& How They Might Make Sense as Replicators

Ronald Hünneman

First supervisor: Prof. dr. A.J.M. Peijnenburg Second supervisor: Dr. F.A. Keijzer Third Assessor: Dr. B.P. de Bruin Approved: March 2010

Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Groningen


Almost three years ago Charles Wildevuur and Jeroen Bartels decided it was time for me to graduate. Partly behind my back they set some wheels in motion, which eventually led to this master thesis and the accompanying graduation. Charles Wildevuur incorporated me in a discussion group. This resulted in three papers forming the basis of this thesis. Jeroen Bartels coached me throughout the final process of writing. He inspired and encouraged me, promised me food whenever I turned in pages, and called or mailed me when my productivity seemed to have come to a standstill. They were not the only ones who contributed to the completion of my graduation project. At the faculty Katherine Gardiner took the pains of sorting out all the formalities. The scope of this task should not be underestimated. I started studying philosophy back in 1987, so results had to be sorted out and recalculated to comply with the changed norms for valuation. Apart from this the computerized system of the University was not up to the task of reincorporating a lost student. But happily Katherine unravelled these problems as well. Jeanne Peijnenburg supervised this thesis. Initially she read through my casual style of writing and convinced me to put up signposts to help the reader. Then she did everything a good supervisor should do, and moreover she displayed a lot of patience. Fred Keijzer carefully took a second look. In anticipation of his criticisms and as a consequence of his comments a lot of changes were made. Many thanks also to Boudewijn de Bruin who read the thesis in its final form. I am very grateful to Gerda de Jong. She carefully corrected my English. Her improvements and suggestions were indispensible. Of course, every mistake you find is entirely my responsibility. But please bear in mind that all the flawless parts are her merit. Over the years I discussed the topic of memes with many of my students. Some of them read and commented on earlier versions of this master thesis. I want to thank all of them for their patient attention, their questions and remarks and the inspiration they provided. Without them my source of philosophical inspiration would have dried up long ago. Teaching, reading and writing philosophy is my way of organizing life. Over the years my sons and loved ones always supported that. Many thanks to them!

Ronald Hünneman Haren, Groningen


Introduction Viruses of the mind................................................................................. 1 Virus of the Mind .................................................................................... 2 Memes: Internal and External .................................................................. 3 Memes Everywhere................................................................................. 5 One Example ......................................................................................... 9 Inside Out ........................................................................................... 10 A Final Warning .................................................................................... 11 Contagious Culture Culture................................................................................................ 12 Cultural Transmission and Memes ........................................................... 14 Nut Cracking Chimps ............................................................................ 14 Forks .................................................................................................. 16 Mobile Phones ...................................................................................... 18 Light Bulb Jokes ................................................................................... 19 Mental Notions of Meme Memetics ............................................................................................. 22 Selfish Genes ....................................................................................... 22 The Notion of a Gene ............................................................................ 25 Manners, Mobile Phones and Memes ....................................................... 29 Small Xeroxing Problems ....................................................................... 31 The Indeterminacy of Memes Memes and Concepts ............................................................................ 37 Evolution Without DNA .......................................................................... 38 Interlude: Functionalism and Multiple Realizability .................................... 42 Undetermined and Detested .................................................................. 43 Underdeterminated Versus Indetermined ................................................ 45

Back to Light Bulbs ............................................................................... 55 Problematic Table Manners .................................................................... 56 Back to Behaviouristic Basics ................................................................. 58 Enacted Memes On Board Computers ............................................................................ 59 Functionalism....................................................................................... 60 Informationalism .................................................................................. 63 The attractiveness of informationalism .................................................... 68 Externalism as a Logical Consequence of Informationalism ........................ 72 Artefacts, Memes and Mind .................................................................... 74 Strong Embodiment .............................................................................. 78 Memes matter...................................................................................... 83 Concluding remark ............................................................................... 86 Parasites The Baldwin Effect ................................................................................ 87 The Extended Phenotype ....................................................................... 91 The Extended Memotype ....................................................................... 94 Parasitic Memes ................................................................................... 96 Wooden Cutlery ................................................................................. 97 Mobile Phones ................................................................................... 98 Humor ............................................................................................. 99 A Final Joke ....................................................................................... 100 Literature and Internet Documents ................................................. 103 Summary ......................................................................................... 106




