Saturday, May 12, 2012

MEME: Concept or Toy?

 "Meme" as Dawkins' intended the term, as the second replicator and meme as it has become popular culture's new word for "fad" or trait are two entirely different concepts. My focus is on the former and I see the latter as the "toy" phase of the concept. As we know, many of our human innovations begin as toys before they are translated into real products and practical knowledge.

I believe what Dawkins was getting at is that at some point the gonads produced a genetic set that altered the way a species could adapt to a rapidly changing environment. That change took place in the way the brain or central nervous system processes information. The change reorganized the way and the capacity to receive and process input from the sensory systems. This resulted in a change the way individuals learn from experience and to store memories. It enables the individual to recall past experiences and correlate these stored memories with an immediate environmental challenge or problem.

Such recall (memory) would enable the organism to response more efficiently and effectively to opportunities and/or threats -- increasing its chance of survival over others without such an adaptation.

That memory is what I would consider to be the "meme". Initially, it might take the form of a simple S -> R (stimulus -> response pattern) or even an instinct triggered by external or even internal sources.

"Meme" in this context would be the behavioral response to emotions generated by the stimulus. The behavioral responses in higher animals would include learned behaviors. Learned by individual experience as when a new born begins to explore its body and learns where its body ends and the world begins; and social learning as when a lioness teaches her cubs to hunt.

"Meme" may have a genetic base but it is more than a "trait." It is an advanced adaptation of the gene, to continue Dawkins Self Gene analogy, to insure its success in competition with other genes. It is the transcendence of a chemically based DNA sequenced gene to a superorganic neuron sequenced "gene" or what is defined as "meme".

There are many interesting questions and potential answers that the "meme" concept offers -- especially for anthropologists -- as it relates to the success of Homo sapiens over the other hominids. And for biology, it could help in our understanding the success of animals over plants. Learning is a critical adaptation for life forms that are free to move in their environment and play a role as both predator and prey in that environment. Further, it can link the principles of behavioral psychology and cognitive psychology to the evolution of language and culture.

Meme provides an analogous mechanism to the gene as the mechanism for non-biological social and cultural evolution. It brings back something we need to reconsider, the lamarckian evolutionary model. Our theories of cultural and social evolution imply an evolution by means of acquired characteristics which is based on a biological agent (human) but advanced by a supra-organic entity, which Malinowski defined as the institution.

While children play with their internet memes we are learning something about the process whereby they emerge, become manifest, develop, evolve and die. Link these with the advances in ethology and neuroscience and we may gain a real understanding of culture or the super-organic as a derivative of the meme.

There is a place for the "meme" in our understanding of human development.

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