Memetic Sophistry

Over at the Psychology Today blog complex, Joseph Carroll is taking Norman Holland to task on remarks that Holland made concerning the relationship between the reader of a literary text and the text itself. Though I disagree with Carroll on many matters, I agree with him on this one particular issue. Beyond that, I think his critique of Holland can also be applied to Susan Blackmore’s equivocations on memes. Here’s what Carroll says about Holland:

This whole way of thinking is a form of scholastic sophistry, useless and sterile. It produces verbal arguments that consist only in fabricated and unnecessary confusions, confusions like that which you produce as your conclusion in the passage you cited from your book: “the reader constructs everything” (p. 176). This conclusion seems plausible because it slyly blends two separate meanings of the word “constructs.” One meaning is that our brains assemble percepts into mental images. That meaning is correct. The other meaning is that our brains assemble percepts that are not radically constrained by the signals produced in the book. That meaning is incorrect. Once you have this kind of ambiguity at work for you, you can shuffle back and forth between the two meanings, sometimes suggesting the quite radical notion that books don’t “impose” any constraints—any meanings—on readers; and sometimes retreating into the safety of the correct meaning: that our brains assemble percepts.

Blackmore equivocates in a similar fashion on the question of whether or not memes are active agents. Here’s a snippet from a TED talk she gave last year:

The way to think about memes, though, is to think, why do they spread? They’re selfish information, they get copied if they can. But some of them will be copied because they’re good, or true, or useful, or beautiful. Some of them will be copied even though they’re not. Some, it’s quite hard to tell why.

Here she talks of memes as though they are agents of some kind, they’re selfish and they try to get copied. A bit later she says:

So think of it this way. Imagine a world full of brains and far more memes than can possibly find homes. The memes are trying to get copied, trying, in inverted commas, i.e., that’s the shorthand for, if they can get copied they will. They’re using you and me as their propagating copying machinery, and we are the meme machines.

Here memes are using us as machines for propagating themselves. And then we have this passage where she talks about a war between memes and genes:

So you get an arms race between the genes which are trying to get the humans to have small economical brains and not waste their time copying all this stuff, and the memes themselves, like the sounds that people made and copied – in other words, what turned out to be language – competing to get the brains to get bigger and bigger. So the big brain on this theory of driven by the memes.

The term “meme,” as we know, was coined by Richard Dawkins, who is also responsible for anthropomorphizing genes as selfish agents in biological evolution. Dawkins knows perfectly well that genes aren’t agents, and is quite capable of explicating that selfishness in terms that eliminate the anthropomorphism, which is but a useful shorthand, albeit a shorthand that has caused a great deal of mischief.

Continue reading “Memetic Sophistry”

Language About Language

How is it, then, that we can talk about talking? If you are willing to assume the existence of basic perceptual and cognitive capacities, a relatively simple answer follows immediately. The sounds of talk are, after all, sounds like any other sounds. We can perceive them in the same way we perceive the sound of a waterfall or a bird’s song, a thunderclap or the rustling of leaves in the wind, a cricket’s chirp or the breaking of waves on a beach. All are things we can hear, easily and naturally, and so it is with the sound of the human voice.

Roman Jakobson famously theorized that language has six functions: referential, emotive, poetic, conative, phatic, and the metalingual function. That’s the function we’re interested in, our capacity to speak about speech. Jakobson talked of the metalingual function as an orientation toward the language code, which seems just a bit grand. For I’m led to believe that many languages lack terms for explicitly talking about the ‘code.’ Thus, in The Singer of Tales (Atheneum 1973, orig. Harvard 1960), Albert Lord attests (p. 25):

Man without writing thinks in terms of sound groups and not in words, and the two do not necessarily coincide. When asked what a word is, he will reply that he does not know, or he will give a sound group which may vary in length from what we call a word to an entire line of poetry, or even an entire song. [Remember, Lord is writing about oral narrative.] The word for “word” means an “utterance.” When the singer is pressed then to way what a line is, he, whose chief claim to fame is that he traffics in lines of poetry, will be entirely baffled by the question; or he will say that since he has been dictating and has seen his utterances being written down, he has discovered what a line is, although he did not know it as such before, because he had never gone to school.

While I’m willing to entertain doubts about the full generality of this statement – “man without writing” – I assume the it is an accurate report about the Yugoslavian peasants among whom Milman Parry and Albert Lord conducted their fieldwork and that it also applies to other preliterate peoples, though not necessarily to all.

