The /doggie/ "meme"

Bill Benzon (
Thu, 17 Jul 1997 09:07:30 -0400

Date: Thu, 17 Jul 1997 09:07:30 -0400
From: Bill Benzon <>
Subject: The /doggie/ "meme"

Mark Mills has started a conversation about innate ideas/memes & piano
playing which I find rather puzzling. It seems to me that to assert that
our innate behavior capacity is, in fact, memetic, rather scuttles the
whole idea of culture, reducing it to biology -- which is, of course, a
rather popular activity. Given that we share 98% plus of our DNA with
the higher apes, that isn't much DNA in which to "encode" culture, but
then I don't think that it is culture which is encoded. All that's
encoded is the capacity for culture, which is, admittedly, merely a
verbal formula. But....

Consider a 2-year-old playing with mother and Fido. Mother points to
Fido and says "doggie." The infant points to Fido and says "doggie."
Junior is now on the road to language. But I don't think we need to
believe that junior understands that "doggie" designates animals more or
less like Fido. "Doggie" is just a sound that mother emits in a certain
situation and which, therefore, Junior will emit in the same situation.
It will take awhile for Junior to detach the word from the whole
situation and attach it firmly only to Fido and creatures like Fido.
What is going on is that Junior is imitating mother, no more, no less.
And the impulse to imitation is all we really require of the genes.

This little scene is not without ontogenetic preparation. For one thing,
Junior & mother have an ongoing relationship; Junior trusts mother.
Junior has put in many months simply learning to see things and to get
around physically. For another thing, Junior has spent quite a bit of
time babbling away, turning his vocal apparatus to create the sounds of
his native language. Without this articulatory practice, uttering
"doggie" would be difficult.

So let's think about this articulatory practice. Junior exists in an
environment where people are talking alot. His auditory system is thus
tuning itself to discriminate speech sounds (and apparently there is
some brain tissue which is specialized for speech sounds, as opposed to
other sounds). At the same time Junior is moving his muscles and, in
particular, wagging his tongue and forcing air over the vocal cords.
Let's imagine that this vocalizing starts as mostly random thrashing.
However, sooner or later some of this random vocal activity will
generate a sound which stimulates one of the auditory schemas tuned to
language sounds. Now all we need is some mechanism to get the vocal
apparatus to repeat what it just did so that the auditory apparatus can
continue to hear a familiar sound. The infant keeps doing this and thus
learns to produce the sounds of his/her native langauge.

So, here we have an infant learning to babble the phonemes in the
linguistic environment. That is imitation. That kind of imitation is
part of the larger imitation involved in pointing at Fido and saying
"doggie," just like mother does, not to mention father, and Melody, and
Kiki, and Big Bird and all those other folks. The infant/child is simply
learning to imitate the behaviors of others, learning to get its muscles
to produce sounds and actions like those he apprehends in others.

Nothing has been mysteriously transferred from one brain to another and
the genome has been burdened only with imitation and some specialized
sound-decoding. We don't need to preload the system with "memes." We
just need to get the infant to imitate what she sees and hears from
other folks.

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)