Date: Thu, 19 Jun 1997 01:52:23 -0500
Subject: Memes, territory and odors
As part of my continuing effort to firmly root memes in a physical model, I
think it would be useful to talk about a very early cultural experience:
territorial marking with odors. It is my belief that territorial markings
are both cultural and memetic. Additionally, the system is pre-conscious.
Humans don't have an exclusive ability to play this memetic game.
I'm going to argue that excretions are the memes in this system. The
odors are carriers, not memes. If you can agree on this point, then it
should be apparent that 'audio-CD's' are the memes and the experience of
listening to a tune an experience of a carrier.
Territorial marking is obviously a preconscious activity with a strong
cultural flavor. A wide number of mammals exhibit this kind of cultural
behavior. Markings are almost always aimed at members of the same species,
often the same sex. Females often mark their children, males often mark
their territory, males and females mark one another for 'group' membership.
Odor is probably the most prevalent method in all of these marking
So what is the system, the process?
First of all, there needs to be something that exudes a lot of information,
in this case something with a strong, unique smell. Urine, excrement,
sweat, menstrual bleeding, body oils and other excretions serve these
purposes. They exude a strong and unique set of odors by default.
Sulfuric and uric salts are smelly regardless of the 'cultural' uses they
find themselves being used for. (I suspect there is a place for the
spandrel dialog in this)
I contend that these smelly materials are memes. They all reek, thus
making possible an information rich experience if delivered to a receptor
properly tuned for it.
The reeking urine or excrement is only culturally valuable if some sort of
memory is available to reference and categorize 'this odor' against a host
of 'past odors.' If the brain can perform this trick, then the social
advantages of group activities is obviously available. If the brain is
well adapted at this and has a good memory of the landscape, as are many
feline and canine species, the odors can reference 'territory' as well as
Thus, there has to be the following elements for our reeking system to
1. a information rich odor creating material (excrement, for example),
2. a well developed excreting organ (rectum and anal glands),
3. an open and widespread environment with diverse smells and neutral
4. a well developed sensor devise (nose),
5. memory location for current experience
5. memories of key 'reeking' materials
6. categorizing brain.
With all these elements present, odor-defined, territorial, cultural
behaviors can be exhibited. Fortunately, we don't need to find any odd
evolutionary reason for these to exist. All would exist in the basic,
non-social early mammalian species that depended on hunting via pursuit
(knows how to mark prey and navigate in a landscape).
I doubt that the concept 'idea' is particularly useful in this situation.
For all I know, there are a lot of ideas floating around in these
pre-conscious mammalian brains. I don't think we need to invoke them to
make sense of the evolutionary picture, though.
Are there memes here? I think so. Wolves and tigers exhibit a great deal
of cultural behavior, particularly in the territorial arena. I'm
convinced they are using scatological memes.
The most likely substrate (meme) for these pre-conscious social codes are
the information rich markings made by selective urination and defecation.
The memes are the reeking materials. The odors are not the memes, but the
'carriers' or 'phenotypes' of the meme. The odors rise from the excreted
material, float through the air and encounter the well developed nose. The
nose then translates the collision of scent atoms with nerve endings into
electro-chemical signals that get translated into memory of some sort.
Once in memory, they can be sorted and categorized by the well-developed
brain. This categorization process will lead to social behaviors: memetic
creativity (new excretory marks), memetic overlay (excreting on existing
marks to cover and hide an undesired meme), defensive behavior, aggressive
behavior, sexual behavior, etc.
The ability to identify territory and group confers significant survival
advantages, so the system is likely to be refined by evolutionary
Again, there is no need to define a territorial 'idea' to explain this
evolutionary picture. The evolutionary advances are entirely driven by the
physical processes. All that is necessary is refinement of existing organs
available in the early hunting mammals. Of course, cats, dogs and rats
could be thinking of 'territorial ideas' which are forcing the evolutionary
advance. We will never know, and it really doesn't matter. The popularity
of 'memes are ideas' reflects our concern for a role for 'consciousness' in
evolution. This human sense of 'consciousness' is clearly not present in
these earlier mammals.
Memes are the physical objects exuding information, the excrement and other
excretions. This only makes sense. Genes are objects, so memes should be
To complete this picture, I'd like to point out that memory has a physical
aspect. The brain uses proteins for memory storage. These proteins are
also memes. They are the brain's substrate for storing code. They exude
electro-chemical information in the electro-chemical processes performed in
the brain. Thus, there are two sets of memes (code substrates), the
external to the organism meme (the reeking stuff) and the internal memes
(proteins used as memory bits).
Thoughts and ideas are the analog of odor. The excrement exudes
information in the form of odor. It stinks. The stink is not a meme,
though. The stink is a carrier, an intermediate step. If you want to
study the evolution of the organism, you will need to study and quantify
the excrement, not the odor. Analogously, the thoughts and ideas of the
brain are carriers of the information stored in the brain's memory
locations. They are used in the categorization and behavioral processes,
but they are messengers, not recorders, not memes (genes and memes are
This should speak to those concerned about memes and free will. Obviously
memes existed a long time before humans developed 'free will.' If there is
such a thing, and nothing I've said remotely deals with that issue, memes
must have helped create the notion.
Another issue to raise is the idea that memes 'replicate' and thus
'excrement' can't be a meme because it doesn't 'replicate.'
This reflects back to the debate over the use of the term 'replicator' for
genes. It is my opinion that 'replicators' are processes: cells or
organisms. On their own, genes are inert. They only serve a role in the
replication process based on their environment. The structures of the cell
animate the DNA. The DNA itself is lifeless. It simply serves as a
physical substrate for the code record. That code record is critical to
the stability of the organism, but it is no more than a record.
Thus, if we use the notion that genes and memes are 'code bearing
substrate' which stabilizes and enables the organism's processes and
activities, we have little difficulty seeing both internal 'brain' memes
and external 'excreted' memes playing complementary roles, each reinforces
the other. Brain memes probably came first, but I don't think it makes
much difference to us at this point.
If you can work though this memetic system, it should shed some light on
the ongoing dialog about 'free-will vs. memes' and 'idea vs object' memes.
This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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