Re: implied or inferred memes

Bill Spight (
Mon, 20 Sep 1999 10:14:17 -0700

Date: Mon, 20 Sep 1999 10:14:17 -0700
From: Bill Spight <>
Subject: Re: implied or inferred memes

Dear Raymond and Jake,


I think that Blackmore called this "social learning" if I am
correct, and she distinguished it from true imitation. In social
learning there already exists a complex behavior (either operantly
conditioned or instinctively "hard wired") and the organism simply
learns a new application of that same behavior through seeing another.
A bird see another bird pecking a cream bottle. There is no imitation
because both birds already know how to peck for food. The second only
receives information of another place to apply that behavior through
observation. . . .
At least that is how I think she meant that. She was drawing a
distinction between social learning and true imitation and was showing
how they were two significantly different things.


I'm not very satisfied with that distinction and I'm not very sure that
was what Blackmore was saying.


I'm not very satisfied with that distinction either, Raymond. And I'm
not very sure what Blackmore was saying about that distinction.

But she was drawing that distinction about the tits in her JoM paper:
"The spread of milk-bottle pecking was a simple cultural phenomenon but
purists would argue that it was based not on imitation, but on social

Towards the end of her paper she generalizes the notion of imitation,
and that's where I am not sure what she is saying.

We learn about our culture in many ways, including reading
and writing, watching television, being deliberately taught by
parents and school teachers, and by listening to the conversations
of others. In any consideration of memetics, from its origins
in Dawkins's work, right through to the present, we count as
memes all of the cultural behaviours passed on in these various
ways, including everything from fashions and habits, to
political ideologies and scientific theories. We would be daft
to redefine the meme is such a way that any of these was
excluded, but this naturally raises the question of whether all
these forms of learning can really be counted as imitation. . . .

We may take a simpler position - that all these kinds of
learning and teaching require at least the ability to imitate.
Language learning is a good example.

The *ability* to imitate? That's very general. So much so that I have no
idea what she counts as a meme. (Although I can identify some things
that I think she would not count as a meme.)

But anyway, here are two possible memes that I would include, but that I
think that she leaves out.

1) Siestas.

The behavior of napping is not learned. What is learned are the
circumstances under which napping is OK or expected. No imitation
implied here.

(If we accept this as a meme, why not pecking open milk containers by
the birds? All they learned was the circumstances under which pecking
would be rewarded by sustenance.)

2) Grammar rules.

At around age 3, English speaking children start to say, "goed" instead
of "went", which they previously used. OC, the word "go" and the word
ending "d" involve imitation in their learning, so Blackmore might claim
that the use of "goed" is a meme. But why does "goed" replace the
previously imitated "went"?

It appears that the children form "goed" by their newly learned grammar
rule for forming the past tense. It seems to me that we should say that
this rule is inferred, not imitated. "Went" was imitated; "goed" is not.
Later the children go back to using "went". But now they know that it is
an exception to the rule.

OC, it is possible to say that neither "goed" nor the second use of
"went" is memetic. But I think that the grammar rules they exemplify are
memes, and that imitation plays no essential role in their transmission,
given the already imitated phoneme patterns. In terms of folk
psychology, most memes, I think, are caught, neither taught nor
imitated. Catching memes, or catching on to them, often precedes
imitation, and is more basic.

For instance, parents typically raise their children as they were
raised, utilizing the same memes. But there are also occasions in which
they raise their children using some memes opposite to those their
parents used, precisely because they are opposite. These opposing memes
are mutations of their parents' memes, but are not imitations of them.
Transmission and mutation can occur without imitation. (But I suppose
that Blackmore would say that there is an implicit *ability* to imitate
in such cases, and that this is therefore not a counterexample. I



P. S. I don't know what Blackmore would say about this, but it's a nice

My neighbor in Japan years ago had a mynah that had learned to greet
people with "Ohayou gozaimasu". She said that the bird was a geisha,
because it greeted people that way at any time of day.

"Ohayou gozaimasu" literally means "It is early." Most people use it in
the morning, but geishas and some other groups use it the first time
they see someone during the day, regardless of the time.

The bird had learned to greet people with "Ohayou gozaimasu," but had
not learned the proper context for usage. Imitation is sufficient for
learning the sound pattern, but that is only part of the meme. Imitation
is not sufficient for learning context.

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