Re: Distinguishing characteristics

From: Philip Jonkers (
Date: Sun 20 Oct 2002 - 20:02:25 GMT

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    > > > When I look out on the lush lawn of the park I see a number of birds
    > >hopping
    > > > around competing for crumbs of bread, etc. How do I know which ones
    > >call
    > > > robins, which to call crows, which to call pigeons, etc.? They are
    > > > birds, but each type has distinguishing characteristics. Individual
    > >birds
    > > > also have distinguishing characteristics. So how can we distinguish
    > >memes
    > > > from other types of behavior and experience? What are the
    > >distinguishing
    > > > characteristics of a meme? If we can't find any, we can't do much
    > >the
    > > > concept. If we can't agree on what they are, it will be difficult to
    > >define
    > > > them. So how do we go about deciding what the distinguishing
    > > > characteristics of a meme are?

    > >Here's one suggestion: a distinguishing characteristic of a meme from
    > >non-memes is that the former, unlike the latter, is being
    > >replicated (by non-genetic means for sake of quoting our
    > >great hero Richard Dawkins).

    > I agree replicability is a good candidate, but does that mean things that
    > can be replicated or only things that do get replicated? Since nothing
    > replicated perfectly, do we distinguish between what is transferred but
    > altered by the recipient and what is copied to near perfection? Does the
    > ballet dancer who picks up a new step from her teacher but performs it
    > the first few times "get it" or does she not? Or the Mexican who learns
    > some English and pronounces "shoes" as "choose." What memes were
    > transferred there? My own opinion is that the "sh" sound is a meme in
    > itself and although a person picks up most of the memes involved in
    > a language some are not transferred. With practice, the Mexican will
    > the proper pronunciation but has he/she not picked up the meme until sound
    > is perfect?
    > There seems to be a lot of grey area in the transmission and replicability
    > of memes. If a thing is a meme because it CAN be replicated that would
    > things that are not replicated memes. But if replicable behavior is
    > replicated perfectly, or is altered after being learned, can we really say
    > that only replicated behavior can be called a meme?
    > The answer might lie in defining a meme in terms of a number of
    > distinguising characteristics that separate the meme from other possible
    > candidates. Now all we have to do is decide what the set of possible
    > candidates consists of. That, of course, also means coming up with names
    > for all the various candidates -- the things that are NOT memes.

    You address a cardinal point Grant. We stumbled upon the same fundamental problem we discussed last year regarding speciation. Analogous to biology, it's somewhat arbitrary and subjective to call one group of organisms a species and an other related group a variant or sub-species. The same dilemma we encouter in memetics: do we call some cultural element a separate meme or a sub-meme (or not a meme at all)? Evolution doesn't care. Evolution happens with or without observers trying to describe it. Evolution laughs at our feeble taxonomous attempts to organise and categorize it. For all practical purposes evolution happens continuously, that is `species' or `memes' pop up smoothly rather than discretely. This discretization of memes/genes/species, through nomenclature, is due to the inherent unsuitability of our language to describe the continuous process of evolution. And for good reason: it simply doesn't pay to go out and differentiate every teeny weeny by giving it a separate name (apart from pets and humans, but we all call them dogs and humans enyway). It's more efficient to label similarity rather than uniqueness in a lot of cases (in particular behavior and artifacts).


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