Re: Review of "The Selfish Meme" part II

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Tue 21 Jun 2005 - 18:59:29 GMT

  • Next message: Ray Recchia: "Re: Review of "The Selfish Meme" part II"

    Ray Recchia wrote:
    > 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.

    No - these are just ordinary representations.

    > "Representation systems" such as
    > language and mathematics, allow humans to replicate "meta-representations".

    No - these systems give meaning to representations. We meta-represent when we abstract information from its current representational system and re-represent it in another way. So "two" is a representation in the English language of a particular number. We meta-represent when we realise that we can also represent that number in different ways: "deux"
    (French language), 2 (Arabic numerals), II (Roman numerals), 10
    (binary). Meta-representations are representations of representations, thoughts about how things are represented, the movement of information from one representational system to another.

    > 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.

    See above for what I claim as (very probably) unique to humans.

    > 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.

    I have no problem with any of these examples. Indeed I have personal experience of rather terrifying German Shepherd dog who used to attack certain people only (but always) when they were wearing yellow. As a member of this exclusive circle myself, the example is burned in my memory.

    But, see above, "yellow" is a representation, not a meta-representation.
      What I claim as special to humans is our ability not just to identify a range of objects as yellow or round or wooden, but to think about those ways of identifying objects, and ask questions at a whole different level. Questions like: "I wonder how the dog represented this colour that I call 'yellow'? Did he see it as I see it - one colour amongst many that I can also identify - or did he not really 'represent' it, as such? Was there, rather, something about the way that this colour impacted upon his brain (damaged by abuse that he had suffered as a puppy, as it happens) which deranged him temporarily?" Questions like:
    "What is the French for 'yellow'?" or "What is the wavelength range of the colour that I call 'yellow', and is this the same wavelength range as the colour that you call 'jaune'?". Questions like "I wonder why the colour yellow is associated with cowardice?"

    I'm guessing that Alex would have struggled with these questions.

    > 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.

    Again there's a misunderstanding of the meta-representation concept here. In my book I discuss different levels of imitation and how they apply to meme transmission. See especially pages 136-9, where I make use of the insights offered in Richard Byrne and Anne Russon's "Learning by imitation: a hierarchical approach", Behavioural and Brain Sciences 21(5):667-84, 1998.

    > 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.

    There is a need for reconstruction in listening to notes played on an instrument which is absent when you have the score in front of you. When you try to play music that you've heard, without access to the score, you have to infer information like "the music is in 6/8 time",
    "there's a crescendo here", "it changes key there", "these notes are quavers". If you have the music in front of you there's no inference needed: the information is given to you. Furthermore, the inferences you make when you're listening to it might not be quite right: maybe there's no crescendo marked there, it's just this musician's interpretation of the piece; perhaps the music is actually in 4/4 time, and these notes are really triplets.

    Of course you'd need to be familiar with all of these concepts in order to make sense of the score, just as you would in order to reconstruct the piece having heard it - but the key difference betwen the two cases is that the score contains all of the information you need, whereas the heard version does not.

    > 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

    Again - thank you: I appreciate the feedback. I always suspect that misunderstandings on a reader's part must stem from a lack of clarity on the writer's part, so for that I must apologise. I hope that what I've written above succeeds in restating my views more clearly, not less!


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