Howard Bloom on memes

Bill Benzon (
Thu, 11 Dec 1997 07:03:17 -0400

Message-Id: <>
Date: Thu, 11 Dec 1997 07:03:17 -0400
From: (Bill Benzon)
Subject: Howard Bloom on memes

>From: Howl Bloom <>
>Date: Thu, 11 Dec 1997 01:33:41 EST
>Subject: re: testing memetics--personal
>Organization: AOL (
>X-Mailer: Inet_Mail_Out (IMOv11)
>Bill--the octopus posting hit the bullseye again, at least in my humble
>opinion. Could you do me a favor and post the following on the relevant
>memetics board? All my thanks--Howard
>Mark--Your posting on octopus memes was *extremely* interesting. Thought the
>following chapter on octopus memes from my upcoming book on _The Global Brain_
>(John Wiley, Spring, 1999, abridged German edition Bollmann Verlag Spring
>1998) might prove of interest. Howard Bloom
> 720 million to 65 million b.c.
> by
> Howard Bloom
> (author of The Lucifer Principle:
>a scientific expedition into the forces of history
> for two chapters and an intellectual www tool kit
> see\lucifer)
>When we last left off, bacteria and viruses had developed both local
>networked intelligence and the grander web we call a global brain.
>Meanwhile new, highly complex cells--the eukaryotes--had broken fresh
>ground in intranetting. Half a billion years of eukaryotic upgrades (2.1
>billion b.c. to 1.6 billion bc) had led to multicellular creatures--beasts of
>infinitely greater talent than the prokaryotes preceding them. But the
>new macro-organisms were missing something: the worldwide
>information swap available to their microbial competitors. They had
>gained innumerable gifts, but had lost their worldwide mind!
>One of the dramatis personae with which we ended was the clam, which
>bowed into the fossil record at 720 million B.C. That bivalve probably
>possessed an information processing device we failed to mention--
>memory. Memory exists in insects, mollusks, and many of the life
>forms which came into existence during the Cambrian explosion.
>Recent research has demonstrated that even the lowly fruit fly, a relative
>of Cambrian antecedents, has a storage system which works in the same
>stages as ours--short term memory leading to mid-term memory and
>finally long-term memory--all made possible, as with humans, only if the
>fly does not cram its lessons but sips them slowly, taking periods of rest
>for data digestion.
>Researchers have recently pinpointed the pre-Jurassic genes responsible
>for this sequence in insects, shellfish, chicks, and humans. Recall
>another actor in our previous episode--the internal cellular messenger
>known as cyclic AMP. Cyclic AMP was a holdover from bacterial days,
>one which became even more essential to multicellular beings, and which
>continues to carry out its roles in you and me. Researchers at the Cold
>Spring Harbor Lab are convinced that sometime before 200 million years
>BC, a knowledge-accumulator gene called dCREB2 harnessed cyclic AMP
>for a new purpose--rapid data storage. (CREB stands for cyclic-AMP-
>responsive element-binding protein.)
>Before eukaryotic cells emerged, information had been saved in
>chromosomes--welded chains of coded nucleotides. In bacteria, altering
>these genetic files had been relatively easy. But the complexity of
>eukaryotes had a drawback: their DNA archives were a thousand times
>vaster than those of their predecessors. This size had pluses and
>minuses. The functions eukaryotes could handle expanded
>exponentially. But their flexibility and swiftness of adaptation
>underwent a staggering decline. The genetic libraries which had been
>RAM now approached the immobility of ROM.
>When neural memory appeared, the effect was dramatic. A multi-celled
>creature could quickly store experience in flexible circuitry. Hardware
>alteration led to equally startling software. A new data device
>augmented the gene. Zoologist Richard Dawkins calls it the meme.
>Memes were not transmissible via inch-long chains of adenine, cytosine,
>guanosine, and thymine corkscrewed in a microscopic clump. They
>were relayed via scent, sight and sound. Memes were form indifferent
>to the substance which carried them. They would provide the key first
>to a knowledge explosion, and later to the evolution of a whole new
>style of worldwide web.
>This episode will chronicle the early rise of memory's child--learning--the
>medium in which memes thrive. It will also move from the networks
>which turned several trillion cells into a larger organism to the meta-
>networks which could knit a group of 30,000 or more multi-cellular
>animals into a superorganism, one endowed with 60,000 eyes, 60,000
>ears, trillions of scent receptors, and 30,000 brains.
> +++++++++++++++++++++
>Virtually all the phyla swimming, walking, flying and crawling the earth
>today arose in a blink of geologic time. The event--the Cambrian
>explosion--lasted a mere 40 million years.
