Saturday, 18 January 2014

115. Memes and Their Evolution - 2

Memes (cf. Part 114) are specified by their 'representational content'. As representations of a portion of information, memes have a certain content. A representation in the human mind is some piece of our ‘mental furniture’ that carries information about the world. For example, a thought that ‘the object on my desk is a book’ is a mental representation of a bit of the world (namely that book). Therefore ‘representational content’ refers to the information that is included in the content of our representations.

It is representational content which accounts for the mechanisms of memetic heredity and for the influence of memes over their phenotypic effects. Distin (2005) uses the term memetic DNA for the representational content. It provides the mechanism for memetic evolution, just as DNA provides the mechanism for genetic evolution.

How is the representational content fixed in our brains? Replicators preserve and copy specific portions of information. For memes, we should be able to identify precisely which bits are carried in each replicator. This means pinpointing the exact content of any representation, and this is something determined partly by the various properties of the object or situation being represented. Yet representational content is determined by other factors as well, e.g. by the capabilities and history of the organism doing the representing.

Some organisms are capable of forming representations the content of which is determined by a combination of the relevant properties of that which is represented, and the organism’s own individual and social learning capacities. Such organisms are able, in other words, both to preserve information and to transmit it among themselves.

In the case of complex representations, which have links not only externally to perceptions and behaviour but also internally to other representations, the resultant behavioural flexibility can enable us to track down their content more completely. It should be possible to test all of the links, by altering the associations that the organism encounters, and observing the effects on its behaviour. Only representations with this determinacy of content can count as memes, since a crucial aspect of any replicator is the preservation of given information.

Thus memes are representations which preserve their content in a way that can be copied between generations. As representations, they are specifically those bits of our mental furniture which control our behaviour in response to the information they carry. In other words, the basis of memes in representational content is precisely what accounts for their ability to exert executive effects on the world.

Representations gain meaning from their context within a representational system (RS), and the uniquely human capacity that lies at the heart of culture is our ability to copy and develop RSs, as well as adding individual representations to our repertoire: the ability, in other words, to meta-represent. Natural languages, as also systems of mathematical and musical notation, are some examples of cultural RSs, and each is peculiarly appropriate to its particular cultural area. Human minds acquire replicators on an ongoing basis throughout their lives, and this means that they can acquire novel RSs as well as novel representations. Among these various RSs, the natural languages have primacy: they alone benefit from an innate device for their acquisition. Yet they benefit, too, from the innate ability to meta-represent – and it is this which allows us also to develop nonlinguistic RSs, whose diverse rules and structures are realized in media other than speech. Once these sorts of RS have been taken into account, it becomes clear that there are many concepts that are not available to us until the RS that supports them has been developed.

According to Distin (2005), humans are born with a degree of 'mindedness' that includes, for example, the ‘representation instinct’: an ability and tendency to learn and manipulate vast numbers of representations, as well as the various systems in which they are embedded. And this innate mental potential of an infant is realized as a result of exposure to the cultural environment.

Genes preserve and replicate biological information by building vehicles for their own propagation and protection. The effects of the genes are found in the machines that they build for their survival, and their replication also depends ultimately on this same machinery. Memes depend for their replication on a faculty of the human mind that is ultimately of a genetic nature, namely the representation instinct. Organisms, as well as minds, develop via interaction between the innate potential and the environment, and in the case of the mind a crucial part of that environment comprises of the memes.

A human mind is thus partly a product of the memes, but only because it has the innate potential to interact with and develop in response to these memes. And culture is the product of human minds, although the preservation of information in representational content ensures that the culture we see today is mostly the result of memes produced by human minds of long ago. The development of human minds depends on a combination of two types of processes: their innate potential is the result of an interaction between genes and the physical environment, and that potential is fulfilled as a result of interaction with memes.

The selfish meme?

'Memes are best thought about not by analogy with genes but as new replicators, with their own ways of surviving and getting copied' (Susan Blackmore).

Dawkins (1976) described the essence of his ‘selfish gene’ theory as the insight ‘that there are two ways of looking at natural selection, the gene’s angle and that of the individual’. The essence of his selfish meme hypothesis is the insight that there are two ways of looking at cultural change, the meme’s angle and that of the human individual.

One of the most significant implications of Dawkins’ selfish-gene theory is that the individual organism was not an inevitable outcome of genetic evolution: it so happens that genes have banded together to build survival machines, but the only crucial feature of any form of evolution is the replicator – the unit of selection. Although organisms clearly exist, and have a perspective from which the world of genes is irrelevant to their everyday lives, fundamentally their lives and evolution are determined by that world. According to Distin (2005), no analogous insight arises from the theory of the selfish meme, because memes do not build survival machines. Their replicative mechanisms, and the means of their variation and selection, lie in genetically determined human faculties, and not in vehicles that they themselves build.

Blackmore (1999), however, takes the view that we are meme machines, just as we are gene machines. Consequently, she argues that ‘there is no conscious self inside’ those machines; and that ‘a complex interplay of replicators and environment’ is all there is to life. Our sense of self may not be illusory, but our sense of control over the collective products of our minds may well be. Although our minds provide the mechanisms of memetic evolution, there is a very real sense in which the directions of that evolution are independent of us.

For more on memes, please click here.

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