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The Evolutionary Perspective
Category Archives: Memetics
Posted: July 14, 2017 at 5:13 am
It doesn't matter whether the Game of Thrones, Success Kid or Awkward Penguin is your favourite meme - they are changing the way we communicate.
The meme's story began long before the internet was a thing though.
Richard Dawkins coined the phrase meme to cover how ideas, behaviours, or styles spread from person to person within a culture.
He came up with the word in his 1976 book called The Selfish Gene. Long before the internet. Just like with hashtags, it's another thing the internet has
The history of the internet podcast has dedicated its second episode to what Dawkins described as the 'hijack' of his word.
Search 'History of the Internet' wherever you listen to your podcasts to subscribe in your app.
Dawkins' original theory, as his book title suggests, began in the way genes mutate by random change and spread by a form of Darwinian selection.
The reason Dawkins describes it as a hijack is because internet memes make no attempt at the accuracy of copying. It's a a key part of his definition and Internet memes are deliberately altered.
The academic and everyday literacies blogger, Michele Knobel, first studied internet memetics back in 2005. When she first looked at them they were very marginal.
In this documentary, she gave a new reflection the way we talk online.
"Humans communicate on so many different dimensions. Memes add layers of meaning to a medium that can otherwise be rather flat.'
The way our online conversations have evolved has normalised the use of internet memes.
Victoria Emma who wrote her PHD on them thinks we need to pay more attention to them:
'If millions of people use them to communicate every day, there must be something to them. We can't just dismiss them as internet cats.'
There is a reason I reply in a gif, emoji or memes online more often than just text.
Yes, admittedly, it's partly because I like to be king of the gif game.
However, it's also because they say so much more when our body language can't carry my words online in the same way they do IRL.
That's why memes are so fascinating, and shouldn't be underestimated.
Subscribe to podcast documentary series the History of the Internet to listen to more about why the meme is changing the way we are developing as humans, on Apple Podcasts, with RSS, audioBoom, or wherever you listen to your shows.
OH, and btw my fave internet meme features the best two characters ever created
Buzz and Woody, you always say it best:
P.S that's why we used their picture forepisode one about hashtags - read about that here
Posted: July 7, 2017 at 2:12 am
More and more often now, I hear the word meme working its way into casual conversation. I saw this meme on Facebook, a relative tells me. Let me show you this meme on my phone, says a co-worker. Our friend group needs better memes, bemoans a friend. On more than one occasion, I have been shown memes that havent quite been memes. Now, Im not a prescriptivist (that is, I dont elevate one ideal use of language over other uses). I am fascinated with weird and wild ways language and culture evolve, and Im not foolish enough to presume that evolution can be successful policed. When strange, alien noises like meme start entering the everyday lexicon, however, I think theres little harm in trying to figure out where they came from, and why. With the word meme in particular, its a rather interesting history.
The word meme was first coined by scientist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. The word was originally modeled after gene, drawing on the Greek mimeme, or that which is imitated. The word described practices, traditions and ideas that spread through culture, much like genes are capable of replicating and spreading. Dawkins aimed to explain how evolutionary principles, looked at through the lens of memes, could be applied to cultural development, an idea that would go to be developed into the field of memetics. Memetics as a field of studies has been met with contention; some feel the ambiguity of what qualifies as a meme and the chaotic nature of their spread makes studying them pseudoscientific.
Of course, in day-to-day parlance, meme doesnt seem to refer to anything so broad or theoretical. I almost exclusively hear the word in the context of internet memes. The internet is by its very nature a means for sharing ideas, which lends itself to the replication and repetition of ideas. Going viral is common online terminology, and anything that has gone viral that is, spread like a disease is by definition a meme.
I imagine its hard to use or interact with the internet at large and not encounter some form of meme, though also incredibly easy to be blissfully unaware that you have. New memes spawn on a daily basis and can be specific to any of a thousand online subcultures. I initially mentioned the dilution of the words meaning. Ive seen the word used to describe any weird or funny online image. Its understandable why such images would be called memes, as memes are often weird and funny images. However, such usage strips the word of some intrigue and nuance the replication, repetition and modification of a pre-existing idea or form.
Memes are not always funny images. In fact, given the repetition en masse, most memes quickly become unfunny. Ive occasionally seen complaints that present day internet meme culture develops too quickly. A new meme can suddenly become overplayed in the course of a single day, if not hours. In part, this comes about because memes themselves have developed their own online culture. An expectation exists that any funny or mildly unclever thing will become a meme, which leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy and a short meme lifespan.
If memes so quickly become unfunny, one might ask, Why all this hubbub about memes and internet and subculture? It wouldnt be too difficult to hammer out a think piece about internet memes as an apocalyptic harbinger of a conformist youth culture. But memes arent some wholly new concept. The Kilroy was here graffiti is a meme dating back to before World War II. Knock-knock and numerous other well-known jokes are memes. Urban legends, aphorisms and fairy tales are all concepts that spread memetically. Rather than just a current fad, meme is a relatively new word for something ancient. The language and words we use to communicate are constantly developing, and memes are just another form of language or perhaps language is a form of meme.
Evan Orbeck is a Messenger staff writer.
Originally posted here:
Posted: July 1, 2017 at 9:16 am
However you choose to look at it, memes are beginning to take hold of how you, the voter, view policies and politics. This week, mid-day breaks down the Indian millennial's memetics.
Among the many gifts of the 2016 US Presidential election was the torrent of the political meme. Whether it was 'Birdie Sanders', 'Crooked Hillary' or '#ZodiacTed', the internet was splattered with GIFs and JPEGs that conveyed a message in line with one's political leanings.
But, the tone soon turned acerbic when the Alt-Right stepped in with their 'Meme Magic' - a termed coined by Alt-right website Breitbart columnist Milo Yiannopoulous - to hail and circulate memes under Trump's name and launching vicious attacks against his enemies.
In India, it's a slightly different story. Memes are not-so-slowly emerging as a form of showing political dissent, too, whether it is by mocking the PM's monogrammed suit or the policies of the country's right-wing, but still being funny.
On the Indian internet, memes float around daily, either making Narendra Modi 'relatable AF' or disparaging Rahul Gandhi's Pappu ways. However you choose to look at it, these devices of dank humour are beginning to take hold of how you, the voter, view policies and politics. This week, mid-day breaks down the Indian millennial's memetics.
What is a meme? Pronounced as'meem', the term coined by naturalist and biologist Charles Darwin - father of the theory of evolution - in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. In the last chapter Memes: the New Replicators, he described meme as a unit of cultural transmission that is analogous to the gene. Illustrating it further, Darwin wrote:"Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool... so memes propagate in the meme pool... via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation."
Meme masters say
Humans of Hindutva, Facebook page
For how long can democratic debate hinge on internet memes? Memes are an end in themsel-ves. They are a cultural reaction to the real world. The real world shouldn't expect anything from them in return. We have other mediums and platforms for more urgent discussions. They're a recent phenomenon. Democratic debate is as old as Parthenon and Socrates.
What are the reactions you've gotten for your page? Some people, who used to troll or abuse me, now have healthy discussions on the page.
Karan Talwar, Stand-up comic
Are memes a vehicle for expressing political dissent? A majority of us don't identify with either left or right, so for the rest of us what is left is memes and humour. They are a very simple way to express an idea without getting too politically embroiled. But, if you read comments on most memes, it goes back to the same thing, because we are humourless people.
How do people react to the memes you post? The comments usually become pretty dirty depending on how big the meme gets... We keep it pretty simple. We try not to take sides in the joke.
Dememetisation On November 9, 2016, when the PM announced demonetisation, it sent shockwaves and inspired relentless memes on the chaos that followed. This stirred endless debates on whether it was a good move for the country or a disastrous one. Regardless, this golden period marked the return of'Sonam Gupta Bewafa Hai', aka the most iconic betrayal meme of all time.
Jemin Shah, Literature student 'While memes run the risk of being reductive about political debate, I end up spending a lot more time reading satire on pages like Humans of Hindutva. So, if used correctly, it has potential to promote political discourse.'
Prakruti Maniar, Content writer 'Memes should not be used in political debates, because they devalue the discuss-ion and create filte-red, simplified images. In a society that needs to be more aware of its democratic rights, memes shift focus, and hinder deeper understanding.'
Shreshtha GK, Literature student 'Memes have become a sort of guerrilla reactio-nary means of expressing political dissent/assent. Memes form the ideal vehicle for highlighting incongruity in policy, religion and exposing social biases.'
Joke's on Kejriwal The Delhi Chief Minister and convener of the Aam Aadmi Party is an anti-corruption crusader. His crusades, coughs, trademark mufflers and political mishaps have inspired many a meme - from supporters and haters alike. Whether he is wearing a flower crown in Goa, or dissing the PM, the AAP leader lends himself to a natural memetic quality.