>Fossil evidence of information networking among Cambrian creatures
>has not yet been subjected to systematic analysis. But we have a tool
>with which to probe their data-connection systems. That is inference.
>Many of the behaviors dominating Cambrian descendants today were
>likely to have contributed to the evolutionary success of their venerable
>Cambrian parvenus included: relatives of choanocytes (sponges);
>onychophorans (worm-like beasts with 14-43 pairs of legs found mostly
>today in Australia); mollusks (snails, squid, octopi, oysters and clams),
>echinoderms (starfish, sea urchins, sea cucumbers, and sea lilies); and
>perhaps most important, crustaceans (spiders, shrimp, crabs, and insects);
>and chordates (early vertebrates).
>Among the Cambrian crustaceans were the Eurypterids, prototypes of
>the scorpions which may well have been the first land-walkers. How
>modern were these seven-foot-long, twelve-legged beasts? Skeletal
>remains indicate they carried the equipment standard to even the
>lowliest contemporary arthropod: a digestive tract beginning in a mouth,
>leading to a stomach and ending in an anus; a central nervous system
>complete with brain; a focal ganglionic cable similar to the chord
>innervating your spine; and an extensive lace of wiring which delicately
>controlled the limbs and everything between them. In addition, these
>proto-scorpions of the Cambrian possessed sensors to detect internal
>movement, orientation in space, and the visual, tactile and smell-
>detecting contraptions necessary to pinpoint any scourge or temptation
>gliding in the waters around them. Some of these sensory organs were
>astonishingly intricate. Eurpyterid eyes, according to invertebrate
>zoologist Dr. Kerry B. Clark, could be six inches long. Their size, Clark
>feels, indicates that there was "one hell of a lot of neural processing
>going on in there."
>Once you have visual detectors and a central nervous system, you are
>equipped to do elaborate versions of something individual bacteria could
>only master in a limited way. Take, for example, a descendent of the
>pre-Cambrian mollusks--the octopus. Put a modern octopus in a large
>glass jar. Give it lots of room to move. Dangle something harmless
>outside the walls of its receptacle. Don't worry, it can see. Try, for
>example, a teddy bear. Whenever the stuffed animal appears, electrically
>zap the octopus. After a bunch of tries, unplug your shock producers,
>pop the Steiff bear within the octopus' viewing range, and whomp--the
>beast will jet itself in the opposite direction. Learning!
>But can this form of prudence be networked--can it be passed from one
>octopus to another? Most certainly. Bring in an equally transparent
>container housing a second octopus. Place it next to the octopus you've
>trained. Now show the pre-punished tentacle-bearer the stuffed toy. As
>it whooshes back in panic, its naive neighbor will be watching. Try the
>experiment a few more times, just to make sure the newcomer gets the
>message. No, it has never been stung by shock. But yes, it has seen its
>fellow water denizen indicate that when a cuddly bear appears there may
>be trouble in the offing. Now isolate octopus number two and show it
>the plaything. It will follow the lead of its more experienced conspecific
>and recoil with a speed that will astonish you. What's more, it will
>catch on faster by following the cues of another octopus than if forced
>to learn on its own. Congratulations. You have just uncovered one
>synapse of a social brain--imitative learning.
>You have also witnessed the operation of a primordial meme. No
>cellular material was exchanged. Only photons connected the two
>creatures. Yet the neural response of one octopus was reproduced in the
>brain of the other.
>Alas we have no Cambrian trilobites or proto-scorpions on which to run
>this experiment. However the number of Cambrian creatures with a
>central nervous column and a brain was vast. The eyes and sensors of
>these creatures were intricate and varied. It is a distinct possibility that
>some of them may have been among the first practitioners of monkey
>see, monkey do.
>The emulative compulsion is one of the critical immaterials from which
>collective brains are made. Shortly after 500 million b.c., there arose the
>fish...emulators par excellence. Schooling is one of a fish's most pivotal
>defenses. A mob of potential fillets swims together in unison, each
>carefully heeding the cues it gets from others. As long as the frontal
>portion of its brain is intact, it will slavishly follow the crowd. The
>advantage: a group of relative midgets can ripple like a giant sheet, light
>glinting off its scales in such a way that a predator is dazzled and has
>difficulty focussing attention on any single victim.
>How much do fish rely on imitative learning? To what extent can their
