Wednesday, June 26, 2013

What's a meme? Where I got my conception

In the past few years I have settled into a conception of memes (that is, of the cultural analog to the biological gene) as properties of physical objects, events, and processes. If, for example, we're talking of the spoked wheel, then certain of its discernible physical properties (such as its shape) have memetic function, but not the wheel itself. The wheel itself is simply a physical object, like a stone or a mountain. Similarly, the process of making a spoked wheel has memetic properties, and it is those properties to which apprentices attend as they learn the craft from a master wheelwright.

My immediate source of this concept is my friend, teacher, and colleague, the late David G. Hays. I don't know where Hays himself got the idea. But I know he'd read Dawkins, so perhaps that's where he got it.

We discussed the idea a bit in the 1990s, but only a bit. It didn't loom large in our discussions. It was only after he'd died (in 1995) that I decided to work on the idea, though I forget just what prompted this.

Once I made that decision I started my reading in the one place Hays had written on the idea, a relatively short passage in the final chapter of The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks (1993), which he'd developed while teaching an online course on the history of technology through The New School. I have reproduced that passage below.

The term "rank" is one we used over the years in talking about the ever-increasing complexity of culture. Roughly speaking, by rank 1 we mean the cultures pre-literate societies. Rank 2 emerges with the advent of literacy while Rank 3 is what first emerged in the West in the Early Modern period (aka the Renaissance). Rank 4 is where we are now. Our basic account can be found in The Evolution of Cognition (1990), though there's a preliminary version in my dissertation, Cognitive Science and Literary Theory (1978). You can find a handful of papers, plus an overview, at Mind-Culture Coevolution: Major Transitions in the Development of Human Culture and Society.

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From David G. Hays, The Evolution of Technology Through Four Cognitive Ranks (1993), section 8.2.1: Genomes, Organisms, and Populations:

Darwin's theory of natural selection was received with acclaim, but when Mendel's paper on genetic inheritance was rediscovered in 1900 it seemed to undercut Darwin--how could Mendelian inheritance lead to diversity and new species? Only in the 1930s did Fisher, Dobzhansky, Mayr, and Haldane build what Huxley (1942) named The Modern Synthesis. Recognition of DNA has changed biology, but the formation of species is still perplexing; Mayr, Simpson, and Rensch have struggled with it. A new level of analysis began with Prigogine; Kauffman and Goertzel are only two of many who are trying to achieve clarity. (All references in THEOBIBL* )

We need not follow the biologists any further than is good for us, but we may as well take note of their theory. For them, the mechanism of evolution is genetic change. A genome, let us say, is all of the genetic material in a living organism, such as a bacterium or a person. Two bacteria of the same species need not have identical genomes; there is much variation with a population of organisms of any one species. Evolution can consist in a change of frequency, or in mutation of the genome. In a multicellular organism, every cell contains a copy of the genome--every one is a descendant of the fertilized egg (in a sexual species). The gametes (eggs or sperm) are also descen- dants of the fertilized egg, not affected in any systematic way by the life experience of the organism: Information flows from the genome to the organism, but not back to the genome. The genome may be altered by chemicals ingested, or by radiation received, but these are unsystematic--random, so to say.

In thinking about the evolution of technology, I see four categories on which we might build a theory: Concepts, minds, devices, and overt manifestations of knowledge. Mokyr chooses concepts and techniques:
The idea or conceptualizaiton of how to produce a commodity may be thought of as the genotype, whereas the actual technique utilized by the firm in producing the commodity may be thought of as the phenotype of the member of a species. (p. 275 BIBLNOTE* )
Concepts today are as abstract as genes were before the identification of DNA as the genetic material. If our theory must be built on this category, it will be altogether abstract; before accepting this outcome, I choose to explore other possibilities. Devices, of course, are entirely concrete: They can be touched, counted, inspected in detail. But as I said in the beginning, I am not satisfied with devices as the basis of a theory, because we could lose all of the devices and still have the technology.

