currently under revision
Developing the idea of memes - Susan Blackmore
At TED Talks recently--"Susan Blackmore studies memes: ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain like a virus. She makes a bold new argument: Humanity has spawned a new kind of meme, the teme, which spreads itself via technology -- and invents ways to keep itself alive.
Susan Blackmore studies memes -- those self-replicating "life forms" that spread themselves via human consciousness. We're now headed, she believes, toward a new form of meme, spread by the technology we've created. "
Have you ever wondered what makes Youtube videos go viral or where the idea of "viral" in this sense came from? This article will provide a context that offers an answer.
The language of Susan Blackmore, I think, is more precise in describing memes than the authors above. Blackmore is the speaker in the Ted Talk. In The Meme Machine, Blackmore says that memes perpetuated in a culture are efficient in positioning themselves to be replicated. Successful memes in the “meme pool” are effective at getting themselves duplicated” (10). The agents are humans, computers, televisions, soda cans, T shirts, etc.—anything that can transmit a bit of culture.
Blackmore defines memes as “unit[s] of imitation ... all of which are spread by one copying another” (5). She further clarifies that they reside in human minds (or cultural tools such as television or internet). Still, she picks up Dawkin’s terminology, referring to memeplexes as conglomerates of memes which, perhaps, are more effective survivors within the group than on their own. This begs the question, however, creating a culture of memes one level removed from human culture itself. She also returns to Dawkin’s image of the memes jumping around from brain to brain. Although this is an attempt to simplify and analogize, she muddies a little bit.
A veteran evolutionist's approach - E.O. Wilson
E.O. Wilson, on the other hand, cautiously adopts this theory, but reigns the memes back in to a more scientific entity. He removes any implication of life or replicating power from the memes and explains that they are “the same as the [corresponding] node of semantic memory and its correlates in brain activity. The level of the node, whether concept (the simplest recognizable unit), proposition, or schema, determines the complexity of the idea, behavior or artifact that it helps to sustain in the culture at large” (148). The memes, then, reside as a unit within the modules of the brain that retain semantic memory.
Modeling what he teaches, consilience, Wilson taps into psycholinguistics and cognitive science to provide the corresponding mental module capable of storing meaning, cultural or otherwise. This not only makes the idea more precise than leaping memes, it also labels the most likely storage facility for such bits of culture in the brain, given our current knowledge.
This conception of the meme accounts for greater complexity of cultural units without the need of memeplexes, but still allows for their existence, and the human mind becomes a means of support and duplication of memes in the broader culture. This is part of the gene-culture co-evolution, and in his terminology and diction, Wilson refuses to separate the two ideas. The two must operate in tandem, or memes do not function. He conce des that the theory still has an “ethereal feel,” but the memes are more grounded within the confines of semantic memory, and humans then become part of the propagation while other artifacts and technologies within a culture can help perpetuate the trait as well.
Wilson seems to view these as reinforcement of the given memes within the human mind (148-149). The resulting theory relies upon the “interaction between the two” (149)—heredity and environment. In figure 1 (below), I try to capture this mutual influence. Any adaptation that moves the human evolution on the y axis increases the total shaded area. Likewise, any shift in cultural evolution on the x axis increases the total shaded blue area. The shaded area, then represents both human and cultural evolution, the co-evolution that Wilson describes. You cannot move either axis without increasing the overall area. I do not try to capture any kind of scale here, but only to conceptualize the relationship of the processes.
This connection is key to Wilson’s model, and it leads to a clarification of the interaction between the two. “The genes,” he says, “help to create a particular environment in which they will find greater expression than would otherwise occur” (152), with the genes manifested through human beings influencing the environment and the cultural in turn pushing back and affecting the human being’s semantic memory.
This is far more lucid and logical than either the explanation of Dawkins or Blackmore. In figure 2 (below), I try to show the interdependence of memes and genes where a move on the y axis expands the total shaded area thereby influencing culture. Conversely, any adaptation on the x axis will affect the shaded area and influence human evolution. Changes in the memes of a culture influence the human semantic module, and the mind acting through the body impacts the environment and culture.
Darwin’s model did not provide an appropriate mechanism to account for this interaction, so Wilson moves to epigenetic rules as an explanation, a far more satisfying one. These epigenetic rules rely upon at least several modules in the brain for behavior and semantic memory which prepare human children with innate mechanisms which predispose them to certain behaviors while at the same time repelling others.
He claims that the rules “comprise the full range of inherited regularities of development in anatomy, physiology, cognition, and behavior. They are the algorithms of growth and differentiation that create a fully functioning organism” (163). These algorithms and rules operate “above” the level of genes and work to provide adaptations which positively benefit survival and reproduction, thereby influencing both the evolution of humans and cultures. Wilson invokes evolutionary psychologists at this point, and I think that Pinker works well to clarify.
