Re: Knowledge, Memes and Sensory Perception

From: Grant Callaghan (
Date: Sun Jan 13 2002 - 06:44:10 GMT

  • Next message: Grant Callaghan: "RE: Knowledge, Memes and Sensory Perception"

    Received: by id GAA15075 (8.6.9/5.3[ref] for from; Sun, 13 Jan 2002 06:48:39 GMT
    X-Originating-IP: []
    From: "Grant Callaghan" <>
    Subject: Re: Knowledge, Memes and Sensory Perception
    Date: Sat, 12 Jan 2002 22:44:10 -0800
    Content-Type: text/plain; format=flowed
    Message-ID: <>
    X-OriginalArrivalTime: 13 Jan 2002 06:44:11.0439 (UTC) FILETIME=[B5556BF0:01C19BFD]
    Precedence: bulk

    It's good to hear that there's another theorist on the list. I like the idea
    of tools being memes, it's the original purpose of memes: tools to increase
    survival prospects and chances. The converse however is not always so I
    contend. I will explain why in a more in depth analysis of your letter to
    Susan Blackmore submitting your theory.

    >>So where do we read about your theory, Grant? >> Luisa Grant:
    >I was just reading The Meme Machine and 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 gene.

    Selfishness of course doesn't really apply to non- living abstract entities
    or small clumps of molecules. The term selfishness has meaning only to
    living animated beings. Terms like the selfish meme/gene doesn't apply to
    the meme/gene itself but to the behavior the meme/gene helps bring forth in
    such a way that the occurrence of that meme/gene increases at the expense of
    other genes/memes. In the evolutionary end only those genes/memes yielding
    greedy and selfish behavior will prevail over those that produce less
    ambitious and vital behavior. It's a law of nature, survival of the fittest
    again and again. The term Selfish Meme/Gene is just a catchy short-hand name
    for memetic/genetic selfish induced behavior. That's what Dawkins and
    Blackmore meant by that slogan.

    Ok. This is the first real argument about selfishness that makes sense to
    me. What still bothers me, however, is the difference between the
    relationship between the gene and the body it creates and the meme, which
    only codifies behavior. It doesn't build a body, but it does build a body
    of tools. Those that are about the same thing, like the various branches of
    science, law or religion, can be considered a structure, of sorts. But what
    kind of structure is it? They seem basically to be a library of tools we
    use to solve a specific type of problem, somewhat like the Java library and
    the other software that run my computer.

    The cities we live in are built on memes as much as they are built on earth,
    steel and stone. Are cities and nations the bodies that memes create? Are
    cars and computers and airplanes and factories the bodies of sub-organisms
    that become for the cities and the nations the equivalent of blood and
    organs? And is civilization the superorganism that will someday cover the
    Earth? We seem to be headed in that direction.

    This would dovetail nicely with what genes do for the body and the species.
    It's a direction that seems worth exploring.

    >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 exampl
    > >of a meme that is NOT a tool.

    Well allow me on behalf of Susan, that shouldn't be so hard when you admit
    the following logical argument. Suppose all memes were tools, what remains
    as tool-substrate then? Tools have to apply to something, but what according
    to your theory. It's like trying to build a house with all hammers and no

    From this logical premise it should be easy to find examples of non-tool
    memes: music-plays, fashion/catch phrases, fashion, etc.... If you insist to
    stick to your infinitely broad definition of the concept of a tool, the
    meaning of tool-substrate becomes irrelevant.

    I'm not sure what you mean by "substrate" and why it's important. The
    tools/memes of architecture and city planning are what allow us to build
    cities. The writer and speaker use the tools/memes of language to
    communicate. Music, art, fashion and catch phrases work to cement and guide
    our relationships with each other. A person who lacks these tools can't
    function in society. Oh, sure, we can individually get along without some
    of these tools but anyone who lacks all of them will not really be a member
    of society.