1976 Year the term'meme'was coined
4-94 Growth in search for'meme'since July 2012
100 Mizoram has the highest search rate for the word'meme'
19 Search interest for'meme'in Maharashtra
Data from Google Trends
Watch video: When Mamta's topless photo created controversy
Download the new mid-day android app to get updates on all the latest and trending stories on the gohttps://goo.gl/8Xlcvr
Posted: June 7, 2017 at 5:16 pm
Evolution and Memes: The human brain as a selective imitation device
This article originally appeared in Cybernetics and Systems, Vol 32:1, 225-255, 2001, Taylor and Francis, Philadelphia, PA. Reproduced with permission.
Italian translation I memi e lo sviluppo del cervello, in KOS 211, aprile 2003, pp. 56-64.
German translation Evolution und Meme: Das menschliche Gehirn als selektiver Imitationsapparat , in: Alexander Becker et al. (Hg.): Gene, Meme und Gehirne. Geist und Gesellschaft als Natur, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp 2003 pp 49-89.
The meme is an evolutionary replicator, defined as information copied from person to person by imitation. I suggest that taking memes into account may provide a better understanding of human evolution in the following way. Memes appeared in human evolution when our ancestors became capable of imitation. From this time on two replicators, memes and genes, coevolved. Successful memes changed the selective environment, favouring genes for the ability to copy them. I have called this process memetic drive. Meme-gene coevolution produced a big brain that is especially good at copying certain kinds of memes. This is an example of the more general process in which a replicator and its replication machinery evolve together. The human brain has been designed not just for the benefit of human genes, but for the replication of memes. It is a selective imitation device.
Some problems of definition are discussed and suggestions made for future research.
The concept of the meme was first proposed by Dawkins (1976) and since that time has been used in discussions of (among other things) evolutionary theory, human consciousness, religions, myths and mind viruses (e.g. Dennett 1991, 1995, Dawkins 1993, Brodie 1996, Lynch 1996). I believe, however, that the theory of memes has a more fundamental role to play in our understanding of human nature. I suggest that it can give us a new understanding of how and why the human brain evolved, and why humans differ in important ways from all other species. In outline my hypothesis is as follows.
Everything changed in human evolution when imitation first appeared because imitation let loose a new replicator, the meme. Since that time, two replicators have been driving human evolution, not one. This is why humans have such big brains, and why they alone produce and understand grammatical language, sing, dance, wear clothes and have complex cumulative cultures. Unlike other brains, human brains had to solve the problem of choosing which memes to imitate. In other words they have been designed for selective imitation.
This is a strong claim and the purpose of this paper is first to explain and defend it, second to explore the implications of evolution operating on two replicators, and third to suggest how some of the proposals might be tested. One implication is that we have underestimated the importance of imitation.
The new replicator
The essence of all evolutionary processes is that they involve some kind of information that is copied with variation and selection. As Darwin (1859) first pointed out, if you have creatures that vary, and if there is selection so that only some of those creatures survive, and if the survivors pass on to their offspring whatever it was that helped them survive, then those offspring must, on average, be better adapted to the environment in which that selection took place than their parents were. It is the inevitability of this process that makes it such a powerful explanatory tool. If you have the three requisites variation, selection and heredity, then you must get evolution. This is why Dennett calls the process the evolutionary algorithm. It is a mindless procedure which produces Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind (Dennett 1995, p 50).
This algorithm depends on something being copied, and Dawkins calls this the replicator. A replicator can therefore be defined as any unit of information which is copied with variations or errors, and whose nature influences its own probability of replication (Dawkins 1976). Alternatively we can think of it as information that undergoes the evolutionary algorithm (Dennett 1995) or that is subject to blind variation with selective retention (Campbell 1960), or as an entity that passes on its structure largely intact in successive replications (Hull, 1988).
The most familiar replicator is the gene. In biological systems genes are packaged in complex ways inside larger structures, such as organisms. Dawkins therefore contrasted the genes as replicators with the vehicles that carry them around and influence their survival. Hull prefers the term interactors for those entities that interact as cohesive wholes with their environments and cause replication to be differential (Hull 1988). In either case selection may take place at the level of the organism (and arguably at other levels) but the replicator is the information that is copied reasonably intact through successive replications and is the ultimate beneficiary of the evolutionary process.
Note that the concept of a replicator is not restricted to biology. Whenever there is an evolutionary process (as defined above) then there is a replicator. This is the basic principle of what has come to be known as Universal Darwinism (Dawkins 1976, Plotkin 1993) in which Darwinian principles are applied to all evolving systems. Other candidates for evolving systems with their own replicators include the immune system, neural development, and trial and error learning (e.g. Calvin 1996, Edelman 1989, Plotkin 1993, Skinner 1953).
The new replicator I refer to here is the meme; a term coined in 1976 by Dawkins. His intention was to illustrate the principles of Universal Darwinism by providing a new example of a replicator other than the gene. He argued that whenever people copy skills, habits or behaviours from one person to another by imitation, a new replicator is at work.
We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation. Mimeme comes from a suitable Greek root, but I want a monosyllable that sounds a bit like gene. I hope my classicist friends will forgive me if I abbreviate mimeme to meme. Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. (Dawkins, 1976, p 192).
Dawkins now explains that he had modest, and entirely negative, intentions for his new term. He wanted to prevent his readers from thinking that the gene was necessarily the be-all and end-all of evolution which all adaptations could be said to benefit (Dawkins, 1999, p xvi) and make it clear that the fundamental unit of natural selection is the replicator any kind of replicator. Nevertheless, he laid the groundwork for memetics. He likened some memes to parasites infecting a host, especially religions which he termed viruses of the mind (Dawkins, 1993), and he showed how mutually assisting memes will group together into co-adapted meme complexes (or memeplexes) often propagating themselves at the expense of their hosts.
Dennett subsequently used the concept of memes to illustrate the evolutionary algorithm and to discuss personhood and consciousness in terms of memes. He stressed the importance of asking Cui bono? or who benefits? The ultimate beneficiary of an evolutionary process, he stressed, is whatever it is that is copied; i.e. the replicator. Everything else that happens, and all the adaptations that come about, are ultimately for the sake of the replicators.
This idea is central to what has come to be known as selfish gene theory, but it is important to carry across this insight into dealing with any new replicator. If memes are truly replicators in their own right then we should expect things to happen in human evolution which are not for the benefit of the genes, nor for the benefit of the people who carry those genes, but for the benefit of the memes which those people have copied. This point is absolutely central to understanding memetics. It is this which divides memetics from closely related theories in sociobiology (Wilson 1975) and evolutionary psychology (e.g. Barkow, Cosmides & Tooby 1992, Pinker 1997). Dawkins complained of his colleagues that In the last analysis they wish always to go back to biological advantage (Dawkins 1976 p 193). This is true of theories in evolutionary psychology but also of most of the major theories of gene-culture coevolution. For example, Wilson famously claimed that the genes hold culture on a leash (Lumsden & Wilson 1981). More recently he has conceded that the term meme has won against its various competitors but he still argues that memes (such as myths and social contracts) evolved over the millennia because they conferred a survival advantage on the genes, not simply because of advantages to themselves (Wilson 1998). Other theories such as the mathematical models of Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman (1981) and Lumsden and Wilson (1981) take inclusive fitness (advantage to genes) as the final arbiter, as does Durham (1991) who argues that organic and cultural selection work on the same criterion and are complementary. Among the few exceptions are Boyd and Richersons Dual Inheritance model (1985) which includes the concept of cultural fitness, and Deacons (1997) coevolutionary theory in which language is likened to a parasitic organism with adaptations that evolved for its own replication, not for that of its host.
With these exceptions, the genes remain the bottom line in most such theories, even though maladaptive traits (that is, maladaptive to the genes) can arise, and may even thrive under some circumstances (Durham 1991, Feldman and Laland 1996). By contrast, if you accept that memes are a true replicator then you must consider the fitness consequences for memes themselves. This could make a big difference, and this is why I say that everything changed in evolution when memes appeared.
When was that? If we define memes as information copied by imitation, then this change happened when imitation appeared. I shall argue that should we do just that, but this will require some justification.
Problems of definition
If we had a universally agreed definition of imitation, we could define memes as that which is imitated (as Dawkins originally did). In that case we could say that, by definition, memes are transmitted whenever imitation occurs and, in terms of evolution, we could say that memes appeared whenever imitation did. Unfortunately there is no such agreement either over the definition of memes or of imitation. Indeed there are serious arguments over both definitions. I suggest that we may find a way out of these problems of definition by thinking about imitation in terms of evolutionary processes, and by linking the definitions of memes and imitation together.
In outline my argument is as follows. The whole point of the concept of memes is that the meme is a replicator. Therefore the process by which it is copied must be one that supports the evolutionary algorithm of variation, selection and heredity in other words, producing copies of itself that persist through successive replications and which vary and undergo selection. If imitation is such a process, and if other kinds of learning and social learning are not, then we can usefully tie the two definitions together. We can define imitation as a process of copying that supports an evolutionary process, and define memes as the replicator which is transmitted when this copying occurs.
Note that this is not a circular definition. It depends crucially on an empirical question is imitation in fact the kind of process that can support a new evolutionary system? If it is then there must be a replicator involved and we can call that replicator the meme. If not, then this proposal does not make sense. This is therefore the major empirical issue involved, and I shall return to it when I have considered some of the problems with our current definitions.
