Comments on McCrone's "The Ape That Spoke" (was Re: What's in a Meme?)

Dave Gross (
Tue, 15 Jul 1997 07:41:57 +0800 (GMT-8)

Date: Tue, 15 Jul 1997 07:41:57 +0800 (GMT-8)
From: Dave Gross <>
Subject: Comments on McCrone's "The Ape That Spoke" (was Re: What's in a Meme?)
In-Reply-To: <>

I've recently finished reading "The Ape That Spoke" -- a book speculating
about the origin of language (and simultaneous origin of the ego) in our
hominid ancestors. The author, John McCrone, used a model of concept
formation that may be useful to us in our attempt to define a meme (though
the author seemed sadly unfamiliar with meme theory).

In this model, sensory impressions which include body-state, the current
contents of the senses (which may include heard or read "words" or other
meme-spores), and the current linguistic background noise in the brain (a
fairly constant hum of our memory-searching inner-voice), are processed in
a pyrimidal cascade in our brains -- each level reducing the complexity of
the data by fitting them with learned abstractions (wet, blue, furious,
block-like, funny, jewelry, container).

Some of these abstractions are extremely precise and constitute our more
concrete memories (corresponding to "grandmother" cells or collections of
cells in the brain -- cells that only are activated when, for instance,
you see your grandmother).

This model suggests that language is a way of creating a verbal symbol
that is associated with this cascade in such a way that the symbol itself
will fire the cell-assembly of the associated abstraction; and that the
firing of the cascade that terminates with the abstraction will have the
effect of reinforcing its connection to its verbal symbol. Our species
uses this ability to tag abstractions as a way of searching through
long-term memory and making complex plans.

Perhaps it is these cascading neural nets that constitute the "body" of
the meme; while the associated word, phrase, body-language, technique or
whatever is just a seed or spore.

Under this way of looking at things, if the same combinations of
body-state, environment-state, and mental-state (within some tolerance)
result in the firing in two people of a specific neural cluster that A) is
not fired under other circumstances (within some tolerance) and B) no
such firing occurs in uninfected people -- these two individuals have been
infected by the same meme (although the meme may have reached each of its
hosts through a different seed).

Memes are generated by combining existing abstractions (the aboriginal
abstractions presumably are biologically hard-coded and represent our
closest approach to objective reality), and associating them with a
communicable symbol (which also serves to reference the new abstraction in
memory, thereby providing an experiential definition in terms of the new
abstraction's component abstractions).

-- Dave

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