Biology and Philosophy

, Volume 19, Issue 1, pp 127–143 | Cite as

Ideas are not replicators but minds are

  • Liane Gabora


An idea is not a replicator because it does not consist of coded self-assembly instructions. It may retain structure as it passes from one individual to another, but does not replicate it. The cultural replicator is not an idea but an associatively-structured network of them that together form an internal model of the world, or worldview. A worldview is a primitive, uncoded replicator, like the autocatalytic sets of polymers widely believed to be the earliest form of life. Primitive replicators generate self-similar structure, but because the process happens in a piecemeal manner, through bottom-up interactions rather than a top-down code, they replicate with low fidelity, and acquired characteristics are inherited. Just as polymers catalyze reactions that generate other polymers, the retrieval of an item from memory can in turn trigger other items, thus cross-linking memories, ideas, and concepts into an integrated conceptual structure. Worldviews evolve idea by idea, largely through social exchange. An idea participates in the evolution of culture by revealing certain aspects of the worldview that generated it, thereby affecting the worldviews of those exposed to it. If an idea influences seemingly unrelated fields this does not mean that separate cultural lineages are contaminating one another, because it is worldviews, not ideas, that are the basic unit of cultural evolution.

acquired characteristics associative network autocatalytic closure conceptual closure culture evolution idea origin of life replicator self-replication worldview 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 2004

Authors and Affiliations

  • Liane Gabora
    • 1
  1. 1.Center Leo Apostel for Interdisciplinary Studies (CLEA)Free University of Brussels (VUB)BrusselsBelgium

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