of as having extended phenotypic effects, consisting of all its effects on the world at large, not just its effects on the individual body in which it happens to be sitting

So, as far as memes go, I think the situation is as follows.

There is a meme in my head – let’s call it the breakdancing meme. I meet you in the street at the bus stop, and for no apparent reason I start to body pop. At that moment, I am the meme’s phenotypic effect. And then you look at me thinking, “that certainly is cool”. At this point we can say that the breakdancing meme has an extended phenotypic effect. You ask me to teach you how to spin on your head, where I learnt the moves I have, what music is best to breakdance to etc until I have to catch my bus. You go back home (taking the breakdancing meme with you) start practising, and pretty soon are better than me. The meme has propagated. And then, come Christmas, for no reason you start to body pop in front of your grandmother, who says “Oh I know all that, I read it in a magazine”.

Fundamentally what the meme/replicator/phenotype malarkey is saying is that: memes exist (breakdancing), they replicate themselves by means of their phenotypic effects (“breakdancing people”) but it is incidental that you or I are the way memes replicate. You could have read a book, or a magazine that carried the meme. Breakdancers, in the Dawkins-Dennet view, are breakdancers are breakdancing’s way of making more breakdancing moves.

I’m not sure how true this all is. And Dawkins, in fairness, has said he isn’t either with regards to memes. What he has said is that this approach – idea of an extended phenotype – is incredibly useful for achieving a deeper understanding of evolutionary processes.

There’s a good article on Language Change which argues against this mode of propagation. It’s worth reading in full I think, but the author has a pithy conclusion.

Language is a form of behaviour; language change is a change in linguistic behaviour. As Joan Beal, talking of the great vowel shift, put it: ‘It’s not the vowels doing it themselves, of course; it’s the speakers that are doing it’

Daniel C. Dennett:
Dawkins Quotes:
Language Change article:


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