Defining the meme
The Oxford English Dictionary defines memes as follows meme (mi:m), n. Biol.(shortened from mimeme that which is imitated, after GENE n.) An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation. This is clearly built on Dawkinss original conception and is clear as far as it goes. However, there are many other definitions of the meme, both formal and informal, and much argument about which is best. These definitions differ mainly on two key questions: (1) Whether memes exist only inside brains or outside of them as well, and (2) the methods by which memes may be transmitted.
The way we define memes is critical, not only for the future development of memetics as a science, but for our understanding of evolutionary processes in both natural and artificial systems. Therefore we need to get the definitions right. What counts as right, in my view, is a definition that fits the concept of the meme as a replicator taking part in a new evolutionary process. Any definition which strays from this concept loses the whole purpose and power of the idea of the meme indeed its whole reason for being. It is against this standard that I judge the various competing definitions, and my conclusion is that memes are both inside and outside of brains, and they are passed on by imitation. The rest of this section expands on that argument and can be skipped for the purposes of understanding the wider picture.
First there is the question of whether memes should be restricted to information stored inside peoples heads (such as ideas, neural patterns, memories or knowledge) or should include information available in behaviours or artefacts (such as speech, gestures, inventions and art, or information in books and computers).
In 1975, Cloak distinguished between the cultural instructions in peoples heads (which he called i-culture) and the behaviour, technology or social organisation they produce (which he called m-culture). Dawkins (1976) initially ignored this distinction, using the term meme to apply to behaviours and physical structures in a brain, as well as to memetic information stored in other ways (as in his examples of tunes, ideas and fashions). This is sometimes referred to as Dawkins A (Gatherer 1998). Later (Dawkins B) he decided that A meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a brain (Cloaks i-culture) (Dawkins 1982, p 109). This implies that the information in the clothes or the tunes does not count as a meme. But later still he says that memes can propagate themselves from brain to brain, from brain to book, from book to brain, from brain to computer, from computer to computer (Dawkins, 1986, p 158). Presumably they still count as memes in all these forms of storage not just when they are in a brain. So this is back to Dawkins A.
Dennett (1991, 1995) treats memes as information undergoing the evolutionary algorithm, whether they are in a brain, a book or some other physical object. He points out that copying any behaviour must entail neural change and that the structure of a meme is likely to be different in any two brains, but he does not confine memes to these neural structures. Durham (1991) also treats memes as information, again regardless of how they are stored. Wilkins defines a meme as the least unit of sociocultural information relative to a selection process that has favourable or unfavourable selection bias that exceeds its endogenous tendency to change. (Wilkins 1998). This is based on Williamss now classic definition of the gene as any hereditary information for which there is a favorable or unfavorable selection bias equal to several or many times its rate of endogenous change. (Williams 1966, p 25). What is important here is that the memetic information survives intact long enough to be subject to selection pressures. It does not matter where and how the information resides.
In contrast, Delius (1989) describes memes as constellations of activated and non-activated synapses within neural memory networks (p 45) or arrays of modified synapses (p 54). Lynch (1991) defines them as memory abstractions or memory items, Grant (1990) as information patterns infecting human minds, and Plotkin as ideas or representations the internal end of the knowledge relationship (Plotkin 1993, p 215), while Wilson defines the natural elements of culture as the hierarchically arranged components of semantic memory, encoded by discrete neural circuits awaiting identification. (Wilson 1998, p 148). Closer to evolutionary principles, Brodie defines a meme as a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in other minds. (Brodie 1996, p 32), but this restricts memes to being in minds. Presumably, on all these latter definitions, memes cannot exist in books or buildings, so the books and buildings must be given a different role. This has been done, by using further distinctions, usually based on a more or less explicit analogy with genes.
Cloak (1975) explicitly likened his i-culture to the genotype and m-culture to the phenotype. Dennett (1995) also talks about memes and their phenotypic effects, though in a different way. The meme is internal (though not confined to brains) while the way it affects things in its environment (p 349), is its phenotype. In an almost complete reversal, Benzon (1996) likens pots, knives, and written words (Cloaks m-culture) to the gene; and ideas, desires and emotions (i-culture) to the phenotype. Gabora (1997) likens the genotype to the mental representation of a meme, and the phenotype to its implementation. Delius (1989), having defined memes as being in the brain, refers to behaviour as the memes phenotypic expression, while remaining ambiguous about the role of the clothes fashions he discusses. Grant (1990) defines the memotype as the actual information content of a meme, and distinguishes this from its sociotype or social expression. He explicitly bases his memotype/sociotype distinction on the phenotype/genotype distinction. All these distinctions are slightly different and it is not at all clear which, if any, is better.
The problem is this. If memes worked like genes then we should expect to find close analogies between the two evolutionary systems. But, although both are replicators, they work quite differently and for this reason we should be very cautious of meme-gene analogies. I suggest there is no clean equivalent of the genotype/phenotype distinction in memetics because memes are a relatively new replicator and have not yet created for themselves this highly efficient kind of system. Instead there is a messy system in which information is copied all over the place by many different means.
I previously gave the example of someone inventing a new recipe for pumpkin soup and passing it on to various relatives and friends (Blackmore 1999). The recipe can be passed on by demonstration, by writing the recipe on a piece of paper, by explaining over the phone, by sending a fax or e-mail, or (with difficulty) by tasting the soup and working out how it might have been cooked. It is easy to think up examples of this kind which make a mockery of drawing analogies with genotypes and phenotypes because there are so many different copying methods. Most important for the present argument, we must ask ourselves this question. Does information about the new soup only count as a meme when it is inside someones head or also when it is on a piece of paper, in the behaviour of cooking, or passing down the phone lines? If we answer that memes are only in the head then we must give some other role to these many other forms and, as we have seen, this leads to confusion.
My conclusion is this. The whole point of memes is to see them as information being copied in an evolutionary process (i.e. with variation and selection). Given the complexities of human life, information can be copied in myriad ways. We do a disservice to the basic concept of the meme if we try to restrict it to information residing only inside peoples heads as well as landing ourselves in all sorts of further confusions. For this reason I agree with Dennett, Wilkins, Durham and Dawkins A, who do not restrict memes to being inside brains. The information in this article counts as memes when it is inside my head or yours, when it is in my computer or on the journal pages, or when it is speeding across the world in wires or bouncing off satellites, because in any of these forms it is potentially available for copying and can therefore take part in an evolutionary process.
We may now turn to the other vexed definitional question the method by which memes are replicated. The dictionary definition gives a central place to imitation, both in explaining the derivation of the word meme and as the main way in which memes are propagated. This clearly follows Dawkinss original definition, but Dawkins was canny in saying imitation in the broad sense. Presumably he meant to include many processes which we may not think of as imitation but which depend on it, like direct teaching, verbal instruction, learning by reading and so on. All these require an ability to imitate. At least, learning language requires the ability to imitate sounds, and instructed learning and collaborative learning emerge later in human development than does imitation and arguably build on it (Tomasello, Kruger & Ratner 1993). We may be reluctant to call some of these complex human skills imitation. However, they clearly fit the evolutionary algorithm. Information is copied from person to person. Variation is introduced both by degradation due to failures of human memory and communication, and by the creative recombination of different memes. And selection is imposed by limitations on time, transmission rates, memory and other kinds of storage space. In this paper I am not going to deal with these more complex kinds of replication. Although they raise many interesting questions, they can undoubtedly sustain an evolutionary process and can therefore replicate memes. Instead I want to concentrate on skills at the simpler end of the scale, where it is not so obvious which kinds of learning can and cannot count as replicating memes.
Theories of gene-culture coevolution all differ in the ways their cultural units are supposed to be passed on. Cavalli-Sforza and Feldmans (1981) cultural traits are passed on by imprinting, conditioning, observation, imitation or direct teaching. Durhams (1991) coevolutionary model refers to both imitation and learning. Runciman (1998) refers to memes as instructions affecting phenotype passed on by both imitation and learning. Laland and Odling Smee (in press) argue that all forms of social learning are potentially capable of propagating memes. Among meme-theorists both Brodie (1996) and Ball (1984) include all conditioning, and Gabora (1997) counts all mental representations as memes regardless of how they are acquired.
This should not, I suggest, be just a matter of preference. Rather, we must ask which kinds of learning can and cannot copy information from one individual to another in such a way as to sustain an evolutionary process. For if information is not copied through successive replications, with variation and selection, then there is no new evolutionary process and no need for the concept of the meme as replicator. This is not a familiar way of comparing different types of learning so I will need to review some of the literature and try to extract an answer.
Communication and contagion
Confusion is sometimes caused over the term communication, so I just want to point out that most forms of animal communication (even the most subtle and complex) do not involve the copying of skills or behaviours from one individual to another with variation and selection. For example, when bees dance information about the location of food is accurately conveyed and the observing bees go off to find it, but the dance itself is not copied or passed on. So this is not copying a meme. Similarly when vervet monkeys use several different signals to warn conspecifics of different kinds of predator (Cheney and Seyfarth 1990), there is no copying of the behaviour. The behaviour acts as a signal on which the other monkeys act, but they do not copy the signals with variation and selection.
