Category Archives: Evolution


Happy Darwin Day!

I had hoped to celebrate Darwin day with a longer post discussing how language is often viewed as a challenging puzzle to natural selection. My main worry is that the formal design metaphor used in much of linguistics has been used, incorrectly IMHO, to divert attention away from studying language as a biological system based on organic logic. If this doesn’t make much sense, then you can do some background reading with Terrence Deacon’s paper, Language as an emergent function: Some radical neurological and evolutionary implications. Alas, that’s all I have to say on the matter for now, but if you’re looking for something related to Darwin, evolution and the origin of language, then I strongly suggest you head over to the excellent Darwin Correspondence project and read their blog post on the subject:

Darwin started thinking about the origin of language in the late 1830s. The subject formed part of his wide-ranging speculations about the transmutation of species. In his private notebooks, he reflected on the communicative powers of animals, their ability to learn new sounds and even to associate them with words. “The distinction of language in man is very great from all animals”, he wrote, “but do not overrate—animals communicate to each other” (Barrett ed. 1987, p. 542-3). Darwin observed the similarities between animal sounds and various natural cries and gestures that humans make when expressing strong emotions such as fear, surprise, or joy. He noted the physical connections between words and sounds, exhibited in words like “roar”, “crack”, and “scrape” that seemed imitative of the things signified. He drew parallels between language and music, and asked: “did our language commence with singing—is this the origin of our pleasure in music—do monkeys howl in harmony”? (Barrett ed. 1987, p. 568).


Koalas use a novel vocal organ to produce unusually low-pitched mating calls

Before Tecumseh Fitch put forward the size exaggeration hypothesis, many thought that the lowered larynx was unique to humans, which suggested that it was an adaptation specifically for the production of speech. However, Fitch showed that lowered larynxes appear in other animals, most notably the red deer, to exaggerate their perceived body-size by making the low calls of a typically larger animal. Whether this is the adaptive pressure that caused the human larynx to lower is still a controversial issue, and I talk about a couple of hypotheses here.

I was reminded of this this morning when I saw this Koala on the BBC news making incredibly low mating calls. However, the Koala don’t achieve this incredibly low bellow by lowering their larynx, instead they have an extra, larger pair of (previously undocumented) vocal folds spanning the intra-pharyngeal ostium (IPO), an oval opening within the velum.

The really short paper, along with a really creepy figure of a koala cut in two, is here:


A Note on Memes and Historical Linguistics

When I began my most recent series of posts on memes, I did so because I wanted to think specifically about language: Does it make sense to treat words as memes? That question arose for a variety of reasons.

In the first place, if you are going to think about culture as an evolutionary phenomenon, language automatically looms large as so very much of culture depends on or is associated with language. And language consists of words, among other things. Further, historical linguistics is a well-developed discipline. We know a lot about how languages have changed over time, and change over time is what evolution is about.

However, words have meanings. And word meanings are rather fuzzy things, subject to dispute and to change that is independent of the word-form itself. Did I really want to treat word meanings as memes? That seemed rather iffy. But if I don’t treat word meanings as memetic, then what happens to language?

But THAT’s not quite how I put it going into that series of posts. Of course, I’ve known for a long time that words have forms and meanings. I don’t know whether it was my freshman year or my sophomore year that I read Roland Barthe’s Elements of Semiology (English translation 1967). That gave me Saussure’s trilogy of sign, signifier, and signified, the last of which seemed rather mysterious: “the signified is not ‘a thing’ but a mental representation of the ‘thing’.” Getting comfortable with that distinction, between the thing and the concept of the thing, that took time and effort.

That’s an aside. Suffice to say, I got comfortable with that distinction. The distinction between signifier and signified was much easier.

And yet that distinction was not uppermost in my mind when I thought of language and cultural evolution. When I thought of memes. When I approached this series of essays, though some papers by Daniel Dennett, I thought of words they same way Dennett did, the whole kit and caboodle had to be a meme. It was the sign that’s the meme.

