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.

Specifically, I developed this notion using so-called Rhythm Changes as my main example (see this post, and then this one). By Rhythm Changes I mean the harmonic structure of George Gershwin’s “I Got Rhythm.” The phrase itself has become a term of art in the jazz world; any reasonably competent jazz musician can jam on Rhythm Changes. In that series of notes, however, I took the further step of extending this approach to language and, by implication, to all of culture, not just music. Here’s what I said in my discussion of language:

The question before us is: How do we conceptualize the memetic elements of language? In glossing the emic/etic distinction in a comment to John Wilkins I remarked that (now I’m simply repeating that comment) the distinction originates in linguistics, in the distinction between phonetics and phonemics. The former is about the psychophysics of speech sound while the latter is about phoneme systems. These are obviously very closely related matters, but they aren’t the same. We tend to perceive the speech stream as consisting of discrete sound entities, syllables and phonemes; this is the domain of phonemics. But the speech signal is, in fact, continuous. If you look at a sonogram of some chunk of speech, you don’t draw a series of vertical lines through it separating one phoneme from another; nor can you snip a tape recording into phoneme-long or syllable-long segments and reassemble it into something that sounds like natural speech. The aspects of the speech stream which are phonemically active differ from one language to another, which is why foreign languages all sound like “Greek.” Independently of the fact that you don’t know what the words mean or how the syntax works, you can’t even hear the phonemes in the speech stream.

Now, that’s the distinction I’m after, between phonemes and the raw speech stream. That’s the distinction I drew in my discussion of music (third post). Phonemes are those properties of the speech stream that are linguistically active.

In thinking about this over the last week or two I’ve begun to suspect that things would work out fine if I reversed my old position and put memes in the head and phenotypes out there in the world. In this view, then, memes are sensorimotor schemas, or aspects of such schemas, with/through which we perceive objects and events in the physical world. And cultural phenotypes are objects and events in the world.

This solves one rather odd problem in my previous conception. Consider a musical performance where there are, say, 125 people present. Just how they’re divided between performers and audience is irrelevant. What’s relevant is that we have 125 different brains processing the music. Since I’d identified the cultural phenotype with a neural event, does that mean that we’ve got 125 phenotypes, one for each person present? To be sure, we can index them to the one event in the external physical world that they all share, but still, this seems rather odd. Alternatively, do we think of the phenotype as one collective event, which is perhaps not so odd given the discussion in chapters 2, 3, and 4 of Beethoven’s Anvil? We have to think about that collective event anyway, but it’s no longer clear to me that we need to assign such events the phenotype role in an evolutionary account of human culture.

Why, then, did I ever adopt such an odd formulation? For one thing, it’s always been clear to me that the environment to which culture must adapt is the collective psyche of a cultural group. That environment is realized in the brains of the individuals in the group, taken as a collective entity. If that’s the environment, I reasoned, then the thing that thrives or dies in that environment, i.e. the phenotype, must be in that environment, no? Well no, all that’s necessary is that it be closely coupled to that environment. The mechanisms of human perception guarantee that and the specific “points” of coupling are the memes.

Another thing that was certainly on my mind is all the talk of memes flitting about from brain to brain and even, in some cases, hijacking brain space against the biological interests of individuals. Such talk is OK for informal chitchat, as is talk of selfish genes, but it’s useless for serious intellectual work. By sticking the memes in the external world, as properties of things and events, I eliminated the possibility of such idle nonsense.

The fact of the matter is, alas, those who insist on talking idle nonsense about culture will do so regardless of how I think of memes. They aren’t my audience. My audience, whoever it is, is going to have to put up with an account that insists on psychological reality. Not only that, on neuropsychological reality. And that precludes notions of ideas hopping from one head to another quite independently of whether or not culture is conceived under the aegis of an evolutionary process involving the selective retention of (that is, repetition of) phenotypes and random variation among memes (culturally conditioned perceptual schemas, or aspects thereof).

In any case, under my conception, memes are not a new and heretofore unidentified class of entities — as they are in Robert Aunger’s embarrassing The Electric Meme. Rather, they are entities that have already been talked about as cultural codes of one sort or another. Identifying them as memes simply assimilates those codes to an evolutionary dynamic.

6 thoughts on “Where Are Memes?”

  1. Another thing that was certainly on my mind is all the talk of memes flitting about from brain to brain and even, in some cases, hijacking brain space against the biological interests of individuals. Such talk is OK for informal chitchat, as is talk of selfish genes, but it’s useless for serious intellectual work. By sticking the memes in the external world, as properties of things and events, I eliminated the possibility of such idle nonsense.