Cognitive science and memes - Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker has changed occupational hats more times than Donald Trump, but he currently resides in the Harvard Psychology Department and calls himself an evolutionary psychologist. His interest began in verbal semantics, but he quickly moved beyond to explore generative grammar and the innateness of language. As the boundaries of linguistics divided into psycholinguistics with generative theory, Pinker became the leader with publication of The Language Instinct. With this book he began to merge the fields of psychology and linguistics, and cognitive science emerged, but most currently he focuses on the mind and evolution.
His theories of the computational mind have not only advanced the science but made it accessible to the lay person, a skill at which he is very adept. Pinker clarifies the mind’s role in what Wilson describes as epigenitics, helping to create the theory that is most complete, though still with a lot of research and scholarship to be done.
Human culture relies upon neural circuitry according to Pinker, and this circuitry creates innate faculties of the mind (60). He uses the algorithms of the mind that prepare humans to learn language in order to show an example of how humans and culture evolve together. The mind’s innate faculties for language are embedded in a module of the mind that is adapted to provide the mechanism for acquisition and production.
Similarly, “cultural learning is possible only because neurologically normal people have innate equipment to accomplish it” (62). He pushes this idea towards Wilson’s kind of consilience, suggesting that the mind does not completely trump culture but that the correct theory lies in “connecting or unifying them” (70). Pinker here clarifies the problems that others have been grappling with by simply admitting that the mind-culture connection is perhaps more complex than anything in existence:
for the bridge between biology and culture ... The big thinkers in the sciences of human nature have been adamant that mental life has to be understood at several levels of analysis, not just the lowest one. The linguist Noam Chomsky, the computational neuroscientist David Marr, and the ethologist Niko Tinbergen have independently marked out a set of levels of analysis for understanding a faculty of the mind. These levels include its function (what it accomplishes in an ultimate, evolutionary sense); its real-time operation (how it works proximately, from moment to moment); how it is implemented in neural tissue; how it develops in the individual; and how it evolved in the species. ... None of these levels can be replaced by any of the others, but none can be fully understood in isolation from the others. (70)
While Pinker’s model does not satisfy our desire to reduce and comprehend as a whole the relationship between genes and culture, his response fascinates me with the beauty and complexity of the whole. To reduce it can only lead to oversimplification, but the relationship does not have to be reduced in order to increase our understanding. Pinker resists this idea, and I believe his academic origin in language and the mind is what allows him to see what others cannot.
“Language,” says Pinker, “is re-created every generation as it passes through the minds of the humans who speak it” (71). Humans recreate and participate in language and culture as they pass through life in a complex web of thought and communication that only grows richer with age. Pinker utilizes language as “a fine example of culture, the province of social scientists and scholars in the humanities.
The way that language can be understood at some half-dozen connected levels of analysis, from the brain and evolution to the cognitive processes of individuals to vast cultural systems, shows how culture and biology may be connected” (72). This is the connectedness that linguists and language lovers can see as they communicate, work, and play with words, levels of infinite complexity which lay at the foundation of all knowledge but which cannot be reduced to a simple foundation. These levels and webs are the foundation, but in labeling them so, they become elusive and undefinable. The glory of language and culture is just this—a richness and depth that defy explanation but always provide answers.
At the end of his chapter “Culture Vultures,” Pinker is positive about the direction we are heading, and he meditates upon the value of the type of studying and research we do. “The payoff, he concludes, “is the thrill of discoveries that could never be made within the boundaries of a single discipline, such as universals of beauty, the logic of language, and the components of the moral sense” (72). Even though this aesthetic vision eludes me at times, when I glimpse it, I am reminded of why literature and teaching are magical and important.
These are things that universally bind us as human beings and make us one, and by participating in the humanities and sciences, despite the complexity, you and I are investing in the human experience. This investment over the centuries is what allows us to reflect on Columbus and imperialism with distaste but hope for the future.
Thank you for following through with me and this heavy material. Below are some great options if you would like to learn more. One additional link I would mention is Richard Brodie's Virus of the Mind where he writes to a lay audience Ein an inviting tone, and he focuses, as the title indicates, on memes that go viral. This is the type of meme that causes YouTube videos to go viral.
Ted Talk by Daniel Dennett--A Deep Thinker about Memes
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Before you go, please let me know your thoughts after reading the piece. Did I leave you confused? Should I have discussed other theories? Did I miss something?
By Darin L. Hammond
Writer for ZipMinis and owns ZipMinis Freelance Writing.
Darin Publishes across the web on sites like Technorati
BC Blog, and Social Media Today.