Given those caveats, the paragraph is worth re-reading. Before doing so, recall how casually we have come to see language as a window on the workings of the mind in the Chomskyian and post-Chomskyian eras. If that is the case, then what can one see through a window that lacks even a word for words, that fails to distinguish between words and utterances? And what of the poets who don’t know what a line is? The lack of such knowledge does not stand in the way of the poeticizing, no more than the lack of knowledge of generative grammar precludes the ability to talk intelligently on a vast range of subjects.

Continue reading “Language About Language”

Chomsky Chats About Language Evolution

If you go to this page at Linguistic Inquiry (house organ of the Chomsky school), you’ll find this blurb:

Episode 3: Samuel Jay Keyser, Editor-in-Chief of Linguistic Inquiry, has shared a campus with Noam Chomsky for some 40-odd years via MIT’s Department of Linguistics and Philosophy. The two colleagues recently sat down in Mr. Chomsky’s office to discuss ideas on language evolution and the human capacity for understanding the complexities of the universe. The unedited conversation was recorded on September 11, 2009.

I’ve neither listened to the podcast nor read the transcript—both linked available here. But who knows, maybe you will. FWIW, I was strongly influenced by Chomsky in my undergraduate years, but the lack of a semantic theory was troublesome. Yes, there was co-called generative semantics, but that didn’t look like semantics to me, it looked like syntax.

Then I found Syd Lamb’s stuff on stratificational grammar & that looked VERY interesting. Why? For one thing, the diagrams were intriguing. For another, Lamb used the same formal constructs for phonology, morphology, syntax and (what little) semantics (he had). That elegance appealed to me. Still does, & I’ve figured out how to package a very robust semantics into Lamb’s diagrammatic notation. But that’s another story.

Where Are Memes?

This is more a public note to myself than anything else. It’s likely to seem a bit odd to those who haven’t been following my thinking on memes. Cross-posted at New Savanna.

Back in 1996 I published a long article, Culture as an Evolutionary Arena (link to downloadable PDF), in the, alas, now defunct, Journal of Social and Evolutionary Systems. In that article I introduced the notion of units of cultural inheritance with these paragraphs:

Following conversations with David Hays, I suggest that we regard the whole of physical culture as the genes: the pots and knives, the looms and cured hides, the utterances and written words, the ploughshares and transistors, the songs and painted images, the tents and stone fortifications, the dances and sculpted figures, all of it. For these are the things which people exchange with one another, through which they interact with one another. They can be counted and classified and variously studied.

What then of the ideas, desires, emotions, and attitudes behind these things? After all, as any college sophomore can point out, words on a page are just splotches unless apprehended by an appropriately prepared mind, one that knows the language. Pots and knives are not so ineffable as runes and ideograms, but they aren’t of much use to people who don’t know how to use them, that is, to people whose minds lack the appropriate neural “programs”. Surely, one might propose, these mental objects and processes are the stuff of culture.

What I in fact propose is that we think of these mental objects and processes as being analogous to the biologist’s phenotype just as the physical objects and processes are analogous to the genotype. Properly understood, these mental objects and processes are embodied in brain states (cf. Benzon and Hays 1988). Thus we have the whole of physical culture interacting with the inner cultural environment to produce the various mental objects and activities which are the substance of culture.

Richard Dawkins has proposed the term “meme” for the units of the cultural genotype, but proposes no special term for the cultural phenotype, though he recognizes the necessity of distinguishing the two (Dawkins 1982, pp. 109 ff., see also Dawkins 1989, pp. 189 ff.). Following more or less standard anthropological usage, I offer “psychological trait”, or just “trait”, as a term designating phenotypical units or features. Note, however, that Dawkins places memes in the brain and traits in the external world, which is just the opposite of what I am doing.

I have maintained that position until quite recently, say a week or two ago. I am now considering abandoning that conception. But first, a little more about how I further developed it.

In my 2001 book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil, I developed that idea with respect to music, arguing that the neural ‘trace’ (trajectory in neural state space) of musical performances is a cultural phenotype while the memes are those aspects of musical sound around which individuals coordinate their music-making activities. I further developed this idea only a few weeks ago in a series of posts I wrote as background to a post I did for the National Humanities Center on cultural evolution.

Continue reading “Where Are Memes?”