Memes and language

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Sun, 11 Apr 1999 06:30:28 EDT

From: <>
Date: Sun, 11 Apr 1999 06:30:28 EDT
Subject: Memes and language

I've been observing the posts on this mailing list for a couple of weeks.
Initially I was a little intimidated by the knowledge and understanding which
most authors have of either biology, social sciences and philosophy (I'm a
geologist). However, I've also witnessed what I regard as posts sadly
lacking in emotional intelligence. Thanks, I feel a little less intimidated.
Anyway here's some ramblings.

I'm in the middle of reading Blackmore's chapter on the evolution of language
in which she points out that Deacon comes very close to adopting a memetic
perspective in The Symbolic Species (a book which I heard Dennett personally
endorse, but unfortunately I haven't yet read). I haven't developed my
thoughts yet, but I just thought I'd throw the idea out and see what everyone
thought. It seems to me that human language (by which I mean symbolic
representation) is the vehicle by which memetic information is transported.
Memetics and linguistics are closely related. Perhaps we might even define a
meme in terms of language.

Evolution in it's raw form can work on any information (symbolic data plus
meaning), which is subject to heredity, variation and selection.

Genetics has the advantage that there is a one to one relationship between
symbolic data and a physical entity i.e. the ACGT / ACGU code). Although the
meaning is more difficult to extract, we accept that it is the information
which is evolving. We don't need to debate the definition of genetics
because we can observe the physical entity which contains this information.
The boundaries of genetics is defined by the vehicle.

There is common agreement that human culture involves the transfer of
information. Memeticists agree that this information is subject to heredity,
variation and selection (and no mystical dualist force interferes with the
process). Culture is not an unrelated narrative but it actually has
structure which is determined by natural selection. What memeticists
disagree about is the vehicle of this information and whether memes and
therefore memetics should be defined in terms of the information, the vehicle
or the artefacts.

It seems to me that in memetics the symbolic code is human language. These
symbols may be internal (the language which we use to think), or external
(the language which we speak and write). Memetics isn't the general study of
the evolution of any old information, it is the study of the evolution of
information contained in language (internal and external).

We can't as yet (and maybe never will) be able to decipher the neural code
which stores this information in the brain, but we can study that information
which is spoken and written. One of the problems is the code which we use to
store this information is different for different people; we think, speak and
write in different languages. I suspect the neural codes may be even more

In genetics, we can observe the vehicle (DNA / RNA), which contains the
information (data plus meaning) to produce the artefacts.

In memetics we can observe the external vehicle (written and spoken symbols),
but not the internal vehicle (symbols in which we think), which contain the
information to produce artefacts.

The external symbols, which contain the memetic information are static. It
is only the internal pattern of symbols, which are subject to heredity,
variation and selection.

Anyway I'll bring this to a stop before I loose the plot. My main point is
that the discipline of memetics (as opposed to general evolutionary theory)
should be defined in terms of the vehicle (in the same way as the discipline
of genetics) and as far as I can see that vehicle is the symbolic code
(language), which we use to think, speak and write. Cultural items are the
artefacts of memes contained in the symbols we call language (thought,
written and spoken).

I read somewhere that Steve Jones once said that evolution is to analogy what
statues are to birdshit. Well here's some more birdshit. Maybe studying the
pattern of development in human artefacts (eg the history of art) is like
studying fossils in palaeontology, and maybe discovering an old text such as
the dead sea scrolls is like finding a piece of DNA still contained in a
fossil :o)

This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)