Semiotic systems with duality of patterning and the issue of cultural replicators

  • Gerhard SchadenEmail author
  • Cédric Patin
Original Paper
Part of the following topical collections:
  1. Darwin in the Humanities and the Social Sciences


Two major works in recent evolutionary biology have in different ways touched upon the issue of cultural replicators in language, namely Dawkins’ Selfish Gene and Maynard Smith and Szathmáry’s Major Transitions in Evolution. In the latter, the emergence of language is referred to as the last major transition in evolution (for the time being), a claim we argue to be derived from a crucial property of language, called Duality of Patterning. Prima facie, this property makes natural language look like a structural equivalent to DNA, and its peer in terms of expressive power. We will argue that, if one takes seriously Maynard Smith and Szathmáry’s outlook and examines what has been proposed as linguistic replicators, amongst others phonemes and words, the analogy meme-gene becomes problematic. A key issue is the fact that genes and memes are assumed to carry and transmit information, while what has been described as the best candidate for replicatorhood in language, i.e. the phoneme, does by definition not carry meaning. We will argue that semiotic systems with Duality of Pattering (like natural languages) force us to reconsider either the analogy between replicators in the biological and the cultural domain, or what it is to be a replicator in linguistics.


Replicator Meme Duality of Patterning Evolution Linguistics 



We would like to thank Sylvain Billiard and Pierre Boudry for their precious help on some technical aspects of the discussion, which allowed us to make significant improvements to the paper. We are also indebted to Staffan Müller-Wille, the editor in chief of HPLS, and Stefaan Blancke and Gilles Denis, the guest editors of this special issue, for their precious work and suggestions. Furthermore, we would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers, who guided us towards improvements in our argumentation. Portions of this article were presented at various workshops linked to the project ‘Darwinism in the Humanities and Social Sciences’, led by Johan Braeckman and Gilles Denis; we are grateful to audiences for their helpful questions and comments. None of them should be assumed to endorse anything in this article; all remaining errors and omissions are ours alone.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing AG, part of Springer Nature 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Université de Lille, CNRS UMR 8163 STL “Savoirs, Textes, Langage”Villeneuve d’Ascq CedexFrance

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