What is the reason why the notion of a meme has not become popular, at least not in any scientific field of research? Richard Dawkins introduced the notion in chapter 10 of his bestseller The Selfish Gene, and initially it attracted a lot of interest. There were many books, articles, scientific papers, magazines, internet forums, symposia and documentaries on memetics, the science of memes. However, the interest in memes withered as quickly as it had arisen. These days there are no real meme scholars left, certainly not within the field the notion originated from, scientific evolutionary biology. Certainly, the term meme is often used. But most of the times the term could easily be replaced by terms like artefacts, behaviours, ideas, crazes, tools, or religion without any loss of analytic or scientific force of argument. No doubt many of you will not even consider spending any of your intellectual CPU time on memes. So what went wrong? I think Dawkins‟ writings on genes are fine. They may not be the ultimate truth on evolution; we might have to amend them with epigenetics, spice them up with group dynamics or bring in other notions. But as far as I am concerned, Dawkins was right about what is now sometimes called universal Darwinism: Dawkins was right about the algorithms underlying evolutionary processes.1However, as I will show in the course of this paper, these algorithms are incompatible with Dawkins‟ definitions of a meme. In more positive words, I will show that if Dawkins had defined the notion of a meme differently, the notion might have had a better chance of becoming popular. The mistake Dawkins made was that he joined in with the mainstream philosophy of mind of the 1970‟s and 80‟s. He was taken in by the computational metaphors of mind, and used them to couch his own ideas on memes. In this paper, I will try to pinpoint and cut out these metaphors. While doing so we will find that in the history of the idea of meme the mistakes of three decades of computational philosophy of mind reverberate. When we take these mistakes out, we can go on in trying to find ideas and concepts which could make theories of memes more viable. The ideas and notions might be found to be very close to Dawkins original interests: plain evolutionary theory, the idea that organisms use their environment and other organisms to their own advantage. Let us, however, begin by taking a look at the worst spin-off Dawkins‟ chapter on memes has produced, as far as I know.


See Dennett 1995, more on this topic in chapter 2.





While I was writing this Introduction Richard Brodie‟s book Virus of the Mind hit the bookshelves. The title not so subtly refers to the widely spread and read essay Viruses of the Mind by the other Richard, i.e. Dawkins. On the cover of Brodie‟s book a warning is printed: WARNING: This book contains a live mind virus. Do not read this book unless you are willing to be infected. The infection may affect the way you think in subtle or not-so-subtle ways, or even turn your current world view inside out.2 To me this book exemplifies the worst that can be found on memes, yet the warning is by no means superfluous. The book made me rewrite this introduction. In a bullshitting3 sort of way Brodie‟s account of memes shows all the mistakes surrounding memes. His book covers every conceivable topic, from cults to advertising, from pets to the differences between men and women, and from pyramid games and the Coca Cola logo to neuro-linguistic programming. Did I mention the term bullshit yet? The subtitle of the book reads: The Revolutionary New Science of the Meme and How It Can Help You. Whatever memes turn out to be in the course of this paper, memes are not new, there is no science of memes as yet, and so there certainly is no ongoing scientific revolution of memes. To be honest, I think Brodie has fallen into what I would like to call the meme-trap. Every now and then a new word turns up. The word seems to explain a lot of so far inexplicable phenomena. Thereupon the word is used as a sort of panacea, resulting in intellectual quackery. The way Brodie uses the term meme is a good example of the meme-trap. And as I think debugging the meme-trap to be one of the tasks of a philosopher, I have written this extended paper on memes. During the debugging we will encounter another example of the meme-trap: information. Just as to Brodie everything is a meme, to many others everything is information. To make matters worse, the intellectual quackeries surrounding memes and information are strongly interconnected. The definition Brodie gives of meme is certainly no coincidence: A meme is a unit of information in a mind whose existence influences events such that more copies of itself get created in others minds.4 Without trying to impose some sort of ad hominem argumentation on Brodie, I think it is telling he is the creator of Microsoft Word. Computers and memes both originated in the 1980‟s, and a lot of thinking on memes is based on the supposedly information- processing capacities of human brains or minds. No
2 3

Brodie 2009, back cover. Cf. On Bullshit, by Harry G. Frankfurt (2005, Princeton and Oxford, Princeton University Press). 4 Brodie 2009, p. 11.


wonder Brodie conceives of our brain as being programmable by bits of information floating around in the ether. I will show Brodie is wrong on almost all accounts. (1) There is no scientific way in which memes can be defined by reference to the human mind or brain. (2) Information processing is important, but it is only one aspect of human brains. (3) The only biologically sound understanding of memes places them firmly outside our brain, though their effects may extend into our heads. The following introductory pages serve as a kind of virus scanner. You have probably been programmed to view memes just like Brodie does. Hopefully by the end of the next few pages any traces of this programming will have been erased and your mind will again be able to take up fresh, certified virus free input.