    I remember trying to function in Taiwanese society. In the beginning, I
    felt as helpless as a baby. As I picked up the customs and the language I
    became more productive and had to depend less on others to take care of me.
    Eventually, I was able to live and stand alone but will never be able to
    function as fully as someone born and raised in that culture. I got into it
    too late in life. Chinese language and literature will never say as much to
    me as English does. Chinese plays and movies will never wring the same
    emotions from me as those created in the culture I grew up in. In the end,
    my greatest contributions to my fellow man in Taiwan came from my English
    skills. I helped them understand what my culture had to offer and helped
    them sell to America what their culture had to offer. And mostly, I used
    English language and American culture to do it. That's what those tools do.
      They help individuals work, play, associate and function as a group.

    Like you I like to consider the utility of memes as crucial for adoption and
    propagation. However I like to think in more general terms of fitness
    increasing potential which has many similarities with your interpretation.
    To me to regard all memes as being tools is inappropriate.

    >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.

    True, we are the unrivaled tool-making species par excellence but that's
    nothing new.

    But it IS important. It's what allowed us to rise above the hunter-gatherer
    society that would have limited our numbers to a few million. The earth
    wouldn't have been able to support more of us than that. Without farming
    and learning to use the land instead of just living on it, we would never
    have had more than villages. With laws and commerce, we learned to live
    closer to one another and live above the land as well as on it. We learned
    that population can be denser when people live in boxes that cut down the
    friction of people rubbing elbows together. Without the tools of politics
    and government and education and commerce and industry, there is no way the
    earth would support six billion people. Without our tools we would not be
    us. What difference does it make that it's not news.

    >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.

    Unless one suffers from some sort of speech impediment this is simply not
    true. You don't pause in between words, you as a linguist should know this
    perfectly well. I refer to Steven Pinker. You only pause to catch breath or
    to think about the next sentence construction.

    The silence may not be there physically, but it's there symbolically. You
    know where a word begins and ends. That's why it's represented by a space
    in writing. If you don't hear it, you insert it with your mind as you turn
    sound into speech in your head. You also know where sentences begin and
    end. They do have physical silences between them. We don't pause only to
    breathe. We pause for effect. We pause for emphasis. We pause to change
    the subject. We pause to consider what to say next. Just because words run
    together does not mean there are no pauses that carry information in our

    >That is silence, no sound, nothing. We also use every possible contortion
    >of our faces to convey=20 >information. A wink, a smile, a frown, a
    >drooping eyelid, a wrinkled nose >or brow, the angle of ones 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 ones face blank during >some transaction in order to gain an
    >advantage. Of course, the blank fac >e >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.

    This is not true either. It's all about changes that reveal information.
    Tell me Grant how on earth can you extract information from somebody who
    maintains a poker face throughout the *entire* game? You can't, this is
    precisely where the use of poker-faces lie. It's fullproof if consistently
    maintained and this is precisely what these guys do...

    Again, I beg to differ. The information you get from a poker face is not
    about the cards being held. It's about the player. It says what kind of
    player he is and how serious he is about the game. You don't mess with a
    guy who wears a poker face. He uses it to intimidate the other players as
    well as to hide his intentions. It's a badge he wears to show his skill
    level. It takes practice to perfect and helps separate the wolves from the

    >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. Of course it is *we* who are selfish, but this is a
    hardly earth-scattering conclusion.

    When I said discard, I meant we put them in long-term memory rather than in
    memory where we have ready access to them. A picture or a word will bring
    it back and remind us that it's there. The fact that it is we who are
    selfish may not be news but you'd never know it from some of the writing and
    speaking one reads and hears on the subject.

    Thanks for your comments. I really enjoyed this give and take. It gave me
    a lot to think about and caused me to make some adjustments in my outlook.


    Send and receive Hotmail on your mobile device:

    This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)

    This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : Sun Jan 13 2002 - 06:55:30 GMT