Re: reading a book

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Tue 26 Apr 2005 - 13:35:28 GMT

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    At 09:49 AM 26/04/05 +0200, you wrote:
    >Keith Henson wrote:
    >>>>. If an animal picks up behavior modifying information from another
    >>>>animal, that's a meme being passed. The ability to pass information
    >>>>from one animal to another comes originally from animal's ability to learn.
    >>>>Mammals are generally good at this, primates are very good, great apes
    >>>>even better, and humans unsurpassed. It isn't hard to see where the
    >>>>mental capacity to support culture comes from (where memes are
    >>>>elements of culture).
    >>>>Keith Henson
    >>>I'd agree with this "continuum" view, although as I've said elsewhere
    >>>today I wouldn't therefore automatically describe what animals do as memetic.
    >>Did they learn if from another animal? By definition that makes it a
    >>meme, and potentially subject to the effects of evolution. (Birds
    >>opening milk bottles for example.)
    >OK - as you say, this is mostly a terminological quibble.

    There have been extended periods on this mailing list and alt.memetics where terminological quibbles dominated the discussion. :-(

    >I've found it useful to distinguish between the sort of culture that can
    >"take off" in its evolution in the way that human culture has, and the
    >sort that is context-bound in the way that (most? all?) animal culture is.

    It was a slow process even after our remote ancestors started chipping rocks. Really slow, hundreds to thousands of generations per innovation.

    >Just as genes will have evolved from some more primitive biological stuff,
    >so it makes sense to me that memes will have evolved from some more
    >primitive mental/cultural "stuff" (which is merely a lazy use of language
    >rather than a crack in the door through which Descartes can slip!).

    Memes originate from one animal learning something and others imitating the original or those who have learned the meme earlier. Example: the spread of the potato washing meme in provisioned monkeys. As I remember, the birds learning to peck open milk bottles spread all over England in a few years. Memes in animals usually originate as random events, such as the New Zealand parrots learning to peck the kidneys out of live sheep starting with dead or dying ones.

    It is not hard to see that the ability to learn would improve reproductive success, i.e., it would be selected over evolutionary time. Once that ability reaches a level we see in a fair number of animals, an intercommunicating group of animals becomes to memes like the primal soup was to genes.

    The hominid line from which we came had at least the learning and imitating abilities of chimps. I suspect that the finding that edges from broken rocks could cut tough meat was a random accident. It might have taken two such accidents, the second being that humans could make shape edges in by breaking rocks. (There are reasons to think that memes for baby slings and bags might have even come first, but they didn't leave traces like human rock shaping.)

    The difference between humans and the other animals who pass along a few elements of culture is that our line got caught in a hypercycle where memes enhanced our survival. After its invention, the hand ax memes of making and using this shape of rocks for water hole hunting persisted for more than a million years. The ability to learn culture is what allowed humans to spread over more of the surface of the earth than any other animal of our size.

    For example, the memes for fire and cooking at least doubled the amount of energy we could absorb from food. Clothing cut the amount of food needed just to stay warm by some large factor. The very recent memes for agriculture increased the amount of food and therefore the population by roughly 100 times.

    William Calvin argues that projectile release timing drove the expansion of the brain. He is probably right. But making and using projectile weapons for hunting are memes, and larger brains are also better at holding more memes.

    All of the above is obvious if you have the background in the evolutionary history of the human line.

    What isn't so obvious is why memes that are of no or negative survival value sometimes do well. I believe I know, having been induced to figure it out by experiences that can't be recommended.

    And more depressing is why there are times (set off by ecological conditions) when xenophobic memes spread well and sync up a tribe's warriors to do or die against a neighboring tribe.

    But that's where the knowledge edge is, in the interface between evolutionary psychology and memetics.

    Keith Henson

    >And, as I've said, the distinction strikes me as useful.

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