Yawning, coughing or laughter can spread contagiously from one individual to the next and this may appear to be memetic, but these are behaviours that were already known or in the animals repertoire, and are triggered by another animal performing them (Provine 1996). In this type of contagion there is no copying of new behaviours (but note that there are many other kinds of contagion (Levy & Nail, 1993; Whiten & Ham, 1992)). Communication of these kinds is therefore not even potentially memetic. Various forms of animal learning may be.
Learning is commonly divided into individual and social learning. In individual learning (including classical conditioning, operant conditioning, acquisition of motor skills and spatial learning) there is no copying of information from one animal to another. When a rat learns to press a lever for reward, a cat learns where the food is kept, or a child learns how to ride a skateboard, that learning is done for the individual only and cannot be passed on. Arguably such learning involves a replicator being copied and selected within the individual brain (Calvin 1996, Edelman 1989), but it does not involve copying between individuals. These types of learning therefore do not count as memetic transmission.
In social learning a second individual is involved, but in various different roles. Types of social learning include goal emulation, stimulus enhancement, local enhancement, and true imitation. The question I want to ask is which of these can and cannot sustain a new evolutionary process.
In emulation, or goal emulation, the learner observes another individual gaining some reward and therefore tries to obtain it too, using individual learning in the process, and possibly attaining the goal in quite a different way from the first individual (Tomasello 1993). An example is when monkeys, apes or birds observe each other getting food from novel containers but then get it themselves by using a different technique (e.g. Whiten & Custance 1996). This is social learning because two individuals are involved, but the second has only learned a new place to look for food. Nothing is copied from one animal to the other in such a way as to allow for the copying of variations and selective survival of some variants over others. So there is no new evolutionary process and no new replicator.
In stimulus enhancement the attention of the learner is drawn to a particular object or feature of the environment by the behaviour of another individual. This process is thought to account for the spread among British tits of the habit of pecking milk bottle tops to get at the cream underneath, which was first observed in 1921 and spread from village to village (Fisher and Hinde 1949). Although this looks like imitation, it is possible that once one bird had learned the trick others were attracted to the jagged silver tops and they too discovered (by individual learning) that there was cream underneath (Sherry & Galef 1984). If so, the birds had not learned a new skill from each other (they already knew how to peck), but only a new stimulus at which to peck. Similarly the spread of termite fishing among chimpanzees might be accounted for by stimulus enhancement as youngsters follow their elders around and are exposed to the right kind of sticks in proximity to termite nests. They then learn by trial and error how to use the sticks.
In local enhancement the learner is drawn to a place or situation by the behaviour of another, as when rabbits learn from each other not to fear the edges of railway lines in spite of the noise of the trains. The spread of sweet-potato washing in Japanese macaques may have been through stimulus or local enhancement as the monkeys followed each other into the water and then discovered that washed food was preferable (Galef 1992).
If this is the right explanation for the spread of these behaviours we can see that there is no new evolutionary process and no new replicator, for there is nothing that is copied from individual to individual with variation and selection. This means there can be no cumulative selection of more effective variants. Similarly, Boyd and Richerson (in press) argue that this kind of social learning does not allow for cumulative cultural change.
Most of the population-specific behavioural traditions studied appear to be of this kind, including nesting sites, migration routes, songs and tool use, in species such as wolves, elephants, monkeys, monarch butterflies, and many kinds of birds (Bonner 1980). For example, oyster catchers use two different methods for opening mussels according to local tradition but the two methods do not compete in the same population in other words there is no differential selection of variants within a given population. Tomasello, Kruger and Ratner (1993) argue that many chimpanzee traditions are also of this type. Although the behaviours are learned population-specific traditions they are not cultural in the human sense of that term because they are not learned by all or even most of the members of the group, they are learned very slowly and with wide individual variation, and most telling they do not show an accumulation of modifications over generations. That is, they do not show the cultural ratchet effect precluding the possibility of humanlike cultural traditions that have histories.
There may be exceptions to this. Whiten et al. (1999) have studied a wide variety of chimpanzee behaviours and have found limited evidence that such competition between variants does occur within the same group. For example, individuals in the same group use two different methods for catching ants on sticks, and several ways of dealing with ectoparasites while grooming. However, they suggest that these require true imitation for their perpetuation.
True imitation is more restrictively defined, although there is still no firm agreement about the definition (see Zentall 1996, Whiten 1999). Thorndike (1898), originally defined imitation as learning to do an act from seeing it done. This means that one animal must acquire a novel behaviour from another so ruling out the kinds of contagion noted above. Whiten and Ham (1992), whose definition is widely used, define imitation as learning some part of the form of a behaviour from another individual. Similarly Heyes (1993) distinguishes between true imitation learning something about the form of behaviour through observing others, from social learning learning about the environment through observing others (thus ruling out stimulus and local enhancement).
True imitation is much rarer than individual learning and other forms of social learning. Humans are extremely good at imitation; starting almost from birth, and taking pleasure in doing it. Meltzoff, who has studied imitation in infants for more than twenty years, calls humans the consummate imitative generalist (Meltzoff, 1996) (although some of the earliest behaviours he studies, such as tongue protrusion, might arguably be called contagion rather than true imitation). Just how rare imitation is has not been answered. There is no doubt that some song birds learn their songs by imitation, and that dolphins are capable of imitating sounds as well as actions (Bauer & Johnson, 1994; Reiss & McCowan, 1993). There is evidence of imitation in the grey parrot and harbour seals. However, there is much dispute over the abilities of non-human primates and other mammals such as rats and elephants (see Byrne & Russon 1998; Heyes & Galef 1996, Tomasello, Kruger & Ratner 1993, Whiten 1999).
Many experiments have been done on imitation and although they have not been directly addressed at the question of whether a new replicator is involved, they may help towards an answer. For example, some studies have tried to find out how much of the form of a behaviour is copied by different animals and by children. In the two-action method a demonstrator uses one of two possible methods for achieving a goal (such as opening a specially designed container), while the learner is observed to see which method is used (Whiten et al. 1996; Zentall 1996). If a different method is used the animal may be using goal emulation, but if the same method is copied then true imitation is involved. Evidence of true imitation has been claimed using this method in budgerigars, pigeons and rats, as well as enculturated chimpanzees and children (Heyes and Galef 1996). Capuchin monkeys have recently been found to show limited ability to copy the demonstrated method (Custance, Whiten & Fredman 1999).
Other studies explore whether learners can copy a sequence of actions and their hierarchical structure (Whiten 1999). Byrne and Russon (1998) distinguish action level imitation (in which a sequence of actions is copied in detail) from program level imitation (in which the subroutine structure and hierarchical layout of a behavioural program is copied). They argue that other great apes may be capable of program level imitation although humans have a much greater hierarchical depth. Such studies are important for understanding imitation, but they do not directly address the questions at issue here that is, does the imitation entail an evolutionary process? Is there a new replicator involved?
To answer this we need new kinds of research directed at finding out whether a new evolutionary process is involved when imitation, or other kinds of social learning, take place. This might take two forms. First there is the question of copying fidelity. As we have seen, a replicator is defined as an entity that passes on its structure largely intact in successive replications. So we need to ask whether the behaviour or information is passed on largely intact through several replications. For example, in the wild, is there evidence of tool use, grooming techniques or other socially learned behaviours being passed on through a series of individuals, rather than several animals learning from one individual but never passing the skill on again? In experimental situations one animal could observe another, and then act as model for a third and so on (as in the game of Chinese whispers or telephone). We might not expect copying fidelity to be very high, but unless the skill is recognisably passed on through more than one replication then we do not have a new replicator i.e. there is no need for the concept of the meme.
Second, is there variation and selection? The examples given by Whiten et al. (1999) suggest that there can be. We might look for other examples where skills are passed to several individuals, these individuals differ in the precise way they carry out the skill, and some variants are more frequently or reliably passed on again. For this is the basis of cumulative culture. Experiments could be designed to detect the same process occurring in artificial situations. Such studies would enable us to say just which processes, in which species, are capable of sustaining an evolutionary process with a new replicator. Only when this is found can we usefully apply the concept of the meme.
If such studies were done and it turned out that, by and large, what we have chosen to call imitation can sustain cumulative evolution while other kinds of social learning cannot, then we could easily tie the definitions of memes and imitation together so that what counts as a meme is anything passed on by imitation, and wherever you have imitation you have a meme.
In the absence of such research we may not be justified in taking this step, and some people may feel that it would not do justice to our present understanding of imitation. Nevertheless, for the purposes of this paper at least, that is what I propose. The advantage is that it allows me to use one word imitation to describe a process by which memes are transmitted. If you prefer, for imitation read a kind of social learning which is capable of sustaining an evolutionary process with a new replicator.