In the foreword of the best known academic book on memes, Susan Blackmore‟s Meme Machine, Richard Dawkins quotes the Oxford English Dictionary: meme An element of a culture that may be considered to be 5 passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation. As I will argue, this is the only definition of meme which makes any empirical sense. To be more precise, I will argue that this is the only sensible definition on the strict condition that we understand culture materially, as consisting solely in 6 artefacts and (perceptible) behaviour. Most writers on memes take it for granted that culture, and therefore memes, ultimately resides in the minds or brains of the people comprising that culture. But as I will show, the idea of memetic evolution cannot be reconciled with the idea that memes reside somewhere in the brain/mind of humans. My conclusion will be that a theory of memes, a theory in which memes are in important ways described as being analogous to genes, cannot contain references to the human mind/brain. Therefore, after many pages of reasoning and argumentation, I will stipulate meme as: meme An (element of an) artefact or behaviour that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation. As you might have guessed, my definition is not broadly accepted, nor does this definition reflect a common denominator of the literature on memes. On the contrary, this is definitely not the case. Most scientists writing about memes
5 6

Cited by Dawkins in Dawkins 1999, p. viii. There is no universally accepted definition of the term culture. The website http://www.tamu.edu/classes/cosc/choudhury/culture.html gives an overview of several of the definitions of culture in circulation. My use of culture will be in agreement with: “Culture consists of patterns, explicit and implicit, of and for behaviour […] including their embodiments in artefacts”.


apply definitions which on the whole correspond with the definition from the dictionary of Wikipedia, Wiktionary: meme Any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that is transmitted verbally or by repeated action from one mind to another. Examples include thoughts, ideas, theories, practices, habits, songs, dances and moods and terms such as race, culture, 7 and ethnicity. The main difference between definitions grafted on this last definition and my definition is that in my definition I will avoid any term related to the term mind. Likewise I will distance myself from definitions in terms of brains, or neural networks. (Beware though, this doesn‟t mean that the human mind or brain doesn‟t play a role in the evolution of memes!) In other words, in my definition of meme the inner life of humans plays no part, whether the inner life is conceived as some sort of neural system or as a mindful system with ideas, concepts, thoughts, information or meanings. Definitions which make use of the inner hustling of people I will denote with the adjective internalist. Definitions without internalist references I will call externalist. There are important, though intricate links between my use of the terms internalist and externalist and the recent debate in the philosophy of mind on internalism and externalism. In this paper I do not want to enter directly into that debate. On the other hand, my discussion of memes is of importance to this debate. More specifically, I think my views on memes subscribe, or at least, belong to an externalist view of the human mind. So let me just take a couple of sentences to make my position clear. I will not give a rigorous analysis, though; I will just indicate how these matters relate to my discussion on memes. Let us define internalism intuitively as the idea that mind and brain are indissolubly connected, for to enter the mind is to enter the brain. As an internalist would have it, the processes that bring about and sustain the human mind take place within the confines of the skull. Some internalists will allow that processes in other places in the human body might also be of importance to the mind. But every internalist will consider the skin to be the outermost boundary of the physical processes that generate the mind. Externalists8 do not want to draw such a boundary around the processes comprising the mind. Processes in the brain, in the human body, its behaviour,
7 8

http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/meme?rdfrom=Meme&redirect=no My focus here is on vehicle externalism (see Rowlands 2003, chapter 9). In other words, to make things even more confusing, the way I describe the debate between externalists and internalists, that is in terms of a debate on the physical processes that underlie the human mind, is not the only type of debate between externalists and internalists. There is also the debate on meaning externalism: is meaning fixed by what goes on inside our head or isn‟t it? It is possible to be a meaning externalist and a vehicle internalist. As far as my position is concerned, I think meaning internalism is wrong because vehicle externalism is true. For that reason I here confine myself to vehicle externalism.


