Re: Memes, Biology, Language.

Wesley Schwein (
Sat, 11 Oct 1997 14:37:19 -0400 (EDT)

Date: Sat, 11 Oct 1997 14:37:19 -0400 (EDT)
From: Wesley Schwein <>
To: memetics list <>
Subject: Re: Memes, Biology, Language.
In-Reply-To: <>

On Wed, 8 Oct 1997, Mark Mills wrote:

> Interesting. I am left wondering if you think we are 'alone' in our
> syntactic abilities or only a highly complex expression of such abilities.

As far as we know, humans are alone among terrestrial organisms in
possessing syntax. Personally, I wouldn't rule out cetaceans just yet.

> You mention her 'lack of mental software.' What was missing? A circuit
> (passive), a program (active), a circuit set up by a program?

I was vague and imprecise before. Lemme give it another shot.

I'd say a circuit (adult syntax) set up by a program (universal grammar,
language acquisition device) which failed to receive enough linguistic
input to develop normally.

Further... Contemporary linguistic thinking is that humans are born
with a Language Acquisition Device (LAD), a hypothetical set of algorithms
which act to recognize language in the child's environment and build up
facility in whatever language(s) the child is exposed to. Child language
researchers are devided as to whether the acquisition process is a matter
of setting previously-existing mental "switches" or if language is
acquired from first principles as an application of general cognition.
The former approach is favored by Chomsky and Steven Pinker, among others.

Such switches (parameters theory) represent the flexibility of the
proposed Universal Grammar; the LAD notices which phonemes are being used
in its environment, then starts picking up individual words, then simple
syntax (a preferred order of arguments even when utterences are limited to
two words). Syntax of the language in the child's envirnment is acquired
by setting parameters: is the phrase structure head-first or head-last
(main word in phrase at beginning or end of that phrase; English vs
Japanese)? is the language PRO-drop or not (requires a subject; Spanish vs
English)? is the verb-object system accusative or ergative (English vs
Maya)? and so on. Each proposed parameter has implications. Eg., if a
language is head-first, prepositions go before the noun phrase they
govern; if head-last, they go afterward.

Anyway, development of language (circuits in the brain) is entirely
dependent on the child being raised in a normal linguistic environment.
If the critical period ends before the child is put in such an
environment, adult syntax is not possible. The proposed explanation is
that the LAD is metabolically expensive for the brain to maintain and is
around only as long as is normally required to learn whatever language(s)
the child is exposed to; it would be inefficient to keep it going long
after we don't strictly need it. It may be important that the critical
period ends at puberty, the age when abstract thinking is first possible.

Genie and others like her were not only deprived of a normal linguistic
environement but a normal social one; the two are of course nearly the
same. She could still learn vocabulary (anyone can do that up all
their lives) and various other skills; she had the cognitive capability
for those.

There may, as I think you suggested, be lots of critical periods for
different activities; music, dance, gymnastics, and visual art all spring
to mind. None of these are as universally, importantly human as language.

> If you can conjure up the image of a 'mental program in the brain,' I'd
> like to propose such a thing is the physical representation of a meme, a
> pulsating set of neurons capable of timed stimulation of various
> available connection to other parts of the body. The operation of such
> programs (memes) produces behavior we recognize as syntax.
> Understandable syntax is the behavioral response of an active and well
> 'formed' meme complex within a brain.

I don't see the mind as network of interacting/competing meme-complexes
but rather as an information system which is habituated to infection by
various meme-complexes and to processing information through such
complexes. We have lots of instincts (hardwired programs), just like any
other complex animal. Language --its acquisition and employment-- is one
of those instincts, along with things like "graphics software" (visual
imagination) and an understanding of number; we are preprogrammed by
natural selection to run these sofware packages (mental modules, circuits,
take your pick of models) just like any other organism.

Now, where I see memes entering into the picture is primarily via
language. While certain memes don't require language as a vector (1), and
certain aspects of language are probably memes themselves (vocabulary), it
does allow for the transmission of most recognizably human memes and

I think an adult mind can be seen as a set of basic, genetically-
transmitted instincts with a (generally) symbiotic nest of meme-complexes.
We need positions and views; we don't handle ambiguity happily as any grad
student can tell you. Memes seem to account for a lot, but they aren't
everything in the mind.

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