This allows me to draw the following conclusion. Imitation is restricted to very few species and humans appear to be alone in being able to imitate a very wide range of sounds and behaviours. This capacity for widespread generalised imitation must have arisen at some time in our evolutionary history. When it did so, a new replicator was created and the process of memetic evolution began. This, I suggest, was a crucial turning point in human evolution. I now want to explore the consequences of this transition and some of the coevolutionary processes that may have occurred once human evolution was driven by two replicators rather than one. One consequence, I suggest, was a rapid increase in brain size.
The big human brain
Humans have abilities that seem out of line with our supposed evolutionary past as hunter-gatherers, such as music and art, science and mathematics, playing chess and arguing about our evolutionary origins. As Cronin puts it, we have a brain surplus to requirements, surplus to adaptive needs (Cronin, 1991, p 355). This problem led Wallace to argue, against Darwin, that humans alone have a God-given intellectual and spiritual nature (see Cronin 1991). Williams (1966) also struggled with the problem of mans cerebral hypertrophy, unwilling to accept that advanced mental capacities have ever been directly favoured by selection or that geniuses leave more children.
Humans have an encephalisation quotient of about 3 relative to other primates. That is, our brains are roughly three times as large when adjusted for body weight (Jerison 1973). The increase probably began about 2.5 million years ago in the australopithecines, and was completed about 100,000 years ago by which time all living hominids had brains about the same size as ours (Leakey, 1994; Wills, 1993). Not only is the brain much bigger than it was, but it appears to have been drastically reorganised during what is, in evolutionary terms, a relatively short time (Deacon 1997). The correlates of brain size and structure have been studied in many species and are complex and not well understood (Harvey & Krebs 1990). Nevertheless, the human brain stands out. The problem is serious because of the very high cost (in energy terms) of both producing a large brain during development, and of running it in the adult, as well as the dangers entailed in giving birth. Pinker asks Why would evolution ever have selected for sheer bigness of brain, that bulbous, metabolically greedy organ? Any selection on brain size itself would surely have favored the pinhead. (1994, p 363).
Early theories to explain the big brain focused on hunting and foraging skills, but predictions have not generally held up and more recent theories have emphasised the complexity and demands of the social environment (Barton & Dunbar 1997). Chimpanzees live in complex social groups and it seems likely that our common ancestors did too. Making and breaking alliances, remembering who is who to maintain reciprocal altruism, and outwitting others, all require complex and fast decision making and good memory. The Machiavellian Hypothesis emphasises the importance of deception and scheming in social life and suggests that much of human intelligence has social origins (Byrne & Whiten 1988; Whiten & Byrne 1997). Other theories emphasise the role of language (Deacon 1997, Dunbar 1996).
There are three main differences between this theory and previous ones. First, this theory entails a definite turning point the advent of true imitation which created a new replicator. On the one hand this distinguishes it from theories of continuous change such as those based on improving hunting or gathering skills, or on the importance of social skills and Machiavellian intelligence. On the other hand it is distinct from those which propose a different turning point, such as Donalds (1991) three stage coevolutionary model or Deacons (1997) suggestion that the turning point was when our ancestors crossed the Symbolic Threshold.
Second, both Donald and Deacon emphasise the importance of symbolism or mental representations in human evolution. Other theories also assume that what makes human culture so special is its symbolic nature. This emphasis on symbolism and representation is unnecessary in the theory proposed here. Whether behaviours acquired by imitation (i.e. memes) can be said to represent or symbolise anything is entirely irrelevant to their role as replicators. All that matters is whether they are replicated or not.
Third, the theory has no place for the leash metaphor of sociobiology, or for the assumption, common to almost all versions of gene-culture coevolution, that the ultimate arbiter is inclusive fitness (i.e. benefit to genes). In this theory there are two replicators, and the relationships between them can be cooperative, competitive, or anything in between. Most important is that memes compete with other memes and produce memetic evolution, the results of which then affect the selection of genes. On this theory we can only understand the factors affecting gene selection when we understand their interaction with memetic selection.
In outline the theory is this. The turning point in hominid evolution was when our ancestors began to imitate each other, releasing a new replicator, the meme. Memes then changed the environment in which genes were selected, and the direction of change was determined by the outcome of memetic selection. Among the many consequences of this change was that the human brain and vocal tract were restructured to make them better at replicating the successful memes.
The origins of imitation
We do not know when and how imitation originated. In one way it is easy to see why natural selection would have favoured social learning. It is a way of stealing the products of someone elses learning i.e. avoiding the costs and risks associated with individual learning though at the risk of acquiring outdated or inappropriate skills. Mathematical modelling has shown that this is worthwhile if the environment is variable but does not change too fast (Richerson and Boyd 1992). Similar analyses have been used in economics to compare the value of costly individual decision making against cheap imitation (Conlisk 1980).
As we have seen, other forms of social learning are fairly widespread, but true imitation occurs in only a few species. Moore (1996) compares imitation in parrots, great apes and dolphins and concludes that they are not homologous and that imitation must have evolved independently at least three times. In birds imitation probably evolved out of song mimicry, but in humans it did not. We can only speculate about what the precursors to human imitation may have been, but likely candidates include general intelligence and problem solving ability, the beginnings of a theory of mind or perspective taking, reciprocal altruism (which often involves strategies like tit-for-tat that entail copying what the other person does), and the ability to map observed actions onto ones own.
The latter sounds very difficult to achieve involving transforming the visual input of a seen action from one perspective into the motor instructions for performing a similar action oneself. However, mirror neurons in monkey premotor cortex appear to belong to a system that does just this. The same neurons fire when the monkey performs a goal-directed action itself as when it sees another monkey perform the same action, though Gallese and Goldman (1998) believe this system evolved for predicting the goals and future actions of others, rather than for imitation. Given that mirror neurons occur in monkeys, it seems likely that our ancestors would have had them, making the transition to true imitation more likely.
We also do not know when that transition occurred. The first obvious signs of imitation are the stone tools made by Homo habilis about 2.5 million years ago, although their form did not change very much for a further million years. It seems likely that less durable tools were made before then; possibly carrying baskets, slings, wooden tools and so on. Even before that our ancestors may have imitated ways of carrying food, catching game or other behaviours. By the time these copied behaviours were widespread the stage was set for memes to start driving genes. I shall take a simple example and try to explain how the process might work.
Let us imagine that a new skill begins to spread by imitation. This might be, for example, a new way of making a basket to carry food. The innovation arose from a previous basket type, and because the new basket holds slightly more fruit it is preferable. Other people start copying it and the behaviour and the artefact both spread. Note that I have deliberately chosen a simple meme (or small memeplex) to illustrate the principle; that is the baskets and the skills entailed in making them. In practice there would be complex interactions with other memes but I want to begin simply.
Now anyone who does not have access to the new type of basket is at a survival disadvantage. A way to get the baskets is to imitate other people who can make them, and therefore good imitators are at an advantage (genetically). This means that the ability to imitate will spread. If we assume that imitation is a difficult skill (as indeed it seems to be) and requires a slightly larger brain, then this process alone can already produce an increase in brain size. This first step really amounts to no more than saying that imitation was selected for because it provides a survival advantage, and once the products of imitation spread, then imitation itself becomes ever more necessary for survival. This argument is a version of the Baldwin effect (1896) which applies to any kind of learning: once some individuals become able to learn something, those who cannot are disadvantaged and genes for the ability to learn therefore spread. So this is not specifically a memetic argument.
However, the presence of memes changes the pressures on genes in new ways. The reason is that memes are also replicators undergoing selection and as soon as there are sufficient memes around to set up memetic competition, then meme-gene coevolution begins. Let us suppose that there are a dozen different basket types around that compete with each other. Now it is important for any individual to choose the right basket to copy, but which is that? Since both genes and memes are involved we need to look at the question from both points of view.
From the genes point of view the right decision is the basket that increases inclusive fitness i.e. the decision that improves the survival chances of all the genes of the person making the choice. This will probably be the biggest, strongest, or easiest basket to make. People who copy this basket will gather more food, and ultimately be more likely to pass on the genes that were involved in helping them imitate that particular basket. In this way the genes, at least to some extent, track changes in the memes.
From the memes point of view the right decision is the one that benefits the basket memes themselves. These memes spread whenever they get the chance, and their chances are affected by the imitation skills, the perceptual systems and the memory capacities (among other things) of the people who do the copying. Now, let us suppose that the genetic tracking has produced people who tend to imitate the biggest baskets because over a sufficiently long period of time larger artefacts were associated with higher biological success. This now allows for the memetic evolution of all sorts of new baskets that exploit that tendency; especially baskets that look big. They need not actually be big, or well made, or very good at doing their job but as long as they trigger the genetically acquired tendency to copy big baskets then they will do well, regardless of their consequence for inclusive fitness. The same argument would apply if the tendency was to copy flashy-looking baskets, solid baskets, or whatever. So baskets that exploit the current copying tendencies spread at the expense of those that do not.
This memetic evolution now changes the situation for the genes which have, as it were, been cheated and are no longer effectively tracking the memetic change. Now the biological survivors will be the people who copy whatever it is about the current baskets that actually predicts biological success. This might be some other feature, such as the materials used, the strength, the kind of handle, or whatever and so the process goes on. This process is not quite the same as traditional gene-culture evolution or the Baldwin effect. The baskets are not just aspects of culture that have appeared by accident and may or may not be maladaptive for the genes of their carriers. They are evolving systems in their own right, with replicators whose selfish interests play a role in the outcome.
