what kind of a thing might a meme be?

How does meaning emerge in the world? How can it? How did it? What new forms might arise?

The answer to this would appear to be solely Darwinism, which allows for the preservation of incremental increases in complexity.

Among the things that Darwinism made were behaviours, which are predispositions to react in certain ways. In most organisms these are hard-wired and accidental. In some, these simple behaviours begin to act on other ones until we get they begin to be complex, conflicting, patterns of behaviour that are , so to say, cloudy: hard to compute.

The thing about behaviours is that they’re easiest to understand and analyse if we think of them as the result of instructions. So in an engineering sense (to get away from the problems associated with the rather different sorts of instruction that can be disobeyed) to call something an instruction is a way of understanding a predisposition to react to some stimuli with a particular response. In the same way, to call something “conscious” is a way of understanding a very complex interacting system of instructions.

Eg a clam has a predisposition to close when tickled, and — looking at the clam — we say that the instruction to do this is somehow encoded in its genome.

These instructions can be layered, so that the stimuli for one are the outputs of the reactions of another. In fact they always are layered: in anything complex enough to be interesting most of the instructions don’t deal directly with external stimuli, but with other internal ones, produced very indirectly, and in a loosely determined way, by reactions to external stimuli

However, the instructions so far mentioned can only be passed down genetically, where they accumulate and grow more complex at ‘biological’ speeds. That’s the first part of the tower of generate and test. Then, in more complex animals, capable of learning, instructions/predispositions they can be generated (and fixed) within the animal’s lifetime. That’s the second part.

Finally, there is a class of instructions which can be transmitted between animals, horizontally, so to say, and these we call memes. Two things are important here. The first is that their instruction-ness is not an intrinsic quality, any more than the ‘meaning’ of a gene is intrinsic to it, or deducible from its sequence. Instruction-ness, and meaning arise from the relationships between things, and exist within these relationships.

But if the instruction-ness of memes is not an intrinsic quality, it cann’t arise from the way that they are stored in the brain or any other structural property. You couldn’t expect a neuroanatomist to find a meme. That blows up Nick Humphrey’s original remark that you could hope to find memes in brain structures. I mean, you can still find them, but there’s no hope of ever recognising the ones you’ve found.

The second consequence seems to me far more destructive of the idea that memes are what make us human. I can’t see how, if instructions are simply a way of understanding certain regularities in the world, and memes are transmissible instructions, there is anything distinctly human about them. I also still can’t see what’s gained by talking about them — that’s another matter — since almost all the interestingly ‘biological’ features of culture are much more like an ecology than anything else. Because if you take the original grand Dawkins formulation, which seems to encompass all forms of culture, then any animal with any sort of culture would be transmitting instructions in a rather memetic way whenever one learns from another.

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