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

Dave Gross (
Tue, 15 Jul 1997 19:54:57 +0800 (GMT-8)

Date: Tue, 15 Jul 1997 19:54:57 +0800 (GMT-8)
From: Dave Gross <>
Subject: Re: Comments on McCrone's "The Ape That Spoke" (was Re: What's in a
In-Reply-To: <v03102807aff60710944d@[]>

On Sat, 19 Jul 1997, Ton Maas wrote:

> This sounds interesting. Please post the full credits of this book.

"The Ape That Spoke: Language and the Evolution of the Human Mind"
John McCrone; William Morrow & Co. publishers, 1990; ISBN=0-688-10326-X

Some quotes from the book:

"...the human mind is only a few degrees different from an animal's and...
self-consciousness, memory, and higher emotions are all simple
language-driven abilities which we pick up as children."

"Early man did not have to invent the whole of language in a single
generation; it did not take one genius to come up with the idea of
symbolic speech and then teach it to the rest of the group. Instead,
language could evolve gradually over thousands of generations with each
small step forward in the use of symbolic noises becoming fixed, like the
useful mutation of a gene."

"Cultural evolution is a simple idea and works just like biological
evolution, except that instead of the inheritance of physical changes, it
involves the inheritance of useful behaviors and patterns of thought. The
spread of potato-washing in Japanese monkeys and termiting in chimps were
crude examples of cultural evolution in animals... These examples of
cultural inheritance are impressive but they lack an essential ingredient
of true evolution: There is no equivalent of the genetic material that
underpins biological evolution... [W]hen language came along, it provided
early man with the equivalent of genes for cultural evolution.... As with
biological evolution, cultural evolution would have acted with blind
statistical force. What worked would tend to outlive and outnumber what
did not, so that the ideas and behaviors that proved useful to man's
survival would be the ones most likely to be passed on to future

My comments: We can see from some of what I've quoted that McCrone is
covering a lot of the same territory that we're trying to cover with meme
theory. I think that although we frequently complain that our chosen
paradigm is poorly-defined or vague or awkward, you can see from McCrone's
writing that the discipline has matured quite a lot.

McCrone, apparently unfamiliar with meme theory, almost but not quite
reinvented it. The final sentence I quoted is the give-away that he
didn't reach far enough -- he asserts that memes survive because they
prove "useful to /man's/ survival."

Still, because he's probing the same territory, he's unearthing data and
putting together hypotheses that are intriguing and can be mined for new
insights when looked at with a memetic framework in mind.

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