what's a meme

Bill Benzon (bbenzon@mindspring.com)
Thu, 12 Jun 1997 20:50:20 -0500

Message-Id: <199706130046.UAA13243@brickbat8.mindspring.com>
Date: Thu, 12 Jun 1997 20:50:20 -0500
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
From: bbenzon@mindspring.com (Bill Benzon)
Subject: what's a meme

The following is a fragment from a text written by David Hays on the
evolution of technology (on the web at:
http://www.newsavanna.com/wlb/CETech/FRONT.shtml.). This is where I got the
strange idea that it's the physical stuff out in the environment which is
the memes (and went on to speculate that the mental things in the brain are
the components and processes of cultural phenotypes). The orthodox memetic
position of course, is the reverse.

Note that Hays uses the term "cultural rank." That's a term he and I
coined to designate "quantuum" levels in cultural sophistication. Yes, I
know that's a sin against cultural relativism. But I can't help it; the
devil made me do it.


8.2.1. Genomes, Organisms, and Populations

Darwin's theory of natural selection was received with
acclaim, but when Mendel's paper on genetic inheritance was
rediscovered in 1900 it seemed to undercut Darwin--how could
Mendelian inheritance lead to diversity and new species? Only in
the 1930s did Fisher, Dobzhansky, Mayr, and Haldane build what
Huxley (1942) named _The Modern Synthesis_. Recognition of DNA
has changed biology, but the formation of species is still
perplexing; Mayr, Simpson, and Rensch have struggled with it. A
new level of analysis began with Prigogine; Kauffman and Goertzel
are only two of many who are trying to achieve clarity.

(All references in THEOBIBL* )

We need not follow the biologists any further than is good
for us, but we may as well take note of their theory. For them,
the mechanism of evolution is genetic change. A genome, let us
say, is all of the genetic material in a living organism, such as
a bacterium or a person. Two bacteria of the same species need
not have identical genomes; there is much variation with a
population of organisms of any one species. Evolution can
consist in a change of frequency, or in mutation of the genome.
In a multicellular organism, every cell contains a copy of the
genome--every one is a descendant of the fertilized egg (in a
sexual species). The gametes (eggs or sperm) are also descen-
dants of the fertilized egg, not affected in any systematic way
by the life experience of the organism: _Information flows from
the genome to the organism, but not back to the genome._ The
genome may be altered by chemicals ingested, or by radiation
received, but these are unsystematic--random, so to say.

In thinking about the evolution of technology, I see four
categories on which we might build a theory: Concepts, minds,
devices, and overt manifestations of knowledge. Mokyr chooses
concepts and techniques:

The idea or conceptualizaiton of how to produce a
commodity may be thought of as the genotype, whereas
the actual technique utilized by the firm in producing
the commodity may be thought of as the phenotype of the
member of a species. (p. 275 BIBLNOTE* )

Concepts today are as abstract as genes were before the identifi-
cation of DNA as the genetic material. If our theory must be
built on this category, it will be altogether abstract; before
accepting this outcome, I choose to explore other possibilities.
Devices, of course, are entirely concrete: They can be touched,
counted, inspected in detail. But as I said in the beginning, I
am not satisfied with devices as the basis of a theory, because
we could lose all of the devices and still have the technology.

Let us see, then, what we can do with minds and overt
manifestations of knowledge. Minds are abstract, but the overt
manifestations are not. In rank 1, knowledge is manifest in the
movements of a skilled adult performing a routine task, and also
in the speech of adults. The child, watching and listening,
comes to have a mind much like the minds of the adults nearby.
In rank 2, knowledge is further manifest in written texts, which
a new generation can read. Rank 3 has algorithms; they are
manifest in calculations and in oral or written descriptions of
procedure. Rank 4 has computation, that is to say, it has
algorithms for the execution of algorithms. These are manifest
in the action of computers and in lectures and texts on the art
of computation and programming.

These manifestations are accessible to the young in every
rank, as they are to external observers who wish to construct
theories. Beginning with rank 2, pedagogy appears to ensure
orderly access. Rank 3 introduces laboratories for apprentice
engineers and scientists. Rank 4 teaches computation in various
ways, perhaps not yet in the right ones.

Can we say, with the biologists, that minds do not alter the
manifestations of knowledge that they receive? Or if they do
make alterations, that they make them unsystematically--randomly-
-as bodies modify genomes by exposing them to radiation or
chemicals? Does an adult pass on to a new generation the same
manifestations he or she received, unmodified by life experience?
For the nonce, I submit that the parallel holds, at least in rank
1. Genomes mutate, and cultures change, but the persons involved
cannot know the significance of changes they make--if they are
even aware of making changes.

Rank 2 cultures are aware of texts as manifestations of
knowledge, and give overt attention to transmission of culture.
The great examples are Classical Antiquity (Hellenistic), China,
Islam, Russia, and the late Medieval period in which Scholastic
philosophy flourished. It seems to me no coincidence that all of
these cultures are devoted to continuation without change. Their
success is an indication of the power of writing.

For rank 3, we have only one full-blown example, the West,
and here change and progress are slogans. What I propose is a
change in the rules of evolution, as Levinson ( BIBLNOTE* ) put
it. In growing up, the person is taught to learn. Adults, and
in particular pedagogues, pass on to a new generation the same
facility for learning that they acquired. No one is fully aware
of this capacity to learn, no theory of learning accounts well
for what goes on in schools, no program of educational reform has
been remarkably successful. In short, minds in rank 3 are not
capable of systematic alteration of the manifestations of knowl-
edge that they receive _at the level of learning to learn_. But
given the capacity to learn, rank 3 sapients collect additional
knowledge and work on it. At this level, they are capable of
systematic and deliberate modification.

In a larger sense, the systematic and deliberate modifica-
tion of knowledge by rank 3 minds is still blind variation, since
any sapient has limited ingenuity and limited capacity for
critical analysis of its products. The evolutionary epistemology
of Donald Campbell (1960; see also Mokyr, pp. 276-277) retains
its relevance in rank 3 progress.

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A bbenzon@mindspring.com
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA http://www.newsavanna.com/wlb/

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)
see: http://www.cpm.mmu.ac.uk/jom-emit