as well as processes in and from the environment are all involved in the constitution of the human mind. The place of the mind is not fixed within the head, but it is spread out over brain, body and background. Now, if you are an externalist, and believe that the mind is in some cases constituted by elements of the environment, then you won‟t conceive of the skin as a boundary which must be crossed by memes in order to enter or leave the mind. This leads to the ironical conclusion that the definition I eventually embark upon (memes are elements of behaviour or artefacts), doesn‟t exclude the possibility that memes are part of the human mind to an externalist. Being outside the head not automatically means being outside the mind. To an internalist, however, the issue appears quite differently. If memes reside outside our heads and never enter, they won‟t enter our minds either. Consequently, to an internalist my definition excludes memes from entering the human mind. This opposition makes writing on these matters somewhat hazy. To externalists and internalists alike I can say that memes do not enter the brain. That is why I describe my definition as being externalistic. When I write that we should not build notions like mind, thoughts or beliefs into our definitions of a meme I mean something like: “Just as we should not build notions like mind, thoughts, consciousness, meanings or beliefs into our definition of a neuron or a neuronal structure, we should not build these notions into our definition of a meme.” I am aware that to an internalist this means that memes will never enter the mind. So be it. Since reasons can be given for not allowing memes to be defined in brainy notions which are independent from this debate, as I will show in chapter 3, I leave it to internalists to find ways to accommodate an externalist notion of a meme. I am also aware that most, if not all, meme scholars are internalists, that is part of the reason for writing this paper. Their internalistic assumptions go unnoticed to themselves, however. Therefore none of them takes pains to defend these assumptions, and all write as if internalism is the only viable option. That will make my discussion seem somewhat one-sided. In chapter 4 I will discuss the intellectual causes for this attitude and review matters further. First, let us return to the undoubtedly internalistic origins of the debate on memes.

From Richard Dawkins‟ first tentative description of memes in The Selfish Gene, until more recent definitions of, for example, Susan Blackmore and Liane Gabora, scholars explored the use of internalist definitions. In 1976 Dawkins wrote in The Selfish Gene: Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the 5

meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.9 Blackmore, following Dawkins, describes memes in The Meme Machine as follows: I shall use the term „meme‟ indiscriminately to refer to memetic information in any of its many forms; including ideas, the brain structures that instantiate those ideas, the behaviours these brain structures produce, and their versions in books, recipes, maps and written music. As long as that information can be copied by a process we may broadly call „imitation‟, then it counts as a meme.10 Daniel Dennett employs a definition which is explicitly centred round all sorts and qualities of ideas: These new replicators [i.e. memes] are, roughly, ideas. Not the “simple ideas” of Locke and Hume (the idea of red, or the idea of round or hot or cold), but the sort of complex ideas that form themselves into distinct memorable units – such as the ideas of: arch, wheel, wearing clothes, vendetta, right triangle, alphabet, calendar, the Odyssey, calculus, chess, perspective drawing, evolution by natural selection, impressionism, “Greensleeves”, deconstructionism.11 Liane Gabora manages to put forward a definition without any reference to elements outside the human mind: Might some kind of self-organized network of cultural entities constitute […] a replicator of the primitive sort as in the case of pre-RNA life? The answer is yes, so long as in the mind there exists a set of ideas for which, for any one idea, there is an associative pathway through which it can be remembered, reconstrued, or re-described in terms of others. In other words, although ideas do not constitute replicators, interconnected networks of them -worldviews- do…12 The definition by Robert Aunger in his book The Electric Meme is also strictly internalistic. But in contrast to Gabora who limits the use of memes to the human mind, Aunger places memes exclusively within neural networks:


Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 192. Blackmore 1999, p. 66. 11 Dennett 1995, p. 344. (In the original text the elements are listed in a column.) 12 Gabora 2004, see the internet based version: http://www.vub.ac.be/CLEA/liane/papers/replicator.htm


