I do not think this idea is a good one. To see why, consider the meme
of a "reef knot". This meme can be passed on across five consecutive
generations by drawing a diagram of a knot, then by knotting a rope,
then by a textual description, then by making a computer model - and
then by making a sculpture.
However, in such a case, it is not the behaviour that is
being copied - the behaviour associated with making a computer model
of the knot is not remotely similar to the behaviour associated with
writing a textual description of it.
Since imitation is, by definition, copying of behaviour, the
term cannot legitimately be applied to such cases.
The copier may not even see who they are copying. Rather they
may reconstruct the behaviour of tying a knot from the knot itself. Is
it still imitation if you reconstruct a behaviour from an artefact
produced by that behaviour? If so, it is hardly a
conventional form of imitation.
In my view, it is best to avoid any mention of imitation when defining
memes - the idea is irrelevant and causes confusion. The copying of
heritable information is the key underlying phenomenon - the details
of how that copying is done is a side issue.
Memes do not exhibit Lamarckian inheritance
I've previously cited criticisms of cultural evolution from
Stephen Pinker and John Maynard-Smith - which claim that
cultural evolution is flawed since it invokes the widely-discredited
idea of Lamarckian inheritance.
Some supporters of cultural evolution - notably David Hull,
John Wilkins, and Gary Cziko have responded to these
criticisms by saying, in effect, no, that's a misconception: cultural
evolution exhibits Darwinian inheritance - not Lamarckian
In the hope of illuminating this controversy, let's consider an
A factory produces dolls. The genotype associated with a doll is the
doll-making-recipe in the factory. This recipe is sometimes modified
to make new types of doll for different market segments. Sometimes
lines of dolls are discontinued. The doll's phenotype is the
manufactured doll itself.
Now, imagine a customer modifies a doll's phenotype - by adding a
blue hat - and sends it back to the company. The company likes
the effect and modifies the doll-making-recipe so that line of
dolls now has blue hats.
Here it seems that this represents a case of inheritance of
acquired characteristics - since a modification of the phenotype
has wound up being reverse-engineered - and then duplicated in the
descendants of that doll's genotype.
How would Hull, Wilkins and Cziko interpret this example? None of
these writers seems to have articuated their position clearly enough
for me to be certain - but I think they would claim that the
genotype is that which is copied from - so in this instance, the
physical doll is acting as a genotype. It is the source of the
blue hat idea - since it is what that was copied from. Therefore,
this a case of genotypes inheriting from other genotypes - and that is
ordinary Darwinian inheritance - not anything Lamarckian.
I do not consider this perspective to be an acceptable one. The
problem is that it defines Lamarckian inheritance out of
existence, no matter where it is found.
If, hypothetically, a giraffe strains its neck to reach food, and that
trait is relaibly passed on to its offspring, the only way that can
possibly have happened is if something copied the information
pertaining to that trait into the giraffe's genome - so that too would
then be a case of Darwinian inheritance - not Lamarckian
If not even the number one classical example of Lamarckian inheritance
turns out to not in fact be Lamarckian under this model, one must
suspect the term "Lamarckian" has been surreptitiously redefined.
Cultural evolution works via "Blind Variation and Selective Retention"
"Blind Variation and Selective Retention" is a phrase introduced
by Donald T. Campbell, as a way of describing what he saw as the
fundamental principle underlying Darwinian evolution.
However, in cultural evolution, variation is not "blind" - and
retention of traits is sometimes poorly analogous to selection.
To start with "blindness" Campbell wrote:
In going beyond what is already known, one cannot but
go blindly. If one can go wisely, this indicates already achieved
wisdom of some general sort
One might counter that if one has wisdom of some general sort that
doesn't mean you have no need of further trials.
Wisdom is a matter of degree. However blindness has
strong boolean connotations - either you are blind or you
have some degree of vision. These concepts make poor
Campbell is trying to make a useful point here - but the
terminology is totally wrong. Variation in cultural evolution is not
"blind". "Directed" might be slightly more accurate - but
ultimately, I agree with David Hull - that it is better not to prefix
the term "variation" with any adjective at all.
What about "Selective Retention"? The problem is with the term
"selective" - which strongly implies choice from a variety of
presented alternatives. "Selection" is often a reasonable
description of what happens in DNA-based evolution. However, the term
is simply not general enough when generalising to all evolutionary
processes. If you generate offspring genes by processes involving
interpolatation, prediction, or extrapolation, they need not be "
selections" of parent genes - and modelling such processes as
selection plus mutation is vulgar.
It's easy to trash someone else's slogan - but harder to create one
So: do I have a better brief characterisation of the essence of
Yes I do. I propose: "Inherited Variation with Differential Reproductive Success".
Memes are usually maladaptive
For some reason, Susan Blackmore very frequently paints memes as
Here she is explaining how language is maladaptive:
[Susan Blackmore footage]
I am not aware of any evidence that suggests that language was maladaptive
to our ancestors. I do not see where are the costs are supposed to have
come from. Neither speaking nor gesturing was particularly expensive -
while the benefits are likely to have been large, from the beginning.
In my view, it is not being able to sing sweet love songs to
your loved ones around the campfire that is likely to have been
It's important to realize that memes are not always beneficial
symbionts, but Sue seems to go too far the other way.
Here ends my list of memetic misunderstandings. Enjoy!