Resistance and non-resistance to boundary crossing in translation research

Siobhan Brownlie

Ideas, concepts, theories and methods spread within and across disciplines, communities, countries and traditions. Richard Dawkins (1976: 214) has suggested that memes (units of cultural transmission) are in competition for survival, and that in some situations of stability it is difficult for a new meme to invade. My interest is in concepts, theories and methods in academia, and the fact that these memes have more or less difficulty in spreading. They encounter more or less resistance in jumping boundaries, whether those boundaries are disciplinary or boundaries constituted by national research traditions. The aim of my paper is to discuss the spread of ideas, and situations of resistance and non-resistance to the spread of ideas, taking as examples three cases of boundary-crossing research projects in Translation Research. I shall suggest through those examples how resistance may be overcome.

Table of contents

Sparked by Dawkins’ (1976) novel suggestion of a parallel between genes (units of biological transmission) and memes (units of cultural transmission), a theory of memes or memetics has developed. The theory is inspired by Darwinian evolution. It is suggested that cultural complexity may have arisen through mechanisms analogous to those responsible for the formation of organic life. There are mechanisms of variation, selection and retention, even though for the cultural, transmission is just as much horizontal (within the same generation) as vertical (in succeeding generations) (Blackmore 1999: 132). The main problem indeed is to establish the exact analogies between the biological and the cultural, and this has given rise to a number of divergences among meme theorists. Nicholas Rose (1998) outlines a series of four controversies. The first concerns the definition of a meme. Some [ p. 334 ]meme theorists, including Dawkins in his early work, have not made a distinction between whether a meme is a kind of instruction in the mind, or whether it is also a material manifestation (a phenotype). A second controversy concerns Lamarckian heredity, a theory largely rejected in biology but which seems to be applicable to cultural units. Lamarckism means that acquired characteristics of the phenotype can be inherited. The third controversy outlined by Rose concerns the relation between sociobiology and memetics. Susan Blackmore (1999) says that the major difference between sociobiology and memetics is that sociobiologists argue that cultural evolution supports biological advantage, whereas for memeticists memes are ‘selfish’, seeking only their own advantage. The results of sociobiology should not, however, be ignored. A theory of cultural evolution would best incorporate sociobiological findings, and call upon the addition of cultural mechanisms where they are necessary in order to accurately describe or explain behavioural phenomena (Rose 1998). The final controversy concerns the question of the self or consciousness. Intuitively it is difficult for us to get rid of the notion of self, and some memeticists retain the role of the self. On the other hand, Rose (1998), Dennett (1995) and Blackmore (1999) argue strongly that there is no point in constructing a theory of the evolution of culture if it does not propose a process of ‘natural selection’. In this view humans are a mixture of genes and memes, and memes which already occupy the brain influence the brain to accept or reject new memes.

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