Monday, 11 March 2013

Memes: Mechanisms and Behaviors

It is recommended that you first read Memes: The Survival of Ideas by Luke Kristopher Davis

How can we define what a meme really is?

In Memes: The Survival of Ideas by Luke Kristopher Davis I briefly explained natural selection in terms of units of chromosomes called genes, which try and replicate themselves as much as they can in the gene pool (a population of genes) and that living organisms act as vehicles for the gene replicators. The subtlety of this interpretation is concisely shown in The Extended Phenotype and The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins. The selfish gene theory is an attempt to explain how the diversity of life came about and why these organisms do what they do in terms of selfish genes. 

When one talks about evolution it is usually about living organisms. However evolution is a process that could in principle be applied to other phenomena quite different from life. We can make an analogy that evolution is like the theory of partial differential equations, it can be applied to various phenomena which are not necessarily related. We ask then, what other systems can be 'modeled' using the evolutionary model? 

Richard Dawkins intelligently thought of applying Darwinian principles to culture. As the gene is the protagonist of natural selection, the meme is the unit of cultural evolution. 

A memes definition is less restricted than the genes as cultural ideas and information can take on many more forms and sizes. However there are three conditions that a meme has to meet:

1) A meme is an individual piece of linguistic information.

This means that memes can only be expressed in a language understandable by at least one agent. The language could be any code, ranging from mathematical to musical notes and from speaking human languages to a picture. Memes must also be finite and defined individually (obviously there will be interlinks between memes) so that it is possible for them to be encoded onto finite objects. 

2) The replication of a meme occurs by the copying of its information from one agent to another agent and this agent complying with the copied meme.

This is normally done through human communication which ranges from speaking to emailing etc. If one agent   has the idea of solar-powered mouses, for example, and decides to write an explanation of this idea on 5000 sheets of paper and mail them to 5000 random houses. If 5000 of these sheets have not been read by another agent then the meme has not replicated itself. It has only increased its potential to replicate. 

One must also note that copying information from one agent to another agent does not necessitate that each agent has to be 'conscious'. Humans can acquire information subconsciously, it only matters that the meme has affected the human in its instructed way. Also it depends on what we define as an agent. In the case of humans it would make sense and be of most use to us to define the agents to be human. However in the future, it may be possible to define the agents to be machines or advanced computers (in a sense we could do this now). 

3) The interaction of a meme with another meme which is not itself occurs during the replication process.

This means that If I have an idea X and I tell you about X, the X is in the process of being copied to you. However if you have a meme Y that contradicts this and Y seems a more appropriate meme then you will reject X. Hence Y and X have 'competed' and X has failed to replicate itself. This may seem to contradict condition (2), however a meme has only been replicated once it has been copied and then at some later time accepted.

The First Meme

The question of when the first 'idea' originated is still up for debate. Most inquiries have been focused on ideas generated by Homo Sapiens or their close relatives. There have been numerous cave paintings found around the world depicting prehistoric art. The cave of Altamira in Spain contains paintings from the Late stone age or the upper paleolithic era which is around 50,000 to 10,000 years ago. At this time tools were being used for hunting and other mundane tasks. However it is most likely that ideas on how to hunt and how to complete simple gathering tasks were taught to the young in the group before the paintings. The paintings may just be one of the first instances of a recorded meme. The method of hunting would have been copied from one elder (usually parent) to the young by imitation, the young watch the elders perform these tasks and imitate them. 

One could argue that imitation is a replication process for memes. The idea is finite and copied from one agent to another through the language of 'leading by example'. The idea is basically the mechanism of how the elder hunts etc. the elder could make grunts or sounds to encourage the young to copy. This seems to fit our conditions. As the brain slightly evolved, language most definitely began to evolve with it and hence memes could be communicated more precisely and the complexity of memes will have grown ever so slightly. This could have resulted in more sophisticated hunting methods and later... agriculture.

If imitation fits condition (2) then it wouldn't seem unreasonable to look further back into life to see imitation occurring between agents. We cannot gather enough evidence from fossils to generate a conclusion, however we can look at the animal kingdom which exists now and see if we can find imitation of sounds or movements which are not completely determined by the agents genetics. 

The Lyre bird is a great example:

Now obviously there is no gene for making camera like noises or chainsaw like noises as these human inventions are extremely recent compared with the existence of the Lyre bird and its ancestors. So the bird imitates sounds of its surroundings and imitates other bird calls. Could we say that the Lyrebird is acquiring memes which act as simple sounds and calls? The condition that is not convincingly met is, again, condition (2). The chainsaw is not an agent and the other birds are not deliberately trying to pass on the calls. However, we are making a lot of presumptions about agents. The call of a bird is a finite piece of structured information and this piece of information is replicated by imitation to the Lyrebird, no intention or conscious deliberateness is necessary. The meme is extremely primitive and it is debatable to whether it really is a full meme, it may be the hint to the origin of memes. 

The imitations are only performed by male Lyrebirds, this could imply that complex calls and a wide range of accurate imitations lead to the males mating more. Hence we see the success of the imitation gene. As we shall see with more complicated organisms (like ourselves) memes come into their own light i.e. they are not always directly beneficial to the organism in its environment and sometimes seem to override our evolutionary instincts.

We cannot explicitly state when and what was the first meme, but we can hint at memes gradually becoming more complicated through out the evolution of organisms. To fully appreciate memes and their possible behaviors we will from now on focus on the unique species in which culture has had a gigantic impact on their lives and their environment. We look at ourselves.

Examples of Meme Pools In Modern Humans


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