I have deliberately chosen a rather trivial example to make the process clear; the effects are far more contentious, as we shall see, when they concern the copying of language, or of seriously detrimental activities.
Whom to imitate
Another strategy for genes might be to constrain whom, rather than what, is copied. For example, a good strategy would be to copy the biologically successful. People who tended, other things being equal, to copy those of their acquaintances who had the most food, the best dwelling space, or the most children would, by and large, copy the memes that contributed to that success and so be more likely to succeed themselves. If there was genetic variation such that some people more often copied their biologically successful neighbours, then their genes would spread and the strategy copy the most successful would, genetically, spread through the population. In this situation (as I have suggested above) success is largely a matter of being able to acquire the currently important memes. So this strategy amounts to copying the best imitators. I shall call these people meme fountains, a term suggested by Dennett (1998) to refer to those who are especially good at imitation and who therefore provide a plentiful source of memes both old memes they have copied and new memes they have invented by building on, or combining, the old.
Now we can look again from the memes point of view. Any memes that got into the repertoire of a meme fountain would thrive regardless of their biological effect. The meme fountain acquires all the most useful tools, hunting skills, fire-making abilities and his genes do well. However, his outstanding imitation ability means that he copies and adapts all sorts of other memes as well. These might include rain dances, fancy clothes, body decoration, burial rites or any number of other habits that may not contribute to his genetic fitness. Since many of his neighbours have the genetically in-built tendency to copy him these memes will spread just as well as the ones that actually aid survival.
Whole memetic lineages of body decoration or dancing might evolve from such a starting point. Taking dancing as an example, people will copy various competing dances and some dances will be copied more often than others. This memetic success may depend on whom is copied, but also on features of the dances, such as memorability, visibility, interest and so on features that in turn depend on the visual systems and memories of the people doing the imitation. As new dances spread to many people, they open up new niches for further variations on dancing to evolve. Any of these memes that get their hosts to spend lots of time dancing will do better, and so, if there is no check on the process, people will find themselves dancing more and more.
Switching back to the genes point of view, the problem is that dancing is costly in terms of time and energy. Dancing cannot now be un-evolved but its further evolution will necessarily be constrained. Someone who could better discriminate between the useful memes and the energy-wasting memes would leave more descendants than someone who could not. So the pressure is on to make more and more refined discriminations about what and whom to imitate. And crucially the discriminations that have to be made depend upon the past history of memetic as well as genetic evolution. If dancing had never evolved there would be no need for genes that selectively screened out too much dance-imitation. Since it did there is. This is the crux of the process I have called memetic driving. The past history of memetic evolution affects the direction that genes must take to maximise their own survival.
We now have a coevolutionary process between two quite different replicators that are closely bound together. To maximise their success the genes need to build brains that are capable of selectively copying the most useful memes, while not copying the useless, costly or harmful ones. To maximise their success the memes must exploit the brains copying machinery in any way they can, regardless of the effects on the genes. The result is a mass of evolving memes, some of which have thrived because they are useful to the genes, and some of which have thrived in spite of the fact that they are not and a brain that is designed to do the job of selecting which memes are copied and which are not. This is the big human brain. Its function is selective imitation and its design is the product of a long history of meme-gene coevolution.
Whom to mate with
There is another twist to this argument; sexual selection for the ability to imitate. In general it will benefit females to mate with successful males and, in this imagined human past, successful males are those who are best at imitating the currently important memes. Sexual selection might therefore amplify the effects of memetic drive. A runaway process of sexual selection could then take off.
For example, let us suppose that at some particular time the most successful males were the meme fountains. Their biological success depended on their ability to copy the best tools or firemaking skills, but their general imitation ability also meant they wore the most flamboyant clothes, painted the most detailed paintings, or hummed the favourite tunes. In this situation mating with a good painter would be advantageous. Females who chose good painters would begin to increase in the population and this in turn would give the good painters another advantage, quite separate from their original biological advantage. That is, with female choice now favouring good painters, the offspring of good painters would be more likely to be chosen by females and so have offspring themselves. This is the crux of runaway sexual selection and we can see how it might have built on prior memetic evolution.
Miller (1998, 1999) has proposed that artistic ability and creativity have been sexually selected as courtship displays to attract women, and has provided many examples, citing evidence that musicians and artists are predominantly male and at their most productive during young adulthood. However, there are differences between his theory and the one proposed here. He does not explain how or why the process might have begun whereas on this theory the conditions were created by the advent of imitation and hence of memetic evolution. Also on his theory the songs, dances or books act as display in sexual selection, but the competition between them is not an important part of the process. On the theory proposed here, memes compete with each other to be copied by both males and females, and the outcome of that competition determines the direction taken both by the evolution of the memes and of the brains that copy them.
Whether this process has occurred or not is an empirical question. But note that I have sometimes been misunderstood as basing my entire argument on sexual selection of good imitators (Aunger, in press). In fact the more fundamental process of memetic drive might operate with or without the additional effects of sexual selection.
The coevolution of replicators with their replication machinery
Memetic driving of brain design can be seen as an example of a more general evolutionary process. That is, the coevolution of a replicator along with the machinery for its replication. The mechanism is straightforward. As an example, imagine a chemical soup in which different replicators occur, some together with coenzymes or other replicating machinery, and some without. Those which produce the most numerous and long lived copies of themselves will swamp out the rest, and if this depends on being associated with better copying machinery then both the replicator and the machinery will thrive.
Something like this presumably happened on earth long before RNA and DNA all but eliminated any competitors (Maynard Smith & Szathmry 1995). DNAs cellular copying machinery is now so accurate and reliable that we tend to forget it must have evolved from something simpler. Memes have not had this long history behind them. The new replicator is, as Dawkins (1976 p 192) puts it, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup the soup of human culture. Nevertheless we see the same general process happening as we may assume once happened with genes. That is, memes and the machinery for copying them are improving together.
The big brain is just the first step. There have been many others. In each case, high quality memes outperform lower quality memes and their predominance favours the survival of the machinery that copies them. This focuses our attention on the question of what constitutes high quality memes. Dawkins (1976) suggested fidelity, fecundity and longevity.
This is the basis for my argument about the origins of language (Blackmore 1999, in press). In outline it is this. Language is a good way of creating memes with high fecundity and fidelity. Sound carries better than visual stimuli to several people at once. Sounds digitised into words can be copied with higher fidelity than continuously varying sounds. Sounds using word order open up more niches for memes to occupy and so on. In a community of people copying sounds from each other memetic evolution will ensure that the higher quality sounds survive. Memetic driving then favours brains and voices that are best at copying those memes. This is why our brains and bodies became adapted for producing language. On this theory the function of language ability is not primarily biological but memetic. The copying machinery evolved along with the memes it copies.
Posted: June 3, 2017 at 12:28 pm
IN THE world of psychology, there is this phenomenon called copycat suicide. It's when one suicide story triggers another or several others. Psychologists have been looking the way of the media and how suicide is reported as having a role in this. And this was way before social media became the rabid no context, no verification, no holds barred sharing of information, both fake and real.
In 2004, sociologist Dr. Steven Stack of the Wayne State University in Detroit and recognized as one of the experts in suicidology, analysed 42 studies on the impact of media's coverage on suicides and its potential of triggering copycats.
His research yielded three explanations for the media impact. First, is plain copycat, where troubled people relate to the stories of the troubled people reported on media who commit suicide, and thus can influence the equally troubled to do the same. Second is differential identification with models, especially when the suicide victim is a celebrity or highly regarded in society or even just among the circle of associates of the troubled.
The third is audience receptiveness. Like the youth being more prone to suicide can have more copycats. That was suicide sans social media.
Today, we have terrorists, jihadists, and yes, the IS, amid the anger that has been brewing all these time, fanned by those who have ill motives. As anger is spread and becomes mainstream, the people feast on reports of terrorist attacks. Anger, agitation, fear, and all negative emotions are dished out by the thousands everyday on social media, the contagion of anger spreads all over. Emotions are high, suspicions higher, and then there are the terror-inclined. Much like the suicide-inclined, really. The warnings have been raised years ago, but our penchant to express our views and little knowledge spurred on by the claim of "my wall-my post" does not heed such warnings, most likely do not even know of such warnings.
"Copycat terrorism makes compelling sense when we understand the simple but deadly psychology of contagion. A phenomenon of 'disinhibition' can occur when suicidal or murderous thoughts - inhibited by conscience, uncertainty or fear - are exposed to what is perceived as the positive consequences of suicide or murder. When this happens, the mental conflict between urges and inhibitions may be resolved, resulting in a suicidal and possibly murderous mind being made up," wrote Paul Marsden, Contagion psychologist and visiting research fellow at the University of Sussex in UK wrote in "Copycat Terrorism: Fanning the fire" published as a letter in the Journal of Memetics-Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission in 2001.