That’s not how I ended up, of course. That ending took me a bit by surprise. Coming down that home stretch I was getting worried. It appeared to me that I was faced with two different classes of memes: couplers and the other one. What I did then was to divide the other one into two classes: targets and designators. And to do that I had to call on that thing I’ve known for decades and split the word in two: signifier and signified. It’s only the signifier that’s memetic. Signifiers are memes, but not signifieds.

It took me a couple of months to work that out, and I’d known it all along.


What does that have to do with historical linguistics? Historical linguistics is based mostly on the study of relationships among signifiers, that is, relationships among the memetic elements of languages. Which makes sense, of course.

But… Continue reading


Cultural Evolution, Memes, and the Trouble with Dan Dennett

This is the final post in my current series on memes, cultural evolution, and the thought of Daniel Dennett. You can download a PDF of the whole series HERE. The abstract and introduction are below.

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Abstract: Philosopher Dan Dennett’s conception of the active meme, moving about from brain to brain, is physically impossible and conceptually empty. It amounts to cultural preformationism. As the cultural analogue to genes, memes are best characterized as the culturally active properties of things, events, and processes in the external world. Memes are physically embodied in a substrate. The cultural analogue to the phenotype can be called an ideotype; ideotypes are mental entities existing in the minds of individual humans. Memes serve as targets for designing and fabricating artifacts, as couplers to synchronize and coordinate human interaction, and as designators (Saussaurian signifiers). Cultural change is driven by the movement of memes between populations with significantly different cultural practices understood through different populations of ideotypes.

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Introduction: Taming the Wild Meme

These notes contain my most recent thinking on cultural evolution, an interest that goes back to my dissertation days in the 1970s at the State University of New York at Buffalo. My dissertation, Cognitive Science and Literary Theory (1978), included a chapter on narrative, “From Ape to Essence and the Evolution of Tales,” (subsequently published as “The Evolution of Narrative and the Self”). But that early work didn’t focus on the process of cultural evolution. Rather, it was about the unfolding of ever more sophisticated cultural forms–an interest I shared with my teacher, the late David G. Hays.

My current line of investigation is very much about process, the standard evolutionary process of random variation and selective retention as applied to cultural forms, rather than living forms. I began that work in the mid-1990s and took my cue from Hays, as I explain in the section below, “What’s a meme? Where I got my conception”. At the end of the decade I had drafted a book on music, Beethoven’s Anvil: Music in Mind and Culture (Basic 2001), in which I arrived at pretty much my current conception, but only with respect to music: music memes are the culturally active properties musical sound.

I didn’t generalize the argument to language until I prepared a series of posts conceived as background to a (rather long and detailed) post I wrote for the National Humanities Institute in 2010: Cultural Evolution: A Vehicle for Cooperative Interaction Between the Sciences and the Humanities (PDF HERE). But I didn’t actually advance this conception in that post. Rather, I tucked it into an extensive series of background posts that I posted at New Savanna prior to posting my main article. That’s where, using the emic/etic distinction, I first advanced the completely general idea that memes are observable properties of objects and things that are culturally active. I’ve collected that series of posts into a single downloadable PDF: The Evolution of Human Culture: Some Notes Prepared for the National Humanities Center, Version 2.

But I still had doubts about that position. Though the last three of those background posts were about language, I still had reservations. The problem was meaning: If that conception was correct, then word meanings could not possibly be memetic. Did I really want to argue that?

The upshot of this current series of notes is that, yes, I really want to argue it. And I have done at some length while using several articles by the philosopher Daniel Dennett as my foil. For the most part I focus on figuring out what kinds of entities play the role of memes, but toward the end, “Cultural Evolution, So What?”, I have a few remarks about long-term dynamics, that is, about cultural change. Continue reading


Turtles All the Way Down: How Dennett Thinks

An Essay in Cognitive Rhetoric

I want to step back from the main thread of discussion and look at something else: the discussion itself. Or, at any rate, at Dennett’s side of the argument. I’m interested in how he thinks and, by extension, in how conventional meme theorists think.