>neural settings be rearranged by proto-memes? Regard the guppy--one
>of evolution's early experiments in fish morphology. Female guppies are
>instinctively biased to prefer males of a deep orange hue. But this does
>not mean they are immune to the imitative learning we call fashion.
>Isolate a guppy from the crowd and train her to prefer a male who is
>paler than the normal sex-arousing shade. Let her loose again among her
>sisters. They will watch her amorous attraction to suitors they had
>previously shunned. Calibrating their behavior to that of the taste-
>maker, others will soon begin a piscine swoon over the formerly
>repulsive pallid beaus. Dawkins gives the memetic example of a melody
>which infects one human mind after another. But in guppies, movement
>cues and preferences in skin tone are equally contagious.
>Once a social group, no matter how primitive, possesses imitative
>learning, the modern data network has begun. Individuals become
>components of a collective intelligence, one which, like a colony of
>bacteria, is expert in what Eshel Ben Jacob calls "quorum sensing"--
>summing individual decisions to arrive at a cooperative-conclusion.
>Extrapolating backwards once again we can deduce that another
>Cambrian descendant introduced a second essential tool into the life of
>the sea: the social hierarchy.
>Among the first crustaceans were tiny Cambrian shrimp. Their later
>relatives, crayfish and lobsters, emerged sometime after 260 million b.c.
>These decapods most likely had mastered imitative behavior. Among
>the first to evolve were spiny lobsters. Some spiny lobsters engage in an
>imitative seasonal migration, parading substantial distances through the
>seas in single file, each following the path and demeanor of the one
>before it. It has been hypothesized that spiny lobsters (Panulirus argus)
>evolved this slavish march to cope with periodic glaciation.(1)
>Dominance hierarchies extended these creatures' capabilities by
>delegating specialized responsibilities to seemingly identical group
>members. Bacteria had divvied up tasks, but they had done it by
>altering the genetic content of a newborn, committing it to a specific
>social purpose for life. Inherent in lobsters and crayfish,(2) on the
>other hand, was the capacity to assume any role the group needed, and
>the set of switches it took to turn those abilities on or off. This gave a
>cluster of crustaceans the capacity for a rapid reprogramming which, in
>bacteria, had depended on population turnover. (Bacteria spawn a new
>generation every 20 minutes.)
>Lobsters live in clusters of cave-like dugouts beneath the sea. At night,
>the males grow restless and roam about, tapping on the door of each
>neighbor. The lobster inside comes to the entrance and faces off with
>the intruder. The showdown's goal is to see who is larger. If the visitor
>can tower over his rearing host, the apartment dweller vacates his home.
>The larger lobster knocks around the new abode for a bit, then goes off
>to the next cave for a visit. If the Homarus making these night-time
>rounds is large enough, by evening's end he's flushed all his neighbors
>from their lairs. Later, he lets them return. But he's proven a point.
>He is in charge. Gradually we will see the impact of this ritual--repeated
>in forms right up to office politics--on collective intelligence.
>Next comes the role of hormones in temporarily restructuring the
>individual. After a pushing match in which the combatants whip their
>antennae and lock claws, the winner struts regally on the tips of his toes.
>The loser slinks subserviently backward. The victor's confidence comes
>from serotonin. The loser's dejection from octopamine. Studies of
>equivalent clashes in crayfish reveal that serotonin alters neuron activity
>so significantly that Stanford University's Russ Fernald says "the animal
>in some sense has a different brain...."
>Serotonin remains a critical hormone in human beings. It is regulated
>by dominance or submission. From episode to episode we shall see the
>importance of serotonin in the unfolding group mind as well.
>In 350 million B.C. another Cambrian descendent appeared--the insect.
>At first, says legendary entomologist E.O. Wilson, insects were probably
>solitary. The fossil evidence supporting this conclusion is strong but not
>definitive. Invertebrate zoologist Dr. K.B. Clark points out, "The most
>primitive living insects are very similar, morphologically, to the oldest
>fossils. They're solitary. These are things like springtails. But social
>behavior has arisen convergently in Hemiptera, Hymenoptera,
>Lepidoptera, Isoptera, and maybe a couple of other orders, so might
>occur earlier than noted." Clark adds that even springtails are not as

William L. Benzon 201.217.1010
708 Jersey Ave. Apt. 2A
Jersey City, NJ 07302 USA

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