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>So where do we read about your theory, Grant?
Most of it is contained in my letter to Susan Blackmore.
Dear Ms. Blackmore,
I was just reading The Meme Machine and I was struck by an idea that may
make the field of memetics more like a science. The key to my idea is to
give up the ‘selfish meme’ concept. There is selfishness, all right, but it
is not the meme that is selfish. In that sense a meme is not much like a
Memes, in my estimation, are a set of tools we use to accomplish certain
objectives in our daily lives. Each tool is a meme and vice versa. That
simplifies the task of identifying a meme and categorizing it. I ask you
to hear me out and respond to the following challenge: give me an example
of a meme that is NOT a tool.
The primary difference, in my mind, between humans and other animals is our
ability to use tools. Not that we can and they can’t. But a human can
juggle over a million tools in his mind at one time. It is the extent of
our tool-using that sets us apart. Humans can use anything as a tool. In
fact, humans can use nothing as a tool. The concept of zero is one of the
most useful ideas in mathematics – it revolutionized the subject in Roman
times. Zero, nothing, no thing.
The average college student commands over 20,000 words in his vocabulary.
But he is also able to make use of such concepts, memes, tools as the amount
of silence between words to convey meaning. That is silence, no sound,
nothing. We also use every possible contortion of our faces to convey
information. A wink, a smile, a frown, a drooping eyelid, a wrinkled nose
or brow, the angle of one’s head, and more are used as tools to convey
information of one kind or another. The term poker face even defines the
use of that expression. It is an attempt to keep one’s face blank during
some transaction in order to gain an advantage. Of course, the blank face
also conveys information because everybody knows what the user is using it
for. But think of it. The lack of expression is being used as a tool to
both hide information and to convey it at the same time.
My degree was in Linguistics. In my studies I came to the conclusion that
we learn the linguistic tools we use to communicate one at a time, starting
with “ma” and “ba” in our earliest attempts to influence the behavior of our
parents. The child makes a great number of random sounds in the first year
or childhood and discovers that some of them elicit a reaction. Over time,
those that are rewarded by parental or other attention are retained and
enlarged upon, while those that get no response are dropped. This is the
first instance of the evolution of language in a child. Useful sounds are
kept in the vocabulary and the useless ones discarded.
This is the key to my concept. It is not the memes that are selfish – it is
the person, the brain, the individual who is using them. We choose the
tools/memes from the store that is available to us based on how well they do
the job we are trying to accomplish with them. The older we grow, the more
we have available. We see someone use a tool to get something and we try to
use it. If it doesn’t work as we expected, we listen again and try again
until we can use it, or we discard it. There is a limit to the number of
sounds we can handle in daily conversation, for example, so we settle on
those that are most useful to us and drop the rest.
When we try to communicate, we use sounds that are grouped into syllables,
then into words, then sentences. Each sound is a meme, a tool for
communication. Each word is also a meme. In addition, the organization of
the sounds and the words is a set of memes. We don’t put the object of our
sentence before the verb, as the Japanese do, for example. The article
always comes before a noun rather than after it. Even the division of our
words into categories such as noun and verb, etc., are memes. And we
acquire them slowly, bit by bit, through imitation and practice at first,
and finally by just reading or hearing about them. Additional memes are
added to the sounds by the stress we put on certain words and syllables.
The loudness with which we say some words, the hardness or softness of our
voice, all are memes of communication.
The Japanese language is an excellent example of how the process works.
Prior to 600 AD, the Japanese had no written language. On their journeys to
Korea, they observed the Koreans and Chinese using writing to store and
convey information, so they started learning to write Chinese. By doing
this, they brought thousands of Chinese words into the Japanese language.
By the beginning of the 20th century, almost every concept in Japanese had a
Chinese pronunciation and a Japanese pronunciation. The Chinese, for
example have an ideograph for mountain. They see it and pronounce it
“Shan.” In Southern China, they pronounced it “San.” Today, the Japanese
use the same ideograph, but they have two ways to pronounce it: “san” and
“yama.” The former is the borrowed Chinese pronunciation and the latter is
the old Japanese pronunciation. The former is used in regular speech, the
latter is used when the ideograph is part of someone’s name – Yamamoto, for
example, is a person’s name, and Fuji san means mount Fuji.
Another problem with borrowing Chinese was the fact that all written words
in Chinese are monosyllabic while Japanese is a polysyllabic language. So
over a period of several hundred years, the Japanese learned to add what
they call “kana” to the ideographic characters to tell the reader the
additional sounds needed to make it sound Japanese. In addition, they
learned to rearrange the words to fit the Japanese grammar memes. The
Japanese arrange their words in the order of subject, object, verb. Chinese
is written and spoken in the order of subject, verb, object. Modern
Japanese consider the way they arrange and pronounce their strings of
syllables the only proper way to do it. They have a different set of
memes/tools for arranging words. The Japanese of post-war Japan has nearly
as many words of English origin as of Chinese or Japanese origin.