A configuration in one node of a neuronal network that is able to induce the replication of its state in other nodes.13 As I will show, all these internalist definitions suffer from the drawback that they fail to do justice to the reasons Dawkins ventured in writings, books and interviews for his introduction of the notion of a meme. Dawkins wanted a notion of memes that was scientifically on a par with genes. Memes should not be figments of a biologists‟ mind, they should be entities that can be used to do three things. (1) In the first place Dawkins wants to show that genes are not the only replicators that can be described by means of evolutionary algorithms: The word [meme] was introduced at the end of a book which otherwise must have seemed entirely devoted to extolling the selfish gene as the be-all and end-all of evolution […]. The real unit of natural selection was any kind of replicator, any unit of which copies are made, with some occasional errors, and with some influence or power over their own probability of replication.14 (2) Next to that, Dawkins isn‟t satisfied with Darwinian descriptions and explanations of culture: As an enthusiastic Darwinian, I have been dissatisfied with explanations that my fellow-enthusiasts have offered for human behaviour. […] These ideas are plausible as far as they go, but I find that they do not begin to square up to the formidable challenge of explaining culture, cultural evolution, and the immense differences between human cultures around the world…”15 (3) Finally Dawkins wants to be able to describe and condemn the development of religions with the help of memes: “[...] memetic natural selection of some kind seems to me to offer a plausible account of the detailed evolution of particular religions.”16 “Dawkins: […]In a way the whole message of the meme and gene idea is that merit is defined as goodness at getting itself spread around, goodness at self-replication. That's of course very different from merit as we humans might judge it.
13 14 15 16

Aunger 2002, p. 197. Dawkins 1999, p. xvi. Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 191. Dawkins 2006, p. 201.


McDonald: You've chosen an analogy there for religion which a lot of them would find rather hurtful -- that it's like an AIDS virus, like a rabies virus. Dawkins: I think it's a very good analogy. I'm sorry if it's hurtful. I'm trying to explain why these things spread…”17 Possibly in order to condense these three points, Dawkins writes that to understand the evolution of modern day humans “we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas on evolution.” 18 But to meet the requirements set by (1), (2) and (3) the alternative for the gene, the meme, must be described with techniques, algorithms and research strategies from the biological sciences. If this isn‟t possible the introduction of meme adds nothing to the already flourishing natural science of evolutionary biology. In this case the sole function of the field of research on memes is to provide the history of ideas, sociology and psychology with new terminological zest. However sympathetic I am to (1), (2) and (3), the introduction of the notion of a meme will only be successful if it inspires or rather induces new scientific analysis. When an internalist definition of a meme is taken as the point of departure this won‟t succeed. The reason is fairly simple. To give you an overall idea of my line of argumentation I will use Dawkins‟ pointily formulated definition from The Extended Phenotype: A meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a brain […]. It has a definite structure, realized in whatever physical medium the brain uses for storing information. […] I would want to regard it as physically residing in the brain.19 To apply the techniques of an evolutionary description to physical structures residing in the brain, it must be clear what structure in one brain is a copy of a structure residing in another brain. However, to determine this we can never, not even in principle, make use of a one-to-one mapping as in the case of genetic materials. Different brains have different microstructures and cannot easily be matched up. To evade this complication Dawkins himself and other meme scholars in his footsteps have slowly faded the notion of a meme in order to facilitate methods of determining whether one meme is a copy of another. Eventually this fading turned memes into ideas (Dennett), worldviews (Gabora), information (Dawkins) and all things associated with these (Blackmore). This latter development makes my objection that internalistic definitions cannot lend themselves to an evolutionary analysis only stronger. If memes propagate from brains to paper and subsequently to computers and back to


Dawkins in an interview with Sheena McDonald (McDonald 1995). Here Dawkins states in a very colourful and lucid way exactly what he means by his writings in Viruses of the Mind (Dawkins 1991). 18 Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 191. 19 Dawkins 1982, p. 109.


brains again20, how can we determine unmistakably that we have encountered a copy of another meme? And if this isn‟t quite clear, then how can memes play their part in a theory that is a branch of the biological theory of evolution? Exactly at this point meme scholars fail to give answers. This shouldn‟t surprise us. As will become apparent on the ensuing pages, precisely the internalistic notions of a meme obstruct the scientific employment of notions like copy, descendant and meme line. So, to circumvent these internalist difficulties, I will redefine the term meme without using internalist notions. In that way it will be possible for Dawkins‟ initial scientific intention to resurface.