Now here's the difficult part of it all: A lost soul, a loser, and someone who has taken to heart all the injustices of the world will find greater fulfillment when dying for a cause. They may not join IS, but the swag will be tempting.
Now tell us, with the real threat of copycats, should we still remain as selfish as claiming "my wall-my post"?
In this troubled times, the role of a citizen is always to be circumspect in sharing every bit of information picked up without proper verification, but most of all, we must hold high the respect for those tasked to keep our people safe. Do not blow their covers; do not force them to speak up even before they have all the data together. We are all in this together; it can no longer be "my wall, my post." This is all about our country and how we have made it several times over as very enticing for all those who have held the IS in high regard for one reason or another, by opening our mouths and tapping our keyboards even when we shouldn't.
Posted: May 28, 2017 at 7:41 am
A year ago today a gorilla died and an internet phenomenon was born.
Youll have heard of Harambe, of course. He was a 17-year-old Western lowland gorilla, resident at Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Gardens since 2014, to where he had been transferred from a zoo in Texas where he was born in captivity.
Harambe might have meant nothing save to the thousands of people who passed through the zoos gates to see him but for the incident on 28 May 2016 when a three-year-old boy climbed into the gorilla enclosure and fell into the moat separating the primates territory from the human visitors.
Harambe grabbed the boy from the moat. A zoo worker, fearing for the childs life, shot and killed the gorilla. A zoo attraction became a news story. And then, perhaps inexplicably, so much more.
Within hours of the incident there was a lot of discussion about animals in captivity, debate about the rights and wrongs of killing Harambe, and an outpouring of grief on social media about the death of an animal. All thats understandable.
But the grief swiftly became something else. People began to employ the name and image of Harambe in quite unexpected ways. There were jokes. There were Photoshopped pictures of Harambe with celebrities. He appeared on election ballot papers. Harambe had become a message, an entity divorced from the reality of the gorilla, a thing that existed and evolved and grew on the internet. He had become a meme.
Harambe grabs the boy just seconds before a zoo worker shoots the gorilla
Why Harambe? Why not the two lions who were shot at a zoo in Santiago, Chile, when a man climbed into their enclosure less than a week before the Harambe incident? Just what is a meme, and what makes one go crazily viral like Harambe?
It might be surprising to know that there is actually science behind this, and has been for a long time for more than 30 years, predating the ubiquity of the internet and social media by a long way. Its known as memetics.
Memetic theory, or memetics, is a scientific field invented in 1976 [the term was coined by Richard Dawkins in his book The Selfish Gene] and related to how information evolves and is replicated in human culture and society, says Shontavia Johnson. Each unit of information, called a meme, undergoes a process of natural selection comparable to that of genetic evolution. When one person imitates another person, the meme is passed to the new person, who probably will continue to pass it on to another. And so on and so on.
Johnson is Professor of Law and Kern Family Chair in Intellectual Property Law at Drake University Law School in Des Moines, Iowa, and has made a study of memetic theory and how it applies to the proliferation of social media in the modern age.
She says: Today, the internet meme [what most people now just call a meme] is a piece of media that is copied and quickly spread online. One of the first uses of the internet meme idea arose in 1994, when Mike Godwin, an American attorney and internet law expert, used the word meme to characterise the rapid spread of ideas online.
We saw another example of the meme just this week in the wake of the horrific Manchester suicide bombing that claimed 22 lives at the Ariana Grande concert on Monday night. After the shock, the outrage, the heartbreak, came on Twitter the hashtag #BritishThreatLevels, in response to the UK Government raising the security status in the wake of the bombing to critical. Twitter users posted their own ideas of typically British ideas of threat making eye contact with strangers on the Tube, that sort of thing. But the incidents that spark these memes, from the savage murder of children in Manchester to the shooting of a gorilla, are far from funny. So why do humorous memes rise from them?
Because we live in a world that is always connected and always online, tragedies that dominate headlines also dominate social media trends and discussions, says Johnson. These kinds of events are important to us, perhaps because weve been to pop concerts or have an affinity for certain wildlife, and naturally as more people, who are used to communicating through hashtags and memes, talk about these tragedies, they will use communication methods most familiar to them. We want to be connected to other humans in times of crisis memes and hashtags allow us to express a level of familiarity with many other people instantly.
While #BritishThreatLevels can be seen as a slightly-skewed stiff-upper-lip we will not be cowed response to terrorism, the Harambe memes were somewhat more off-kilter, and took a somewhat disturbing path. White supremacists and alt-right keyboard warriors began to twist the Harambe memes into blatantly racist postings, essentially comparing apes to black people.
But was it disrespectful from the start to a dead animal, to a child who perhaps almost died or was it some kind of coping mechanism for people trying to make sense of it?
Memes employ humour just as people do to cope with distressing or dreadful events
Johnson says, I think it could be both. With Harambes killing, for example, the memes quickly went from tributes and mourning to something more sinister, with racist undertones. In other instances, I think it can certainly be used to quickly connect with others who are also feeling disturbed, vulnerable, or frightened. It really depends on the community. Different communities relate to each other in different ways some by ostracising others, and some by supporting others.
It isnt just the people who create the memes pictures of Harambe in the afterlife with 2016s other notable dead celebrities, such as David Bowie, Harambe climbing the Empire State building, Kong-like, Mohammed Ali towering over a knocked-out Harambe but the millions of people who share them around. If Harambe was a product or commodity, hed have more market share than Coke or Mickey Mouse.
Matt Smith is a director of London-based company The Viral Factory, which creates videos for clients with something to sell and attempts to make get them shared around the internet. They make ads, basically, but the people they work for dont want a traditional TV ad for a variety of reasons budget, its a niche product or service, or their target audience is largely online rather than conventional TV consumers.
Perhaps Smith or his clients, rather would like to be able to bottle the elusive something that memes like Harambe have, but he knows its not so simple.
When youre putting together a viral marketing campaign theres absolutely no point trying to factor in something like the Harambe situation because its just so random, he says. The internet has become really commoditised but memes feel like something from back in the early days of the internet theyre by the people, and if companies try to co-opt them or replicate them then it can backfire badly.
Smith cites an example in Italy where drivers stuck in a huge traffic jam were given free ice cream by a small local company. The event got massively shared around the internet, but because it was spontaneous and, crucially, non-corporate. Because it was a tiny artisanal ice cream maker it had meme legs; if it had been a giant international conglomerate rocking up with trucks of ice lollies and their branding everywhere, it would just have been a publicity stunt.
Memes and hashtags allow us to express a level of familiarity with many other people instantly
Things like Harambe and #BritishThreatLevels work because they have a massive emotional resonance. Its a visceral response to something dreadful, and often people deal with things like this through humour.
But what makes a good meme? Say I post a video of my cat chasing a butterfly on Twitter today and it gets half a dozen likes. You might tweet a similar thing tomorrow, and it goes viral. Is it luck? timing? The fact you have more followers than me?
Probably all of the above, though perhaps theres something to be learned from memetic theory, says Johnson. She points out that there are three good tricks which researchers point to in a memes success: being genuinely useful to a human host; being easily imitated by human brains; and answering questions that the human brain finds of interest.
For a perfect example, Johnson points to the Ice Bucket Challenge meme of the summer of 2014, which essentially involved people dumping buckets of ice water over their own heads and posting the videos online. But this wasnt just internet daftness.
It was not only easy to copy, but also publicly obligated people to do something useful donate to the ALS Association (amyotrophic lateral sclerosis) in the US or the Motor Neurone Disease Association in the UK. In addition, that money was used to help find a cure for ALS disease answering questions that humans want answered.
One year on, you might not even have thought about Harambe but for this article. Memes have limited lifespans, but just how long they thrive for is basically down to survival of the fittest.
When Dawkins created the theory of memetics, he borrowed heavily from principles of Darwinian evolution, says Johnson. Dawkins and other scientists have suggested that memes compete, reproduce and evolve just as genes do.
Despite the science behind it, we dont know what the next big meme will be until it hits us. But you can rest assured, whatever it is, its on its way and theres a very good chance it might be born out of tragedy.
Posted: May 18, 2017 at 2:24 pm
Unless youre in Business or First Class then flying is usually a stressful experience, but it seems like tempers have been running higher than usual over the past few months.
While some have blamed airline cost-cutting for frayed tempers and in some cases all-out brawls, others are laying the blame at another door social media.
A new article published by Quartz has linked the recent increase in fights on planes to the psychological phenomenon called behavior contagion.
Behavior contagion was first coined in the late 1800s by the academic Gustave Le Bon, who used it to describe the bad behavior people displayed when they were in a crowd.
The theory is that people behave worse once they have seen somebody else commit the same antisocial activity.
By witnessing the first person doing it, it then seems less offensive to the second person and they follow suit.
But thanks to smartphones and the internet, people no longer have to be in a crowd to get affected by behavior contagion.
In a paper by Paul Marsden of Stanford University called Memetics & Social Contagion, the writer addresses the ease with which behavior contagion can travel.
He said: Recent research has unequivocally established the fact of the social contagion phenomenon, and has identified its operation in a number of areas of social life.
The implications of this social contagion research are radical: The evidence suggests that under certain circumstances, mere touch or contact with culture appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur.