And so we must ask: Just how does thinking work, anyhow? What is the language of thought? Complicated matters indeed. For better or worse, I’m going to have to make it quick and dirty.

Embodied Cognition

In one approach the mind’s basic idiom is some form of logical calculus, so-called mentalese. While some aspects of thought may be like that, I do not think it is basic. I favor a view called embodied cognition:

Cognition is embodied when it is deeply dependent upon features of the physical body of an agent, that is, when aspects of the agent’s body beyond the brain play a significant causal or physically constitutive role in cognitive processing.

In general, dominant views in the philosophy of mind and cognitive science have considered the body as peripheral to understanding the nature of mind and cognition. Proponents of embodied cognitive science view this as a serious mistake. Sometimes the nature of the dependence of cognition on the body is quite unexpected, and suggests new ways of conceptualizing and exploring the mechanics of cognitive processing.

One aspect of cognition is that we think in image schemas, simple prelinguistic structures of experience. One such image schema is that of a container: Things can be in a container, or outside a container; something can move from one container to another; it is even possible for one container to contain another.

Memes in Containers

The container scheme seems fundamental to Dennett’s thought about cultural evolution. He sees memes as little things that are contained in a larger thing, the brain; and these little things, these memes, move from one brain to another.

This much is evident on the most superficial reading of what he says, e.g. “such classic memes as songs, poems and recipes depended on their winning the competition for residence in human brains” (from New Replicators, The). While the notion of residence may be somewhat metaphorical, the locating of memes IN brains is not; it is literal.

What I’m suggesting is that this containment is more than just a contingent fact about memes. That would suggest that Dennett has, on the one hand, arrived at some concept of memes and, on the other hand, observed that those memes just happen to exist in brains. Yes, somewhere Over There we have this notion of memes as the genetic element of culture; that’s what memes do. But Dennett didn’t first examine cultural process to see how they work. As I will argue below, like Dawkins he adopted the notion by analogy with biology and, along with it, the physical relationship between genes and organisms. The container schema is thus foundational to the meme concept and dictates Dennett’s treatment of examples.

The rather different conception of memes that I have been arguing in these notes is simply unthinkable in those terms. If memes are (culturally active) properties of objects and processes in the external world, then they simply cannot be contained in brains. A thought process based on the container schema cannot deal with memes as I have been conceiving them. Continue reading


Cultural Evolution, So What?

I’d like this to be the last post in this series except, of course, for an introduction to the whole series, from Dan Dennett on Words in Cultural Evolution on through to this one. We’ll see.

I suppose the title question is a rhetorical one. Of course culture evolves and of course we need to a proper evolutionary theory in order to understand culture. But the existing body of work is not at all definitive.

In the first section of this post I have some remarks on genes and memes, observing that both concepts emerged as place-holders in a larger ongoing argument. The second section jumps right in with the assertion, building on Dawkins, that the study of evolution must start by accounting for stability before it can address evolutionary change. The third and final section takes a quick look at change by looking at two different verstions of “Tutti Frutti”. There’s an appendix with some bonus videos.

From Genes to Memes

I’ve been reading the introduction to Lenny Moss, What Genes Can’t Do (MIT 2003), on Google Books:

The concept of the gene, unlike that of other biochemical entities, did not emerge from the logos of chemistry. Unlike proteins, lipids, and carbohydrates, the gene did not come on the scene as a physical entity at all but rather as a kind of placeholder in biological theory… The concept of the gene began not with the intention to put a name on some piece of matter but rather with the intention of referring to an unknown something, whatever that something might turn out to be, which was deemed to be responsible for the transmission of biological form between generations.

Things changed, of course, in 1953 when Watson and Crick established the DNA molecule and the physical locus of genes.

