Review of "The Selfish Meme" part II

From: Ray Recchia (
Date: Tue 21 Jun 2005 - 12:37:01 GMT

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    As I mentioned in the first part of this review, the central focuses of
    "The Selfish Meme" is "meta-representations" and their transmission. "Meta-representations" are abstractions, observations about objects in the real world removed from specific objects and broadly applicable. Being able to recognize something like "color" as a separate property of an object and being able to recognize it in many objects would be an example of a meta-representation. "Representation systems" such as language and mathematics, allow humans to replicate "meta-representations".

    This is all well and good, but I think that author Kate Distin goes too far when she claims that humans are the only ones capable of meta-representations. By way of example, I offer Alex the grey parrot, studied for over twenty years by Irene Maxine Pepperberg and summarized by her in "The Alex Studies: Cognitive and Communicative Abilities of Grey Parrots", a 400 page work published in 1999. Pepperberg's experiments have been very thorough, and it is clear from them that Alex understands the concepts of "color", "number", "shape". "material" and "different". So for example given a tray with two different colored objects on it, Alex will identify that the difference between them is "color", as opposed to "shape" or "material". Given a tray with a number of objects on it and asked questions, Alex will report how many of each shape and each color, and will total all of the objects. Similar studies were conducted with chimpanzees, dolphins, and pigeons. Animals such as these live in complex environments where the tasks of daily living demand complex thinking. Being able to recognize different colored objects and draw conclusions from experiences with those objects is likely an important skill for a parrot.

    Another problem I have is Distin's instance that memes cannot be transmitted through artifacts. According to Distin, when a person "reverse engineers" an object or artifact, they haven't acquired a meme, they've recreated it. Under such circumstances, says Distin, the person has applied outside knowledge to re-discover anew the memes that created the product. Distin does, however, view memes as actually passing through symbolic artifacts. So under this viewpoint, a blueprint which describes something, or a written work or musical score, would all be methods by which memes actually reproduce. These items, like memes themselves under her scheme, are representations and meta-representations that stand for something other than themselves. This leaves us with a memetics that would say that if Distin learned to play "The Moonlight Sonata" from a written score, a meme would have passed to her. If on the other hand, she learned by listening to a recording of it, she would have "re-created" it. Somehow, I doubt Beethoven would agree. In fact, under Distin's model, imitation could not pass memes, because the things being copied are not meta-representations, but the acts themselves.

    I think that Distin is guilty of some over-analogizing to genetics here. In biology we have the sequence and the expression of the sequence: two distinct things - nucleic acid and protein. Nucleic acids reproduce by making direct copies of themselves: one strand serving as the immediate template for another strand. DNA cannot copy the sequence of a protein to make another DNA. In cultural evolution elements pass through multiple forms: the representation in the head, the music played on a CD, or the musical score written on paper. So long as the information is translated from one form to the other, reproduction can be said to have occurred. Distin claims that copying the manifestation is different from copying the score because it requires outside information, but I can hardly see how recognizing notes played on an instrument would requiring any more outside information than recognizing them on a musical score. An element in the chain can serve as both expression and carrier. Evolution does not require a distinction between the two. RNA substitutes for DNA in some primative organisms and experiments have shown that RNA can perform many of the same functions as a protein. Those same properties that give it more chemical reactivity also make it less stable though, and so evolution has probably selected for DNA over RNA as an information carrier because of that greater stability.

    (probably more in part III)

    Ray Recchia

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