Re: re. re. meme generation and evolution

Ton Maas (
Sun, 3 Aug 1997 08:36:12 +0200

Message-Id: <v0310280eb00928ae4283@[]>
In-Reply-To: <c=SG%a=_%p=TP%l=STAFF-EXCHA-970801065630Z-194309@staff-exchange.TP.AC.SG>
Date: Sun, 3 Aug 1997 08:36:12 +0200
From: Ton Maas <>
Subject: Re: re. re. meme generation and evolution


Thnaks for the extensive and inspiring posting, which resonates with my own
ideas. I have just a few (of my ususal nit-picking) remarks :-)

> Stable cultural forms (which surround us and
>constrain our behaviour) are the result of the collective assimilation
>of a large number of experiences integrated and condensed into messages
>which can be exchanged between the agents (inter-actors?) of the system.
> My conceptual take on Memetics (or what I prefer to call Cultural
>Evolution) is essentially evolutionary, behavioural and driven by
>communication and exchange between the agents.

I take it you agree with Bateson's Eternal Verity that all behaviour is
communication, but that seems to be somewhat at odds with your suggestion
that all collectively assimilated experiences can be "reduced" (excusez le
mot) into "messages". I am following McCulloch's notion of distributed
memory, which enables complex systems (such as societies) to use the
relations between their parts as a memory/storage device. This is why
culture can be largely non-verbal, with many elements that can be
subconsciously transmitted to small children long before they master
language. Neither parents nor children have to be aware of what they are
exchanging and in the case of basic cultural assumptions (local
epistemology) they usually have no clue.

>MM: "....Who is collecting the experiences? groups? individuals?..."
>AB: Both, at different organizational levels. Individuals intentionally
>select, combine and exchange reports about experience in order to deal
>with new situations in variable environments. The collective and
>cumulative result of that activity is the establishment of group
>phenomena called cultural forms which are outside the control of
>individual activity and indeed constrain that activity. (As usual,
>language is the most obvious but not the only example). Group phenomena
>have their own dynamics which can be understood at an ecological level
>(interacting groups). This is certainly the case in cultural terms where
>there is always more than one style or paradigm available within any

Very nicely put!

>MM: " ....What makes a meme more predictive than an 'atomistic'
>experience? Is a meme predictive due to the cumulative small predictive
>contributions of the atomistic experiences or is the predictive aspect a
>feature of the whole which emerges once the meaningless atomistic
>experiences are collected?...."
>AB: The latter (sort of). A meme exists as a product of selection
>applied to a large number of experiences. In other words, experience has
>to be processed (subject to selection) before it has predictive value
>for humans. There is no 'collection' involved. 'Collection' assumes an
>aggregate or bundle of discrete elements. Experience is however,
>analogue, continuous, integrated, seamless. The report on it (the meme)
>is not. It is a digital representation (classification) of that analogue
>experience which, unlike experience itself is 'portable' and can be
>transmitted. Experiences can in this sense, be scanned but not

Again you seem to be resorting to an atomistic notion of identifying "meme"
with "message", limiting communication to the verbal (digital) format of
language proper. I still fail to see how/where you make that step.

>AB: Yes. A report in the form of a meme IS another experience, as indeed
>learning is 'another' (second level) experience. There is no
>non-experiential way of receiving it (or anything else).
>MM: ".....This sounds like a habit on the surface. Are you suggesting a
>meme is a habit? I guess one might say that habits are a 'unit of
>AB: Yes. From a behavioural point of view, cultural forms
>(memes/memeplexes) are habits and are the results of learning from
>experience. In cultural terms, the learning can take a millenia as a set
>of forms, behaviours establishes itself throughout a society.

Very much so!

>MM: "....The notion of 'compression' alludes to a 'decompression'
>process. Have you considered how decompression is done? Are you really
>talking about compression or is it more of a 'streamlined' report..."
>AB: I am really talking about compression. That is, the meme re-presents
>regularities (similarities) across a number of experiences. These
>experiences are compressed by excluding irregular, circumstantial or
>random (non-repetitive) characteristics from the report leaving only the
>most essential features. (It is in this sense that experience is

There is an interesting problem that maybe needs to be addressed here (I
mean in this forum), namely the difference between condensations that are
"impoverishing" (like the minutes of a meeting) and "enriching" (like good

>AB: No. I agree that meaning emerges from the activity of the brain. I
>regard that activity (and the meaning that flows from it) as essentially
>classificatory (production of categories). As above, this cognitive
>predisposition of the brain is a part of our biological/evolutionary
>inheritance. The brain creates meaning out of the sound, light and
>tactile patterns which it perceives in the world. Over long periods of
>time and working on the results of its own past (collective) activities
>it can produce Baroque music (or that of Springsteen), Modern
>architecture and theories of Relativity and Evolution, etc. etc.

Are you familiar with the concept of structural coupling (as formulated by
Varela & Maturana)? The above quotation comes very close to that.

>AB: I assumed that memetics was about human culture/cultural evolution.
>Animals and young babies react to experiences with automatic behaviour.
>The experience and the expression of that experience are at the same
>logical level. An exclamation (a yell or cry) is not a report, it is an
>unedited expression of the experience. A report/meme/cultural form is an
>edited (digitalized) representation of experience. Neither is it a
>description of an experience which would take infinitely long to 'write
>out' or communicate. One can also note another key feature of
>animal/baby commuincation, namely that there are no (past/ future/
>potential future) tenses involved. Everything is NOW. Like learning
>there are different levels of communicative and cognitive ability
>prescribed by our genetic/evolutionary inheritance. Fortunately the
>human genetic program allows the baby to develop more extensive and
>complex communicational schemata. In my view, non-human exchanges are

Hmm. How do you fit in 2nd order learning in animals (I mean the kind which
creates paradigmatic shifts from "before" to "after", as you described
above)? I grant you this is pretty rare, but primates and dolphins seem to
able to pull it off. Even exclamations like yells or cries, when volatile,
can become rather primitive discrete message (a proto-word, if you wish)
with the semiotic freedom this introduces (up to the point of negation and
referring to past and future).

>AB: Re. meaning: I think I have dealt with that above, namely meaning is
>created by the interaction of human classifications with sensory
>experience. The exact nature of those classifications or categories (eg.
>binary, similarity/difference, etc.) I would assume is determined by the
>physical/chemical structure of the brain itself but which itself is
>empty of content. The complexity of cultural evolution comes about when
>we recursively classify the results of our own former classifications.
>The evolutionary/selective advantage of the transition from pre-human to
>human is the capacity to scan past experience for a range of possible
>future behaviours. The move, as I would suggest from reacting to
>experience thinking about experience. Contemplation in other words. A
>decisive advantage.

A very nice example of the determination of process by organization would
be the "fact" of primary colors - conventionally contributed to the
"outside world" but in fact related to the natural history of our species
(with three types of color receptors in the retina of its eyes). Most other
mammals lack color receptors completely (so they are color blind), but
among birds we can find species that are tetrachromatic and even
pentachromatic. Their color-solid (their "reality") is fundamentally
different from our own, even though we share the same physical world.

Ton Maas

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