Busy Bee Brains

Bill Benzon (bbenzon@mindspring.com)
Sat, 21 Jun 1997 10:47:44 -0500

Message-Id: <199706211443.KAA02352@brickbat8.mindspring.com>
Date: Sat, 21 Jun 1997 10:47:44 -0500
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
From: bbenzon@mindspring.com (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Busy Bee Brains

One of the points at issue in this list is whether or not or in what way
memes are agents of cultural change. I don't really know what's the active
force in cultural change but I think it strange to talk about memes as
active agents of any sort. But I don't find it strange to think of people
as active agents. But I don't want to talk about people, at least not in
this note. I want to talk about the brains in people's heads.

For I think the human brain is a very active collection of "agents." And it
is these agents which collectively select or reject "memes" or whatever it
is in the brain which evolves though the cultural process. What follows is
not an informal account of a theory which has been developed on a more
technical basis, though I can point to technial accounts here and there.
It's just a metaphor designed to convey a sense of the brain as an active
shaper of the informatic world rather than as a parking garage for memes.

[Note: While I continue to believe that memes are not in the head/brain, I
will stick to the orthodox usage for the purposes of this note.]

There is now pretting strong consensus that the cerebral cortix (which is,
by no means, the entire brain, but it is likely that this is where culture
is carried) is organized into small columns of neurons. In a 1978 essay
Vernon Mountcastle called these minicolumns and suggested that they have
about 100-300 neurons each. He estimated that the neocortex consists of
600,000,000 of these minicolumns. He also suggested that these minicolumns
are organized into macrocolumns, about 600,000 of them -- implying that
there are hundreds of minicolumns per macrocolumn. (Mountacastle was clear
that these numbers were just order of magnitude estimates & that is all I
need for my purposes.) That makes these macrocolumns roughly the size of a
typical invertebrate nervous system of 10K to 100K neurons. So, here's my
metaphor: Your neocortex consists of 600,000 buzzing bees going about their

The point of the metaphor is that, just as individual bees are autonomous
agents (which must, nonetheless, feed and reproduce in a group), so the
macrocolumns are autonomous agents (which are physically coupled to many
other such agents). Bees go about their business by sensing optical and
chemical gradients and features and by moving their bodies and excreting
chemicals. The macrocolumns are not directly connected to the external
world, but they have extensive inputs and outputs to other macrocolumns and
to other regions of the brain and nervous system. From a purely information
processing point of view, they are as capable of action as are bees.

Now, one might ask about the relation between memes and macrocolumns. One
might imagine, for example, that we have a meme per macrocolumn, giving
each person a capacity of 600,000 memes (a social group could, of course,
any many more memes since not all people will have the same set). The
strongest version of the meme as active agents would have it that these
macrocolums are just parking spaces in the garage of culture. The spaces
get filled on a first-come first-served basis and when the garage is full,
any further memes which come down the pike have to fight it out with the
current residents of the garage. This seems incompatible with the idea that
the macrocolumns are active agents. To continue the parking lot metaphor
(which is, by the way, a metaphor for a metaphor), each parking space has a
guard. The meme has to negotiate terms with the guard in order to occupy
the space. If this is what's going on, then one really needs to know
something about these guards -- what are they looking for in a meme?

However, I don't think memes are stored one per macro column (or, for that
matter, one per minicolumn with a macrocolumn constituting a meme-complex).
There is considerable evidence that pattern storage in the neocortex is
highly distributed. So I think it likely that a given macrocolumn will
contain traces of many memes and that a given meme is likely to be stored
across several macrocolumns. Thus a given meme must serve many neocortical
masters. What I think is that memes are just the coin of the realm in which
the macrocolumns conduct their business with one another and with the rest
of the nervous system and body. The memes aren't active; but the
macrocolums are.

As I say, this is just a metaphor. It's not science, nor even an informal
exposition of scientific theory. That pretty much puts it on an even keel
with orthodox memtics.

However, one of the classes of stories which is part of the lore of
orthodox memetics is about computer viruses. In these stories the virus is
treated as an active agent working its way from computer to computer using
various strategies. This is intersting stuff harmless enough. But that is
only because we know that computer viruses are designed be people who know
how computers work. Using that knowlege, they write code which will
interact with computers in a certain way and, provided that people pass
disks from computer to computer and send email, etc,; by working in the
expected way, the virus will propagate from machine to machine. There is
nothing mysterious about any of this and anytime the anthropomorphism gets
out of hand one can pull up the viruse code and explicate its functions
line by line.

Things change when we take that way of thinking andtransfer it into talk
about human culture. In that realm we can't pull up the code implementing a
given meme whenever we want to make sure our informal anthropomorphisms
aren't leading us down the garden path to nonsense.

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

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