The clothes we wear, the way we cut our hair, the way we stand or walk, are
all memes we use to communicate various ideas about ourselves and how we
expect to relate to the people around us. For those who think some of these
things are instinctual, such as the expression of pain, I would like to
point out that “ouch” is not a reflex, but a tool used to communicate the
fact that we feel pain. The Japanese say “itai,” the Chinese say “aiyo,”
the Philipino says “opo” or “apo da” to express the same feeling. Laughing
is another means or tool of expression. The average person has many ways of
laughing. Eric Berne, the psychiatrist, listed them as “hee hee,” “ha ha,”
and “ho ho.” Each had a different significance for what was going on among
the members of a group during Transactional Analysis. We tend to use the
type that expresses how we feel about what is going on at the time. In
other words, the expression of pain and laughter are memes (but not pain or
If we define a meme as a tool that we have inherited from the society in
which we live, it makes deciding what is and is not a meme a bit easier. It
also makes it easy to trace how memes are acquired and discarded in their
never ending struggle for existence. We choose the tool we think will do
the best job. It is the person using the tool, therefore, who decides which
memes to keep and which to stop or avoid using. People are the controlling
factor in the evolution of culture in all of its plurality and scope. It is
not memes deciding what we will inherit and add to the pool, it is we who
make that decision with the choices of tools we use.
Genes, on the other hand, do influence that decision. They produce the
chemicals which cause us to make emotional choices about who will inherit
our genes and who won’t. Lust, anger, fear, jealousy, and other emotions
are the product of chemical responses to our environment and are dictated by
the gene mix that guided our construction.
Culture is the beast that memes construct. And our decisions on which
elements of it we decide to use are what define it. Genes have some input
to that, but are seldom the final arbiters. They influence why some sounds
please us more than others, why some colors have more or less appeal, and
why the pictures we see in our minds upon reading a poem or novel make us
feel sad, or glad, or satisfied.
Another characteristic of memes is that each one is created by a human being
through a process that includes testing and acceptance. The fact that
someone else decides to try a meme and use it shows that it has the
potential for success. When it begins to proliferate, you know it has
They say the final arbiter of scientific method is the ability of a theory
to predict a certain result. I think my theory of what constitutes a meme
can be used to predict which memes will be taken in or discarded by a
particular society. The question is how?
You begin with a segment of society and analyze what they do. Then you
observe the different sets of tools they use for some particular purpose.
From time to time you will see someone select or create a tool that had not
been used by this group before. If the user is able to accomplish his
objectives with the new tool, he will no doubt find a reason to use it
again. Many will probably be tried and discarded. When one is successful
and others begin trying it, you can be fairly sure it will spread and become
a part of the repertory of this group and will likely spread to other groups
of a similar nature.
It can be as simple as a hand gesture. The ‘high five” started with a group
of blacks as one of many hand signals they used for establishing homogeneity
as a group. Most of the signals they used are no longer remembered. The
"Gimme five!" spawned the high five. The high five spread throughout black
society, along with the popularity of sports figures who used it, and today
you’ll find it being used among people in every segment of American society.
The uses to which it is put have also grown. It now carries connotations
of success as well as solidarity. It has spawned further variations such as
the “low five” which may or may not grow and multiply.
If we try to divorce memes from the process by which they are created and
perpetuated, we will be heading down a blind alley. There will be no clear
way to determine what is or is not a meme. You will be unable to track a
meme’s evolution and absorption into our culture. Right now people are
pointing in all directions and calling all sorts of things memes without
agreeing with others trying to define the concept. I think I have a
Encapsulated, my theory is this: We are a tool-using species. Memes are
tools that help us survive and adjust to changing circumstances. Memes are
invented by individuals and transmitted by borrowing, using imitation or
language. Most invented memes are constructed by putting together new
combinations of borrowed memes. The accumulation of memes into memplexes is
what we call culture. Memes are invented and used to solve social and
personal problems. A meme has no substance or meaning unless it is used for
some purpose. Words provide a means for categorizing memes because every
time we develop a new tool we also create a name for it. This also provides
a means of tracking the transmission of memes. The number of times a meme
is mentioned by name in conversation, in broadcast or in print is indicative
of how widely spread it is. All tools, including words and computers, are
There is a lot more to the whole theory, but most of it consists of
expansions on the ideas expressed above. It's still in the process of
development, so the structure of my ideas is rather ragged.
Chat with friends online, try MSN Messenger: http://messenger.msn.com
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Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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