The concept of the meme originated in a similar way. While the general notion of cultural evolution goes back to the 19th century, it was at best of secondary, if not tertiary, importance in the 1970s when Dawkins write The Selfish Gene. And while others had offered similar notions (e.g. Cloake), for all practical purposes, Dawkins invented the concept behind his neologism, though it didn’t began catching on until several years after he’d published it.

The concept still functions pretty much as a placeholder. People who use it, of course, offer examples of memes and arguments for those examples. But there is no widespread agreement on a substantial definition, one that has been employed in research programs that have increased our understanding of human culture. Continue reading

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CogSci 2013: Communication Leads to the Emergence of Sub-optimal Category Structures

Next up is Catriona Silvey, Simon Kirby and Kenny Smith, who use an experiment which gets participants to categorise shapes from a continuous space either in a communicative condition or a non-communicative condition. You can read it here (you should, it’s really awesome, and I only describe it briefly below):

Silvey et al. are interested in how semantic categories emerge. They set up an experiment in which participants were given a continuous semantic space:

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In one condition single participants had to simply divide the space up into different labeled categories. In another condition, participants had to play a communication game. Participants communicated in pairs using the same semantic space. In both conditions, participants were given nonsense words to label their categories. Participants could assign as many categories as they liked.

In the communication condition one participant was the sender and one was the receiver. The sender chose a word to communicate a given shape from the grid above, and the receiver had to chose which shape they thought the word referred too. Participants were then given feedback as to whether the receiver had chosen the right image. They were then given a score based on how close the chosen shape was to the original given shape. The sender and received swapped roles every trial. Together they labelled every shape 4 times throughout the experiment and the last label for each shape chosen by both participants were taken for analysis.

An optimal categorisation strategy within this game would be to give every shape its own label, however, memory constraints are likely to stop participants using this strategy. Given that you will score more if shapes are closer, it was expected that participants would use small, clustered and equally sized categories in order to optimise getting the right shape, and if not, maximising their score.

In the non-communicative experiment, participants arranged the categories in fairly balanced chunks that would have served relatively optimally for the communication game. However, despite expectations, participants in the communicative condition behaved sub-optimally and did not maximise their communicative success (their score in the game) in that their categories weren’t clustered or optimal in colour or size.  This could have been caused by the communicative condition having extra pressure for the learnability of categories, as well as a pressure for communicative success, which the non-communicative condition did not have. The authors argue that this is possibly a demonstration for how real languages arrive at suboptimal categories, e.g. where words vary as to whether they represent a very small category or represent a much broader part of the semantic space.


Dennett’s Preformationist Memetics

In thinking about my previous post I realized that my criticism of Dennett’s meme doctrine–that memes are mental entities that move from brain to brain like software viruses or Java apps–amounts to asserting that he’s a preformationist. What’s that? Here’s what the Wikipedia says:

In the history of biology, preformationism (or preformism) is the idea that organisms develop from miniature versions of themselves.

Instead of assembly from parts, preformationists believe that the form of living things exist, in real terms, prior to their development.

The Wikipedia article comes with this illustration, which is a 1695 drawing of a sperm by Nicolaas Hartsoeker.


There you see it on the left, the little human-form homunculus. And there, on the right, the form gets larger and larger during prenatal development.

How, you might ask, could Dennett possibly be a preformationist? After all, ideas don’t have physical shape? Well, no, I suppose they don’t. Here’s what I have in mind (I’m quoting from the end of my previous post):

While I define the ideotype as the cultural analog of the biological phenotype, the objects and processes that I identify as ideotypes are much like Dennett’s memes. They exist inside people’s head, in their minds, as do Dennettian memes, for the most part. Continue reading


Memes as Data: Targets, Couplers, and Designators

FLASH! The active brain-hopping meme is to culture as the preformationist germ seed is to biology. More in a later post.

