Re: Mutation in an evolutionary hypothesis

From: Ray Recchia (
Date: Wed 13 Oct 2004 - 06:28:56 GMT

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    Sorry about that, the last paragraph in the previous message I sent was unfinished because of a problem with my email.

    At 11:57 AM 10/12/2004, you wrote:
    >I recently started getting in touch with memetic related papers so maybe I am
    >already late in the discussion of topics of some 6 years ago. Nevertheless, I
    >would appreciate to share some opinions with people more used to the subject.
    >The main reason I started reading about memetics was my search for missing
    >aspects on the synthetic approach of developmental robotics towards the
    >understanding of human intelligence.
    >One of the first things which happened to draw my attention was Ms. Blackmore
    >firm persistence on her claim that one should consider "true imitation" (not
    >emulation) alone as the only memetic process, excluding all other kinds of
    >social learning. I read some replies of authors from different backgrounds
    >convictively arguing that any social learning should be accounted for
    >because of the presence of the basic principles of a selection process
    >(replication, mutation, selection).
    > From my point of view it really seems to be the case that those so beautiful
    >and illustrative examples of the birds pecking bottles, and others may happen
    >to take some advantage of the memetic evolutionary approach. I realized those
    >authors who defend these social learning as a selection process argue that
    >replication is not in the motor pattern itself but on the specific rising of
    >new behaviors in different context. For instance, as some argue, one should
    >not account for the "birds pecking" itself but for the "bird pecking bottles"
    >as the replicated meme, maybe to be considered as a mutation of standard
    >"birds pecking trees".
    >But it also happens for me to agree with most of Ms. Blackmore arguments,
    >which for some reason lead me to question about one important aspect that
    >seems to be of crucial importance on the effectiveness of any evolutionary
    >system: mutation. I am not a biologist but it seems quite obvious for me that
    >the power of an evolutionary process somehow lies on its capacity of building
    >increasingly complex structures by the continuous improvement of replicas
    >evolved through selection. My questions are: Where does it lie the mutation
    >aspects of, let's say, "birds pecking bottles"? In which sense is it really
    >possible for such a "meme" to "evolve"?

    I think that such processes can be described as evolving. You might say that such behaviors are constrained by a genetic leash that limits the range of possibilities, but within that range, processes can become more refined over time. Consider for example, bird songs. Birds learn their territorial songs from others of their species and birds that grow up in the absence of other birds produce a song much different from those that have the opportunity to learn from others. Within the constraints of bird vocal limitations and mental capacity there, a bird song may have a selective advantage because it is very distinct from other sounds in the environment, allowing other birds to recognize it more readily. Very long songs might be selected for because they indicate greater fitness of their singers. The melodies of other songs may correlate to internal rhythms within their listeners and more likely to keep and hold their attention. Thus a bird song could potentially evolve towards more fit forms.

    > From my understanding it seems that memetics approach is powerful for
    >accounting for the population level phenomena of the spread of new behaviors
    >such as "birds pecking bottles", but these behaviors still seem to be more
    >close to genetic selection processes than for memetic processes. I'm very new
    >to the subject of memetics, and I cannot make a sharp division here (if there
    >is such), but isn't human memes evolution quite a different process?

    Human memetic evolution is in fact quite a different process. There has been a great deal of discussion about this here, but I think it is generally agreed that language is the key. Blackmore's insistence on describing all memetics in terms of imitation was the major failure of her book.

     From my own perspective (not agreed upon by a long shot) language has imitative components but it also arose from signalling, a process with evolutionary origins distinct from imitation. Signalling serves to provide others in a group with information about their environment that they are not directly capable of observing. In all creatures, signals can describe things at a distance, like "Hey, I just spotted a predator" or they can be used to convey information about the sender, like "I am going to attack you if you do not get away from my territory, and I would kick your behind if we fought." According to at least one study, 75% of the time that we use language we use it for gossip, the conveying of social information. Beyond it's signalling function, language can be used to convey "symbols", abstract concepts like "science" and "democracy". Symbols are memetic but do not (in my way of thinking) fit within the classic behaviorist notion of imitation. A quadriplegic can have the symbol of "science" but may engage in a very different set of behaviors with that symbol than a fully able bodied person.

    Ray Recchia

    >Rodrigo da Silva Guerra
    >The memetics references I mainly studied up to now were:
    >author = "Richard Dawkins",
    >title = "The Selfish Gene",
    >publisher = "Oxford University Press",
    >year = "1976",
    >author = "Liane Gabora",
    >title = "A Day in the Life of a Meme",
    >journal = "Philosophica",
    >year = "1996",
    >number = "57",
    >pages = "901-938",
    >author = "Susan Blackmore",
    >title = "Imitation and the definition of a meme",
    >journal = "Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information
    >year = "1998",
    >volume = "2",
    >number = "2",
    >pages = "159-170",
    >month = "December",
    >author = "Simon M. Reader and Kevin N. Laland",
    >title = "Do Animals Have Memes?",
    >journal = "Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information
    >year = "1999",
    >volume = "3",
    >number = "2",
    >pages = "100-108",
    >This mail sent through IMP:
    >This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    >Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    >For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)

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