Genie, a scientific tragedy

Mark Mills (
Mon, 29 Sep 97 22:53:47 -0000

Message-Id: <>
Subject: Genie, a scientific tragedy
Date: Mon, 29 Sep 97 22:53:47 -0000
From: Mark Mills <>
To: memetics list <>

Over the last month or two, I've been reading more on autism. This =
was done with the intent of better understanding memes by looking at =
individuals generally outside the memetic replication process. =
Autistic individuals seem to 'experience' things that the average =
person experiences. Unfortunately, they don't replicate culture very =
well. This seems to be the defining feature of autism. If an =
autistic child becomes culturally fluent, they are no longer =

I came across the book 'Genie: A Scientific Tragedy' by Russ Rymer. =
I found this an exceptional book and recommend it highly. The book =
traces the story of a girl who was locked in a room for the first 13 =
years of her life and kept almost totally unexposed to human =
language. When she appeared in a health clinic during the late 70s, =
case workers considered her a 'wild' or =8Cferal=B9 child.

The big question of the day was the notion of a linguistic 'critical =
age.' The issue had just become a public debate when Genie emerged =
from her dungeon. According to the hypothesis, once an individual =
passes the 'critical age,' they cannot 'learn' the skill, in this =
case language. Genie was 13 and at the onset of puberty, the =
hypothesized linguistic 'critical age.' The scientists hoped to =
prove the 'critical age' notion wrong and worked diligently to teach =
her language.

They failed and Rymer explores the failure from a host of angles, but =
returned again and again to the critical age issue. It looks like =
the 'critical age' hypothesis is accurate, EEG research on how the =
deaf learn language seems to independently confirm it. In memetic =
terms, Genie could not replicate linguistic memes because her brain =
had fixed itself in circuits which ignored critical aspects of =
memetic replication processes.

If you think about this, it suggests that if the brain is not aroused =
by specific patterns of sensation by a 'critical age,' the individual =
is incapable of reproducing memes related to specific skills despite =
a biological opportunity. There are probably a wide number of memetic =
critical ages. In Genie's case, she could not learn language and was =
incapable of replicating linguistic memes despite her genetic =
abilities. Though she 'acted' like an autistic child, she did not =
test autistic. Had she grown up in a culturally rich environment, =
she would almost certainly have been capable of memetic agility.

Another interesting aspect is the question of children Genie might =
produce. Despite Genie's inability to replicate linguistic memes via =
her own speech, a biological child of hers raised with exposure to =
linguistic people would have the ability to replicate language memes, =
the ability would be passed on despite it's disuse by Genie. Thus, =
Genie was capable of passing on the opportunity for memetic activity =
to her children, despite her own lack of memetic ability.

It seems any memetic process is highly constrained by biological =
foundations, but equally reliant upon cultural continuity. The =
fabric woven by genetic and memetic threads is inseparable.


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