Re: Meaning generation

Scott DeLancey (
Thu, 24 Jul 1997 14:22:43 -0700 (PDT)

Date: Thu, 24 Jul 1997 14:22:43 -0700 (PDT)
From: Scott DeLancey <>
To: memetics list <>
Subject: Re: Meaning generation
In-Reply-To: <>

On Wed, 23 Jul 1997, Mark Mills wrote:

[lots snipped, that's stuff for another post]

> the origin of language. Your comment that it is only when people start
> 'naming' things that there is anything memetic going on reflects an undo
> focus on a recent evolutionary stage in cultural evolution. The

What you read is a lot more than I had any intention of saying. My
point has nothing to do with non-linguistic memes (obviously there are
such things) or whether memetic phenomena of some sort preceded the
development of language in human evolution. It's that--by definition--
behaviors (or concepts!) that are genetically encoded in the organism are
not memes. They replicate genetically, just like other physical traits,
not by imitation or communication. There's no need to create a new
science to deal with these phenomena--ethology and genetics are already
available. We are not in the realm of memetics until we are dealing with
behaviors or concepts which can be transmitted from one individual to
Thus I said (and Mark's comment above was a direct response to this):

> >stipulate that every human being (absent color blindness or other
> >pathology) has a visual system that responds strongly to a particular
> >wavelength/saturation of light, the one at the center of the field
> >that English labels _red_, Chinese _hung_, etc. I don't see anyplace
> >here where the concept of "meme" is relevant. If all humans respond
> >equivalently to a particular stimulus because that's how they are
> >built, this is still squarely in the realm of genetics, not memetics.
> >Only when people start *naming* this color, subdividing the color
> >space into labelled subfields, into a system which other individuals
> >can then acquire, is there anything memetic going on.

I didn't mean this to be about the origin of language, even if it sounds
like it. The point is, the universal human peak response to that color
which all languages with a word for 'red' will happily call a real good
example of their word is part of the human genetic endowment--it's not
a meme. (It may be that all you're saying is that we have to keep it
in mind when we look at the memes that cluster around it, in which case
I agree entirely). The particular English concept 'red', the
word(s) that go with it, the difference between red and orange (not
distinguished in many languages), all the various cultural associations
of the word, etc.--all of these *are* memetic phenomena.

Scott DeLancey
Department of Linguistics
University of Oregon
Eugene, OR 97403, USA

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