Tagged: memes

IMITATION AND THE EVOLUTION OF CULTURE

Let’s [address] the question of how humans acquired music and language, since it helps us to understand the revolutionary power of imitation. Music and language are skills, and skills are not like physical attributes – bigger wings, longer legs: not only can they be imitated, which obviously physical characteristics on the whole can’t, but in the case of music and language they are reciprocal skills, of no use to individuals on their own, though of more than a little use to a group. An account of the development of skills such as language purely by the competitive force of classical natural selection has to contend not only with the fact that the skills could easily be mimicked by those not genetically related, thus seriously eroding the selective power in favour of the gene, but also with the fact that unless they were mimicked they wouldn’t be much use. Imitation would itself have a selective advantage: it would enable those who were skilled imitators to strengthen the bonds that tied them to others within the group, and make social groups stable and enduring. Those groups that were most cohesive would survive best, and the whole group’s genes would do better, or not, depending on the acquisition of shared skills that promote bonding – such as music, or ultimately language. Those individuals less able to imitate would be less well bound into the group, and would not prosper to the same degree.

The other big selective factor in acquiring skills and fitting in with the group would be flexibility, which comes with expansion of the frontal lobes – particularly the right frontal lobe, which is also the seat of social intelligence. Skills are intuitive, ‘inhabited’ ways of being and behaving, not analytically structured, rule-based techniques. So it may be that we were selected – not for specific abilities, with specific genes for each, such as the ‘language gene(s)’ or the ‘music gene(s)’ – not even ‘group selected’ for such genes – but individually for the dual skills of flexibility and the power to mimic, which are what is required to develop skills in general.

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THE ULTIMATE REBELLION

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Memetics provides a new way of looking at the self. The self is a vast memeplex – perhaps the most insidious and pervasive memeplex of all. I shall call it the ‘selfplex’. The selfplex permeates all our experience and all our thinking so that we are unable to see it clearly for what it is – a bunch of memes. It comes about because our brains provide the ideal machinery on which to construct it, and our society provides the selective environment in which it thrives.

Memeplexes are groups of memes that come together for mutual advantage. The memes inside a memeplex survive better as part of the group than they would on their own. Once they have got together they form a self-organising, self-protecting structure that welcomes and protects other memes that are compatible with the group, and repels memes that are not.

Each of us is a massive memeplex running on the physical machinery of a human body and brain – a meme machine. Crick was wrong. We are not ‘nothing but a pack of neurons’; we are a pack of memes too. And without understanding the pack of memes we can never understand ourselves.

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