Re: Meaning generation

Scott DeLancey (
Fri, 25 Jul 1997 10:16:32 -0700 (PDT)

Date: Fri, 25 Jul 1997 10:16:32 -0700 (PDT)
From: Scott DeLancey <>
To: memetics list <>
Subject: Re: Meaning generation
In-Reply-To: <>

On Fri, 25 Jul 1997, Mark Mills wrote:

> >It's that--by definition-- behaviors (or concepts!) that are
> >genetically encoded in the organism are not memes.
> Hm. The 'by definition' argument. I guess that requires me to request
> your definition and an idea of why you think it useful.

I start with Dawkins' characterization of the idea. Not that the first
proposal is automatically the best forever, but anything claimed to be
an improvement on it needs to be justified. The essential point of
Dawkins' proposal is:

Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by
leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes
propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from
brain to brain by a process which, in a broad sense, can
be called imitation.

The essence of Dawkins' suggestion--and the fundamental assumption of
memetics--is that the meme is *a new kind* of replicator, not just a
a more evolved manifestation of genetics.
We need to distinguish three different types of behavior pattern:
those which are genetically "wired-in" to the organism--the domain of
ethology, those which the organism learns through experience--the domain
of one branch of psychology, and those which replicate by imitation
(broadly understood). The last is the domain of memetics.

> We have a science called neurology, but our nervous system is a genetic
> inheritance.
> We have a science called cardiology, but our heart's behavior is a
> genetic inheritance.
> etc.

I don't think the analogy fits. We have science called ethology, and
another hoping-to-be science called sociobiology, and these too are
matters of genetic inheritance. The cultural behavior of humans, once
the biological bases that the sociobiologists think about is factored
out, is not determined by genetic inheritance. That's the whole point.

> I doubt anyone will ever be capable of distinguishing where 'inherited'
> sequences stop and 'learned' sequences start.

Undoubtedly true. That's a common situation in science (at least where
I work). But it's a disastrous mistake to leap from that to the
conclusion that there's no distinction and no reason to consider the
two kinds of phenomena separately. There are behaviors that are
completely wired in (e.g. peristalsis). There are behaviors that
have absolutely no genetic basis (e.g. circumambulating a religious
site in a clockwise direction). There are areas of behavior where
both kinds of factor are involved (e.g. mating behavior, social
hierarchies, parts of language). But we won't come closer to an
understanding of these phenomena by pretending that there really
isn't any difference between the two types of pattern.

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

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