So every time footage of an airplane brawl is shared on social media, certain viewers becomes less offended by the actions and more likely to imitate them.
For instance, last November a RyanAir flight, from Brussels to Malta, was forced to land in Pisa after a brawl broke out between a number of passengers that saw an elderly woman hit in the head and a stewardess slapped.
Then in February, two passengers claiming to be lawyers became embroiled in a heated argument over an armreston a Monarch Airways flight from the UK to Malaga in Spain.
And just this month, two men were filmed throwing punches at each other on a Japanese plane ending in the arrest of a boozed-up American traveler at Tokyos Narita Airport.
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Posted: May 17, 2017 at 1:52 am
An American flying out of Tokyo had a really bad day after he was arrested and kicked off a flight. Credit: Corey Hour via Storyful
Police intervene in an attack on board a taxiing plane in China. Picture: weibo.com/Doo-voo
FLYING can be a stressful experience but lately it seems that tempers have been running much higher than usual.
Brawls and spats between passengers seem to be happening more often than usual, and while some people have blamed cost-cutting at airlines for frayed tempers, others are laying blame at another door: social media.
A new article on Quartz has linked the increase in fights on planes to the psychological phenomenon called behaviour contagion, The Sun reports.
Behaviour contagion was first coined in the late 1800s by the academic Gustave Le Bon, who used it to describe the bad behaviour people displayed when they were in a crowd.
In-cabin brawls are frequently captured on camera and uploaded to social media.Source:Supplied
The theory goes that peoples behaviour worsens after seeing someone else display anti-social behaviour. By witnessing the first person doing it, the behaviour seems less offensive to the second person and they follow suit.
But thanks to smartphones and the internet, people no longer have to be in a crowd to be affected by behaviour contagion they can watch it all unfold on social media.
In a paper by Paul Marsden of Stanford University called Memetics & Social Contagion, the writer addresses the ease with which behaviour contagion can travel.
Recent research has unequivocally established the fact of the social contagion phenomenon, and has identified its operation in a number of areas of social life, he said.
An American traveller was charged with assault after an incident on an All Nippon Airways flight at Tokyos Narita Airport in May. Picture: Twitter/KeemSource:Supplied
The implications of this social contagion research are radical: the evidence suggests that under certain circumstances, mere touch or contact with culture appears to be a sufficient condition for social transmission to occur.
So every time footage of an aeroplane brawl is shared on social media, certain viewers become less offended by the actions and more likely to imitate them.
For instance, last November a Ryanair flight from Brussels to Malta was forced to land in Pisa, Italy, after a passenger brawl that saw an elderly woman hit in the head and a flight attendant slapped.
Then in February, two passengers claiming to be lawyers became embroiled in a heated argument over an armrest on a Monarch Airways flight from London Gatwick to Malaga in Spain.
Police intervene in an attack on board a taxiing plane in China. Picture: weibo.com/Doo-vooSource:Supplied
And just this month, two men were filmed throwing punches at each other on a Japanese plane ending in the arrest of a boozed-up American traveller at Tokyos Narita Airport.
The same week, two travellers brawled in the aisle of a Southwest Airlines flight after their plane touched down in California.
Whether social media is in part to blame has yet to be proven, but all of these incidents were widely shared on the internet.
So now theres yet another reason to lay off the social media on holiday: it could help curb the air rage on the way home.
This article originally appeared on The Sun and was reproduced with permission.
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Posted: at 1:52 am
With the impending doom and gloom of exams fast approaching, let us cast our minds back to the happy times of 2012s glorious summer. Britain was smashing it in the Olympics and the Avengers assembled for the first time. Frank Oceans debut album soothed the airwaves and a certain Korean pop song reached number 1 in the UK charts.
I am of course referring to Gangnam Style. The music video, currently sitting on nearly three billion YouTube views, became an instant meme taking social media by storm, blowing up Facebook, Twitter and even making news headlines across the world. But why? How did it become so popular? How does anything ever become that popular on the internet for that matter?
Its a meme-eat-meme world out there, as they fiercely battle each other for space in our brains.
such science, many meme, wow Image: Orde Saunders / Flickr
Fear not friends, the answer may be simpler than you might expect. In 1976, Richard Dawkins first proposed the term memetics. His theory described memes as packets of cultural information which spread when one person imitated another, similar to the way hereditary information is passed from parents to children through genetics. It also borrows heavily from Darwinian evolution, suggesting that memes compete, survive and evolve just like genes do. Only the strongest, or in this case the ones that are best suited to widespread repetition and communication, survive. Its a meme-eat-meme world out there, as they fiercely battle each other for space in our brains. Many people can serve as hosts for a meme, although it is very difficult to define exactly what a meme is. Loosely, itcould be anything from jingles, clothes fashions and even certain ways of making pottery.
Memes have been around as long as human beings have been on the planet, although these scientific memes differ vastly to our understanding of the meme today. Mike Godwin first coined the internet meme in 1994 to characterise the rapid spread of ideas online. He noticed unpopular posters on online forums were often described as Nazis or Like Hitler, and the longer an online discussion went on the higher chance there was of a Nazi-comparison meme being made. Today, memes can literally refer to anything, from Grumpy Cat to How Italians Do Things and even Here Comes Dat Boi.
Today, memes can literally refer to anything, from Grumpy Cat to How Italians Do Things and even Here Comes Dat Boi.
Despite these differences, scientists believe there are three factors pertinent to both types of meme that help it to successfully spread. Firstly, memes which are genuinely useful to the host, such as an idea or joke, are more likely to be spread to others. Secondly, memes that are easy to copy have a competitive advantage: think of all the variations of Cash Me Outside that plagued your newsfeed earlier this year and youll agree. Finally, memes that answer pressing questions are more likely to be spread, as humans enjoy the pursuit of curiosity.
So there you have it. Getting your meme to go viral could be a lot easier than you think. What are you waiting for?
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Posted: May 13, 2017 at 5:50 am
Many insects get up to no good only at one stage of their lives, but billbugs make a lifetime career ofruining your lawn. The grown-ups chew holes in the grass blades, and their offspring eat the whole plant roots, blades and all. Small distinct circles of brown or yellowish grass are a good clue that billbugs areat work. Youll know that for sure if the discolored turf pulls up in a mat, and the roots are covered witha light brown powder that looks like sawdust.
The culprits are easy to recognize. The larvae are white, legless grubs with bright burnt-orange heads.The big guys are brown or black weevils, to inch long. Youll sometimes see them strolling alongsidewalks and driveways in early spring. Like all weevils, they have distinctive snout, or bill, that givesthem their name. First, heres the good news: Billbugs usually produce only one generation of offspring per year. The adults come up out of the soil in the spring to mate and eat your grass. The females lay their eggs in thesoil. When they hatch in midsummer, the larvae burrow a little deeper into the ground and go to townon your grass roots. They chomp merrily away through the fall, then sleep through the winter in the soil.
Come early spring, they wake up- still in grub form- and feed even more heavily before pupating andstarting the cycle again.
Turf grass is the main item on the billbugs menu, but on occasion theyll wander into the veggie patchfor a corn feast. If that happens at your place, launch an attack force of beneficial nematodes.
While adult billbugs can make a mess of your lawn, grubs can destroy it. So close the restaurant early byinvesting in some beneficial nematodes. Theyll boot the juvenile delinquents out the door, fast! Its atemporary remedy, though; for long term control, youll need a bigger bag of tricks.
Billbugs tend to zero in on lawns planted in poorly drained soil. If thats why they targeted your turf, youve got several options for chasing them away. Choosing the best one depends on how big the problem is and how much time and money you want to spend on the solution. Your taste in outdoor surroundings will also play a factor. Here are your choices:
Improve the drainage in trouble spots. This could be as simple as adding organic matter to the soil, or as complicated and expensive- as calling a landscaping contractor for a full overhaul.
Replace the grass with perennial plants that take a damp soil.
Forget growing anything in the problem area, and build a patio or deck instead.
If you live where you can grow fescue or perennial ryegrass, youve got some powerful help. Some varieties of both of these grasses are chock-full of microscopic fungi, called endophytes, that actually kill billbugs and a slew of other lawn pests. There endophytic grasses also have first-class disease resistance, drought tolerance, and all-around staying power.
Once youve banished the billbugs, do the following to keep your lawn a big unwelcome mat:
Blast thatch and do everything you can to keep it at bay. It draws billbugs like peanuts attract squirrels.
Keep the soil enriched with organic matter, especially compost.
Aerate your lawn so that water can penetrate deeply and spray it once a month with my special Aeration Tonic. What is that you ask and how do you use it?
Use 1 cup of dishwashing liquid and 1 cup of beer. Combine them in a 20 gallon hose-end sprayer, and fill the balance of the sprayer jar with warm water. Then once a month during the growing season, spray your lawn with the tonic to the point of run-off.
If it doesnt work, organize your lawn so that it attracts songbirds. They eat bad bugs by the barrelful.
Phil Brooks is an expert in pest control home remedies. He currently runs his own company and offers free consultations for Midland Pest Control.