While these posts have been quite critical of Dennett’s use of the concept of information, that should not be taken to mean that I see no use for such a concept. There is, of course, the technical usage established by Shannon and Weaver, but that is of limited use in these discussions. The challenge is to make use a less specialized, indeed an informal, concept. I intend to do so by identifying memetic information with the formal concept of data, as employed in computer science, and in particular with the concept of a parameter.

The Wikipedia defines parameter in this way:

In computer programming, a parameter is a special kind of variable, used in a subroutine to refer to one of the pieces of data provided as input to the subroutine. These pieces of data are called arguments. An ordered list of parameters is usually included in the definition of a subroutine, so that, each time the subroutine is called, its arguments for that call can be assigned to the corresponding parameters.

Memes are arguments in the sense of that definition. The parameters for which they are values are components of “subroutines” in the mind, where, for the purposes of this discussion, the mind is considered to be a rich and sophisticated computational device whose characteristics are unspecified. Continue reading


How Do We Account for the History of the Meme Concept?

First, in asking THAT question I do not intend a bit of cutesy intellectual cleverness: Oh Wow! Let’s get the meme meme to examine it’s own history. My purpose would be just as well served by examining, say, the history of the term “algorithm” or the term “deconstruction,” both originally technical terms that have more or less entered the general realm. I’m looking at the history of the meme concept because I’ve just been reading Jeremy Burman’s most interesting 2012 article, “The misunderstanding of memes” (PDF).

Intentional Change

Second, as far as I can tell, no version of cultural evolution is ready to provide an account of that history that is appreciably better than the one Burman himself supplies, and that account is straight-up intellectual history. In Burman’s account (p. 75) Dawkins introduced the meme concept in 1976

as a metaphor intended to illuminate an evolutionary argument. By the late-1980s, however, we see from its use in major US newspapers that this original meaning had become obscured. The meme became a virus of the mind.

That’s a considerable change in meaning. To account for that change Burman examines several texts in which various people explicate the meme concept and attributes the changes in meaning to their intentions. Thus he says (p. 94):

To be clear: I am not suggesting that the making of the active meme was the result of a misunderstanding. No one individual made a copying mistake; there was no “mutation” following continued replication. Rather, the active meaning came as a result of the idea’s reconstruction: actions taken by individuals working in their own contexts. Thus: what was Dennett’s context?

And later (p. 98):

The brain is active, not the meme. What’s important in this conception is the function of structures, in context, not the structures themselves as innate essences. This even follows from the original argument of 1976: if there is such a thing as a meme, then it cannot exist as a replicator separately from its medium of replication.

Burman’s core argument this is a relatively simple one. Dawkins proposed the meme concept in 1976 in The Selfish Gene, but the concept didn’t take hold in the public mind. That didn’t happen until Douglas Hofsadter and Daniel Dennett recast the concept in their 1982 collection, The Mind’s I. They took a bunch of excerpts from The Selfish Gene, most of them from earlier sections of the book rather than the late chapter on memes, and edited them together and (pp. 81-82)

presented them as a coherent single work. Al- though a footnote at the start of the piece indicates that the text had been excerpted from the original, it doesn’t indicate that the essay had been wholly fabricated from those excerpts; reinvented by pulling text haphazardly, hither and thither, so as to assemble a new narrative from multiple sources.

It’s this re-presentation of the meme concept that began to catch-on with the public. Subsequently a variety of journalist accounts further spread the concept of the meme as a virus of the mind.

Why? On the face of it it would seem that the virus of the mind was a more attractive and intriguing concept whereas Dawkins’ original more metaphorical conception. Just why that should have been the case is beside the point. It was.

All I wish to do in this note is take that observation and push it a bit further. When people read written texts they do so with the word meanings existing in their minds, which aren’t necessarily the meanings that exist in the minds of the authors of those texts. In the case of the meme concept, the people reading The Selfish Gene didn’t even have a pre-existing meaning for the term, as Dawkins introduced and defined it in that book. The same would be true for the people who first encountered the term in The Mind’s I and subsequent journalistic accounts. Continue reading