KC: the Sperber problem

Hans-Cees Speel (hanss@sepa.tudelft.nl)
Fri, 11 Jun 1999 12:25:47 +0200

From: "Hans-Cees Speel" <hanss@sepa.tudelft.nl>
To: memetics@mmu.ac.uk
Date: Fri, 11 Jun 1999 12:25:47 +0200
Subject: KC: the Sperber problem
Message-Id: <E10sOT8-0006XV-00@dryctnath.mmu.ac.uk>

The Kings conference had some interesting debates. One was
about the 'Sperber problem' as it was referred to.

Dan Sperber held a nice talk about the possibility that things that
appear to be memes are not really memes at all.

He argued that copied memes result in repetitive patterns that we
might think are memes. However, rain also exists of repetitive
patterns but it has nothing to do with memes. Drops look alike and
arise by the same kind of forces, but are not memes.

So he argued that we can see memes as follows:

m-M-m-M and so on. I made up the Mand m's.

the small m is a meme as we can see it: a pattern of behavior, a
word uttered, a song, a pot that is made and so on. A M stands for
a meme in the head.

replication goes from M to M (mind to mind) by communication,
and from m to m by imitation in normal words.

Chances are however that in the mind a meme is so much
distorted it can hardly be the same meme anymore. Also the
meme in the mind 1 can be stored very differently than in mind 2.

It is als possible that a meme M is only copied precise enough
from mind one to mind two after there has been communication
bwteeen the two people about its meaning or on some other things
that results in error correction after the copying.

His question was: when memes are differently stored and there
needs to be error correction: are we still talking about real memes

The answer of Dennett was very nice:

If we see a number of guys jumping from a diving board on the side
of a swimming pool into the water, going down from thew board and
not up, we do not need memetics to explain it. Good old gravity will

If they all shout aaahhh before they jump we might need memetics,
but perhaps we may assume this is from fear, or there is a sharp
edge on the diving board that makes them scream.

If they all shout 'cawabunga!' we probably need memetics to
explain that.

Very nicely put of course like only Dennett can.

Now the general thing biologists said was that in genetics too we
have error correction, so that need not upset memetics.
Also it was put forward that it matters on what level you see
storage as identical. In computer programs a program can be
ported to different systems, like linux, windows, mac, but still be
the same for a large part. Also the same program is not stared at
the same place on every disk, and may be shattered or
defragmented. At the level of the 0 abd 1's one can very difficultly
see what data belongs to what else.
What also has to do with it are processes of interpretation that also
represent information of course. As in genetics we focus too much
on just the data copied, and not on the information that is included
and the environment of other information needed to make this data
information as well.

In conclusion I sensed that there was concern that sheer imitation
as the definition of what makes a meme was perceived as too

If people are only stimulated to the same respons by a common
stimulus there are hardly memes involved. But if there is causation
by a stimulus, but this is also coupled to copying of information of
what the respons might be, like in Paul Marsdens paper on the
spread of suicide, memetics comes in.

The same goes for behavior (for instance the obediance to norms
and rules) that is transmitted form child to parent, where a lot of
error correctiontakes place. The shoe lace example is another
example (see my paper for a lot of these things I concluded two
years ago already however, just to brag:-))
... There would fall out if thereach of memetics if we only do

so far the Sperber problem.


eemed to
So his argument

Theories come and go, the frog stays [F. Jacob]
Hans-Cees Speel
Managing Editor "Journal of Memetics Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission"

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