    I agree — the psychic unity required for memes to pop from one head to another simply doesn’t exist. So would you say that rather than each meme, or sensorimotor schema, jumping from person to person, it is instead just our hypotheses of the world getting continually updated, which, in a group situation, will result in them aligning with each other to produce similar patterns of behaviour. And as this process is not perfect (there is variation in each individual) then we have the material with which to develop a cumulative culture, which is achieved through the trading, and mixing, of ideas to generate new possibilities.

  2. So would you say that rather than each meme, or sensorimotor schema, jumping from person to person, it is instead just our hypotheses of the world getting continually updated, which, in a group situation, will result in them aligning with each other to produce similar patterns of behaviour.

    Well, ‘hypothesis of the world’ is already a rather grand reach for a mere meme. Keep in mind that e.g. phonemes are memes in the sense I use the term. So how is it that language sounds change over time? Of if we think of Rhythm Changes as a coherent entity, over time (years and, at most, decades) jazz musicians have found new possibilities within that framework, so that Rhythm Changes has, well, evolved over time. If by ‘hypothesis of the world’ you mean something that can be formulated in words, it’s not at all clear to me that such things can be ‘memetically active’ in my sense. Perhaps so, but I’m going to need to think about it and do something in the way of explicit construction.

    At the moment the meanings of words seem to be beyond the ‘reach’ of the meme concept as I’m using it. Maybe that’s just how it must be, which seems OK to me at the moment. Or maybe not. Maybe some word meanings, or phase meanings, can take on memetic status. But I need to see the mechanism sketched out. That’s not high on my current list of things to think about.

  3. BTW, have you ever transcribed real conversation? It’s VERY instructive. A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Nina Paley about her film, Sita Sings the Blues, and I’ve been transcribing the interview and posting sections at New Savanna.

    Since this is an interview, the interviewee, Paley, does most of the talking. So this isn’t quite like ordinary back-and-forth. But it’s still very interesting to listen to it and transcribe it. My transcription is accurate in that it captures Paley’s thoughts (except where I can’t make out the recording), but there’s a whole lot of detail I leave out. Lots of starts and stops and um’s and ah’s, just a lot of slop that’s inevitably there in real speech, but not necessary for the purposes of this transcription.

    It does seem that what a person says is, in some senses, news to them as well as to the listener. The speaker doesn’t quite know what they’re going to say until it’s actually said (cf. remarks in Wallace Chafe’s superb Discourse, Consciousness, and Time). And so there’s lots of short utterances, lots of fits and reformulations.

    Most interesting are those places where Paley’s sailing along at a nice clip and I’m just listening. But every few seconds I’ll say “yes” or “uh-huh” or “sure” or something like that, just enough to let her know that I’m tracking her and follow what she’s saying. In at least one place I filled in a phrase for her and another place we uttered the same phrase at the same time.

    Whatever’s going on it’s not a simply transfer of ideas from speaker to listener. The listener is actively projecting guesses (hypotheses?) about what’s about to be said and the actual utterances are tracked to the projection. The speaker doesn’t quite know what’s going to come out and so listens and decides whether to keep forging ahead or to stop, backtrack, and reformulate.

  4. Well, ‘hypothesis of the world’ is already a rather grand reach for a mere meme. Keep in mind that e.g. phonemes are memes in the sense I use the term.

    I agree. Simply remove ‘of the world’ and that’s closer to what I meant: so, exposure to a particular phoneme would update the listener’s prior hypothesis, giving us a more narrowly constrained posterior distribution. This would then result in the listener producing a sound more closely related to that of original speaker. More exposure to the sound results in the listener being more coordinated with the original speaker — both end up producing a phoneme very close to one another. Obviously this is very idealised situation, and language acquistion is a much more complicated process… I just noticed that this is similar to what you said in your last paragraph of your second post.

    BTW, have you ever transcribed real conversation? It’s VERY instructive. A couple of weeks ago I interviewed Nina Paley about her film, Sita Sings the Blues, and I’ve been transcribing the interview and posting sections at New Savanna.

    Funny you should say that, as my last job was in journalism and, apart from court reporting where I had to write in shorthand, I used a digital recorder for most of the lengthy interviews. I also did a course in phonetics and phonology where part of our assessment was to transcribe spoken speech. And again, I agree: it is very instructive.

    On another note: I’ll have to watch Sita Sings the Blues. Here is a link for anyone else who is interested: http://www.sitasingstheblues.com/watch.html

  5. Of course, infants spend a great deal of time and effort on phonemes alone.

    Once you’ve looked closely at real speech you sorta’ get the impression that Chomsky and his students never did that, the distinction between competence and performance not withstanding.

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