Re: Meme pools?/ evolution and ecology

Mario Vaneechoutte (
Mon, 23 Jun 1997 11:05:35 -0700

Message-Id: <>
Date: Mon, 23 Jun 1997 11:05:35 -0700
From: Mario Vaneechoutte <>
Subject: Re: Meme pools?/ evolution and ecology

Hans-Cees Speel wrote:

John Wilkins?? wrote:
> > >I have no particular objection to calling these things cultural species --
> > though I think their may be something peculiar going on with language. I'm
> > not sure languages should be considered as autonomous cultural species.
> > Perhaps it would be better to think of langauges as constituting the
> > nervous system of cultural species. That is, each cultural species has its
> > language which is just a tool for manipulating the memetic repertoire of
> > the species.>

A general remark. I would avoid the term species. It is very ill
defined, also in biology. It just stems from our human want to classify
things. It is not really definable, except for some clear cases whereby
species are separated by sexual reproduction. Still then there are
problems. Take 'ring species'. Silver gulls and mantle gulls form an
antarctic ring of neighbouring populations which gave rise to each other
by migration starting in Western Europe (silver gull), to Siberia and
Northern America (mantle gull) and finally back to Western Europe) and
which can interbreed with the closest neighbouring populations. Still,
when the initial population (silver gulls) and the final population
(mantle gulls) met again in Europe they could no longer interbreed.
Are they one species or two?

Bacterial taxonomy with frequent exchange of genetic information between
groups resembles more a hilly landscape with the species on the
mountains and a lot of intermediate organisms in between (sexual species
are islands amidst an ocean).

Also, speciation is a side effect of mechanisms which by accident
prevent further interbreeding, and it is not the motor of evolution
(although it eventually helps accelerating evolution).

Another general remark: many of our concepts (like the species concept)
stem from studying multicellular (mostly animal and sexually
reproducing) organisms, which are nothing but a special case. E.g., the
multicellular organism should rather be considered as extended
phenotype, instead of phenotype. As such, it is indeed a temporary
vehicle (BUT: constructed by a mother cell and not by genes). As such,
unicellular organisms should not be considered as a vehicle because the
complete cell participates in inheritance.

Bill Benzon?? wrote
> > Thank you/ I think you might be on to something there. In light hearted
> > moments I have been known to claim that language is something memes
> > invented to have sex with [that is to enable transmittal].

Well, when you put things differently, you come close. But, we have an
example here of how the usage-of-'meme'-for-everything obstructs deeper
insights. One specific thing of animals is that they can exchange
information by means of behaviour (which you call memes, but which I
wouldn't). Humans can represent (encode) this information in another
manner by using words. When you have words you indeed can have better
storage and a lot more recombination of information (what you call sex).
Behavioral information stops when the behaviour stops. It is typically
processional information. Words enable to store this information, it is
already a first step towards further encoding like writing.

The basic difference between biology and culture is that biology is pure
chemistry: exchange of information by means of material molecules, while
animals have 'learned' how to exchange nonchemically transmitted
information by using photons (vision) and sound waves. Bill comes close
when he calls these 'memes', but one would better call it culture.
(Where do we put odors? I am still in doubt, but I lean over to
considering it as biology).

Hans- Cees
> Like in biology, any evolutionary theory has accompanying ecological
> theories. Saying that a genes uses and ecosystem to reproduce
> itsself, is about the same as saying that a meme uses language to
> reproduce itsself.
> To me language is one of the things I can not handle systematically
> in memetic theory. That is becuase words and memes, 'belong to' a
> language, but language is also many things more. I think the
> definition of what is language is so broad, it halts systematic
> thinking (at least for me).
> I know languages evolve, or at least parts of it (meanings of words
> and so on). Other parts like the way we build sentences evolve much
> slower. I have no idea what the selective forces are here. Or in
> other words, what stops or pushes variation here, and the selection
> of variation.

It is often overlooked that also genetic language itself evolves. We
have long thought that the genetic code is universal, but several things
have changed since the first usage of genetic information: codon usage
differs between taxonomical groups, GC content of genomes differs, and
some groups (like Tetrahymena, I believe) really read the code different
than most of us organisms do. I think it is here that one should look
for some basic similarities between random processes which influence
evolution of language in genetics and in culture. The problem is to take
into account the characteristically cultural phenomena like horizontal
exchange (borrowing of words) which do not occur at this level of

Mario Vaneechoutte

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