Re: To Grant re Susan Blackmore letter

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Fri Jan 11 2002 - 22:56:23 GMT

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    From: "Grant Callaghan" <>
    Subject: Re: To Grant re Susan Blackmore letter
    Date: Fri, 11 Jan 2002 14:56:23 -0800
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    Dear Grant,

    >Thank you for forwarding the letter. I read it and will >reread it again.
        From my perspective you make some interesting points, >many I share. I

    >appreciate that your background is linguistics and thus the reason for
    >expressing your persepctive and examples were set within that framework. I
    >couldn't help wondering how to view some of your insights from a different
    >framework [namely the one I am trying to work from - >which is not as
    >neatly packaged as linguistics] as I have been grapping with many of the
    >same issues you raise.

    >When I consider the following statement you made from the framework I am
    >working in [evolutionary culture], this does not fit. For example, as an
    >anthropologist [myself] who has just returned from the field [Egypt],
    >consider the following:

    >You stated:

    >"The child makes a great number of random sounds in the first year of
    >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".

    >substituting the framework 'culture' to the above >linguistics statement

    >I found that many persons [both adults and children] did not drop behavior
    >simply because it was not rewarded in some way, so that eventually the
    >behavior was 'dropped' from the culture's repertoire. On the contrary, it
    >may be dropped depending on the context the person found themself
    >in....usually because it was inappropriate for any number of reasons, only
    >to be called upon in a different context - depending upon 'who' the other
    >people were that were present to witness that behavior.

    To begin with, I did not say this clearly enough in the letter. What I was
    referring to was the way a parson's brain handles language. In the
    beginning, the brain can handle any sound it hears within the context of
    language. As time goes by, those sounds that are not reinforced by being
    heard are no longer paid attention to. Here, in the worlds of John Ratey,
    M.D. is what goes on in the brain of a child growing up:

    "When a baby is born, it has millions of good connections waiting for a
    specific assignment. As the world makes demands, many of the connections
    are enlisted for specific jobs: seeing, babbling, remembering, throwing a
    ball. Connections that aren't used are eventually pruned. In the absence
    of proper stimulation, a brain cell will die, but offer it a diet of
    enriched experiences and its neural synapses sprout new branches and

    "Neurons that survive communicate rapid-fire across the synapses. The more
    firing that occurs across a specific connection, the stronger the pathway
    becomes. Billions of these exchanges take place continuously throughout the
    brain. Some connections transmit and receive signals often, others only
    occasionally, and the messages change constantly. The exact web of
    connections among neurons at a particular moment is determined by a
    combination of genetic makeup, environment, the sum of experiences we've
    imposed on our brains, and the activity we are bombarding it with now and
    each second into the future. What we do moment to moment greatly influences
    how the web continually reweaves itself.

    "Brain development in the fetus and baby occurs through a series of critical
    periods, "windows of opportunity," when the connections for a function are
    extremely receptive to input. Once the window closes, neural connections
    are pruned down to the most efficient, according to how much they were used.
      Then the battle is over…the deciphering of foreign phonemes will never
    regain space in the brain. It is clear that it is possible for adults to
    learn to speak a new language with little or no accent, but is also clear
    that they do not do this the way a baby does, and instead use altogether
    different systems to learn. The adult systems ar not nearly as good as the
    baby ones.

    "Constraints on plasticity for many sensory and motor functions also depend
    on critical time periods. Most humans move all their body parts during the
    first two years of life. By age two the motor circuits become hard-wired.
    If for some reason a child never moved his arms these circuits would be lost
    and he would never be able to move his arms in a natural way. Regions for
    basic vision are complete by six months. Acquisition of other functions,
    however, such as academic learning, takes place over a lifetime,
    unconstrained by windows of development."

    So, in summary, what it boils down to is that what is not used is not
    developed. If you don't continue to use certain sounds or repeat certain
    behaviors you lose the ability to do so. Those that are rewarded by the
    parents are repeated and those that are not repeated are lost to the window
    of opportunity. That's what I meant by dropped and discarded. It's not
    something a child does consciously. It's something nature does for him.
    It's part of his genetic structure..

    > This is the first instance of the evolution of language in a
    >child. Useful sounds are kept in the vocabulary and the useless ones

    >So in response to the above statement I cannot say I find this to be valid
    >when applied to 'behavior' - which is a meme. In particular because I
    >examine traditional cultural behavior, "useless behavior" [and from whose
    >perspective] is not "dropped and discarded" as easily as your statement

    > 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.

    >Again, I must say that I found that 'behavior' which did not 'work' in a
    >particular context for an individual was not, then, discarded forever more.
    >For 2 quick reasons here: 1) the behavior in question may be valuable in a
    >different context at a later time 2) there may be cultural reasons which
    >have tabus against altering that behavior. Fear of the punishment for doing
    >so would prevent many from discarding the behavior.

    See the section on child development above.

    >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.

    >This implies there is a homogenous purpose - which is of course not true.
    >It also implies that the purpose for using a given 'set of tools' is
    >overtly expressed - which is also not necessarily true.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "homogenous purpose." Our genes drive us to
    do certain things. You might be interested in a book called TIME, LOVE,
    + by Johnathan Weiner, which shows that these things are governed by our
    genes. These genes are common to a large number of animals that range from
    fruit flies to primates. In my theory, our genes tell us what we have to
    do and the memes give us the tools with which to do it. Our genes create
    the chemicals that race through our bodies when we get angry but our memes
    tell us what to get angry about. An American black person will lash out
    almost reflexively when he hears the word "nigger," but it has little or not
    effect on a person from a different culture. A Chinese person will want to
    punch someone who calls him a "Wang ba dan," while I doubt you would be
    moved by it. We have to learn what to fear, who to be attracted to, who to
    hate, what to get angry about, what should spark sadness or joy. Emotion
    motivates us but memes define what we should be motivated to do and how we
    should go about doing it.

    >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.

    >Just because some people use a new tool which is successful - in no way
    >implies that others who observe the success of a new tool will drop the
    >tools they are using and adopt the 'observed successful tool'. [I am
    >substituing the word 'behavior' for tool] As I said earlier, there may be
    >sanctions which apply to certain segments of the population and not other
    >segments which preevnt those observers from adopting the 'successful tool'
    >- or in this case 'the successful behavior.

    We tend to keep doing what we did successfully before and avoid what we
    perceive ourselves as not being "good at." How do we know what we're good
    at? Past experience is our guide. We try new things to avoid boredom but
    drop them if we don't do them well compared to our peers. The new things we
    try are usually based on what we have seen other people do. Peer pressure
    can get you to try smoking, drinking, dancing or going to church. It can
    also keep you doing it. It can also cause you to stop doing it. Peer
    pressure is a force for meme transmission. New friends will have you trying
    new things. Approval from family and friends is one of the ways we measure
    success or failure. It doesn't take a pat on the back to convey approval,
    either. A simple smile or an overheard word of praise will do the job. Or
    people asking you to do that thing you do.

    I hope this clarifies some of the ideas you had questions about. If not,
    feel free to ask more.


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