Re: testing memetics

Mario Vaneechoutte (
Wed, 10 Dec 1997 11:05:35 -0800

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 10 Dec 1997 11:05:35 -0800
From: Mario Vaneechoutte <>
Subject: Re: testing memetics

Mark Mills wrote:
> I recently heard about someone at the Viriginia State Aquarium training octopuses to 'open jars.' The success one has communicating the meme 'open jars' to octopuses is something that can be easily measured, so I thought I'd work with the idea a bit.
> The trainer accomplished this in the following stages:
> 1. Open jars with shrimp or crab were set in the aquarium for the octopuses to find. This stage was complete when octopuses were comfortable locating and eating out of jars.
> 2. Lids were partially set over the food filled jars. This stage was complete when the octopuses quickly knocked off the lid to get to the food.
> 3. Lids were partially screwed down. The octopuses learned to translate their knock off the lid9 skill into unscrew the lid skills. Little by little, increase the tightness9 of the jar lid over a period of weeks. By the end of the process, the octopuses can open almost any closed jar placed in the aquarium.
> Interestingly, the octopuses display a wide range of emotions9 while working on the jars. Octopuses are white9 when frightened, red when angry and flash between white and dark brown when excited. When they are frustrated, they pump water rapidly through a fluke in the back of the head. Trainers say they can read an emotional9 story into the octopus activity as they struggle with the jar, experiencing frustration and then excitement when they get the jar open. One is tempted to say they li
> There was no discussion of how long the octopuses could retain the skill (meme) without practice. As far as I could tell, the skill was not forgotten over nominal time periods like a week or month.
> Apparently the experiment was something of a bet between aquarium managers. Some thought octopuses could be trained (communication established, meme transfered), others thought it impossible. As it turned out, the process of communicating the notion (meme) was very slow, but it happened.
> What9s useful here is the simplicity of systems. The octopuses have a relatively simple neural system, probably several orders of magnitude fewer neural cells then humans. Additionally, they are relatively untainted with human memes which might confuse the measurements. Despite this limitation, octopuses seem full of memetic capability:
> a) the ability to memorize behaviors
> b) the ability to selectively use learned behaviors
> c) expression of emotional states as part of the behavioral choice process
> Octopus decision making syntax is probably much simpler than human. I don9t think this makes the behaviors non-memetic. The replication of jar opening behavior from human to octopus is memetic because the neural tissue of octopus records the necessary data and instructions for replicating the human behavior. The fact that the octopus is probably not going to teach other octopuses their jar tricks is a function of their social skills, not the memetic system. At some level, I'm sure you could
> It is interesting to point out the lack of imitation. Memetics is not dependent on imitation in this case. The octopus never imitates9 a human. Octopuses are simply acting from their normal range of motivations and options. From this entirely octopus frame of reference, they are including memories of successful food gathering and including the key responses in their ready9 behaviors.
> The basis for their jar opening9 behavior is the ability to open clams and mollusks. Coupled with an in born desire to eat clams, they undoubtably inherit an ability to learn9 food gathering skills such as target selection and trapping techniques. In this case, all they need to learn is the shape and opening technique for this new kind of food source.
> The ability to open a clam is an inherited meme. The clam opening meme is written into the neural system via some embryological development which included leaving blank9 part of the neural memory system for recording instructions for picking and preparing9 desirable clams.
> Memes are largely recorded in the neural tissue (substrate). If we knew how to physically read brain tissue, we would identify memes9 much as people doing genetics identify genes9 within the chromosome. As in genetics, one would have great difficulty drawing one-to-one causal relationships between 'bits' of the code, but one can identify what 'segment' of the substrate 'records' important parts of the organism's activity control system.

A very interesting story which shows how quite sophisticated intelligent
behaviour can exist even in invertebrate organisms.
BUT. Is acquiring a new behaviour in a step by step manner, without any
mimicking of already existing behaviour and building only upon
genetically encoded skills (like opening clams) to be named a meme? Than
even more things will be memes while already the concept as used by
Dawkins encloses too different things to be any useful.

Taking Dawkins initial definition, a meme is some behavioural - cultural
information which is copied from mind to mind. In the case of octopus
learning there is no copying of acquired skills, there is only acquiring
new skills by a trial and error process (learning) and this is an
example of what an intelligent processor can achieve, but is not a meme.
Only in case other octopuses start copying this behaviour, we have a

Or not?

Mario Vaneechoutte
Laboratory Bacteriology & Virology
Blok A, De Pintelaan 185
University Hospital Ghent
Belgium 9000 Ghent
Tel: +32 9 240 36 92
Fax: +32 9 240 36 59

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