Let us see, then, what we can do with minds and overt manifestations of knowledge. Minds are abstract, but the overt manifestations are not. In rank 1, knowledge is manifest in the movements of a skilled adult performing a routine task, and also in the speech of adults. The child, watching and listening, comes to have a mind much like the minds of the adults nearby. In rank 2, knowledge is further manifest in written texts, which a new generation can read. Rank 3 has algorithms; they are manifest in calculations and in oral or written descriptions of procedure. Rank 4 has computation, that is to say, it has algorithms for the execution of algorithms. These are manifest in the action of computers and in lectures and texts on the art of computation and programming.

These manifestations are accessible to the young in every rank, as they are to external observers who wish to construct theories. Beginning with rank 2, pedagogy appears to ensure orderly access. Rank 3 introduces laboratories for apprentice engineers and scientists. Rank 4 teaches computation in various ways, perhaps not yet in the right ones.

Can we say, with the biologists, that minds do not alter the manifestations of knowledge that they receive? Or if they do make alterations, that they make them unsystematically--randomly--as bodies modify genomes by exposing them to radiation or chemicals? Does an adult pass on to a new generation the same manifestations he or she received, unmodified by life experience? For the nonce, I submit that the parallel holds, at least in rank 1. Genomes mutate, and cultures change, but the persons involved cannot know the significance of changes they make--if they are even aware of making changes.

Rank 2 cultures are aware of texts as manifestations of knowledge, and give overt attention to transmission of culture. The great examples are Classical Antiquity (Hellenistic), China, Islam, Russia, and the late Medieval period in which Scholastic philosophy flourished. It seems to me no coincidence that all of these cultures are devoted to continuation without change. Their success is an indication of the power of writing.

For rank 3, we have only one full-blown example, the West, and here change and progress are slogans. What I propose is a change in the rules of evolution, as Levinson ( BIBLNOTE* ) put it. In growing up, the person is taught to learn. Adults, and in particular pedagogues, pass on to a new generation the same facility for learning that they acquired. No one is fully aware of this capacity to learn, no theory of learning accounts well for what goes on in schools, no program of educational reform has been remarkably successful. In short, minds in rank 3 are not capable of systematic alteration of the manifestations of knowledge that they receive at the level of learning to learn. But given the capacity to learn, rank 3 sapients collect additional knowledge and work on it. At this level, they are capable of systematic and deliberate modification.

In a larger sense, the systematic and deliberate modification of knowledge by rank 3 minds is still blind variation, since any sapient has limited ingenuity and limited capacity for critical analysis of its products. The evolutionary epistemology of Donald Campbell (1960; see also Mokyr, pp. 276-277) retains its relevance in rank 3 progress.

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You will note that my actual conception seems on the surface rather remote from Hays's formulation: "overt manifestations of knowledge." Those overt manifestations, after all, are public; that's the point. But that's where it started, that and bits and pieces of casual conversation I can no longer recall. In particular it took me a long time to make the connection with the emic/etic distinction (as I do HERE and HERE), which predates the work Hays and I did together.

My point is simply that working through these things is hard work. Kenneth Pike introduced the distinction into anthropology in the mid-1950s, and it was then taken up by others, including Ward Goodenough and Marvin Harris. But neither Pike nor those who adopted the distinction from him were thinking about cultural evolution. Their concerns appear to have been epistemological.


  1. 5th paragraph: "Rank 4 is where we are now"? Number is missing. (Cf. McLuhan's era of electronic communications? Anyway one might argue that earlier ranks are not done away with but remain with us all the time.)

  2. Of course, the earlier ranks remain. They change a bit from their "pristine" form, but the certainly do remain.

    As for where we are now, think about this: speech and rank 1, 50,000 years ago; writing and rank 2, 5,000 years ago; algorithmic computation and rank 3, 500 years ago. The numbers are crude, of couse. The point is that they do down by an order of magnitude.