This might all sound rather abstract and detached from everyday life. It is not. To understand why not and to get a feel for the thrust of my argument consider the thoughts on pets of Richard Brodie (remember bullshit?). I think he gets it almost right, but in the end takes a dramatically wrong turn. But he certainly starts off on the right foot: Take a look at pets. Our beloved dogs, cats, iguanas, and so on, along with the enormous industries that have arisen to support them, are all part of a huge cultural virus known as pets. What? Pets, a virus? No I‟m not joking. Granted, from our egocentric point of view, pets are one of life‟s pleasures, delightful companions and playmates, part of the richness of being human. From their point of view, though, we‟re essentially their slaves. 21 As will become clear in chapter 5, I firmly agree with this last remark. 22 But this is a matter of pet genes, and not memes, exploiting the bodies created by human genes, much like the genes of a cuckoo exploiting other birds. The genes of pets don‟t enter our minds. They don‟t have to. We aid the procreation of pets as it is, and that is good enough for their genes. So, to us pets form a kind of virus that consumes costly human energy. The effects of pet genes extend into our mind or brain (choose whatever you like). But the pets remain outside. And Brodie agrees! A virus of the mind is something out in the world that, by its existence, alters people‟s behavior so that more copies of the thing get created.23 [My emphasis, RH.] However, to the likes of Brodie there can be no alterations of behaviour without alterations in the programming of the mind. So pets must enter our mind:

20 21 22 23

This paraphrase is Susan Blackmore‟s, in Blackmore 199, p. 66. Brodie 2009, p. 168. For those of you who can read Dutch, also see Hünneman 2006. Brodie 2009, p. 168.


- Pets penetrate our minds by attracting our attention. [...] - Pets actually program us to take care of them in several ways. [...]24 We can all agree that pets don‟t penetrate our minds, at least not like viruses penetrate our bodies, or bookworms penetrate libraries. Pets don‟t enter our heads. Pets alter their environment, and our heads are parts of their environment. Evolution is about the success of genes on the basis of the effects they exert on their environment. Genes get copied and drag the effects along. As I see it, exactly the same holds for memes. Memes reside outside our heads, in our behaviour and our material culture. Memes use us to reproduce themselves, much like pets use us. And in the course of copying themselves they drag the effects on our minds along.

After having given a general description of culture and the transfer of culture, in chapter 2, I will show that the notion of a copy of a meme, and consequently the application of evolutionary algorithms, cannot be fleshed out under an internalist definition, in chapter 3. In chapter 4 I will argue that this internalist line of thought on memes is strongly connected to the ideas of functionalism and the doctrine that the human brain is a computer, an information processor. Chapter 5 will demonstrate how an alternative conception of memes might be developed out of Dawkins‟ own thoughts on the evolution of parasites in The Extended Phenotype. Why did Dawkins start out on the wrong foot? Why did he introduce the term meme with an internalist definition? Where does Dawkins‟ own internalist view stem from? Dawkins wanted to discuss culture and the transfer and development of culture, yet he began his considerations with talk on structures in the brain and ideas. This sounds like Charles Darwin (1809-1882) stating something on the origin of species with an elaboration on the double helix25. Darwin did not need the double helix; Dawkins could have done without brain structures. Darwin‟s theory of evolution would have survived even if the stability and inheritability of physiological characteristics would have had a totally different substrate26. Most probably Dawkins suffered from a mild form of cogitocentrism: the idea that everything having to do with culture eventually arises from, or is based upon, the human mind.27 The fact that his theory of memes has not

24 25

Brodie 2009, p. 168 and 169. The double helix was first described in 1953 by Francis Crick and James Watson. 26 Darwin wasn‟t even familiar with the notion of a gene. This notion was developed somewhere around 1900 by Hugo de Vries and Wilhelm Johannsen. 27 The cogitocentrism of Dawkins seems in part to be inspired by the popular comparison in the 1970‟s and „80‟s between hardware/software and brain/mind. At several places Dawkins describes the human mind as software. For example, in the chapter called „The


delivered any new and useful insights up till now, is a consequence of this cogitocentrism, according to my view. As long as the human mind and human thought are considered to be central, and as long as artefacts and behaviour are considered to originate from the human mind, any useful interesting theory of memes is out of the question. As I will demonstrate in chapters 4 and 5, it is exactly the movement in the opposite direction that gives us hope of fleshing out new descriptions of cultural phenomena. Only if the human mind might arise from artefacts, without any possibility of an influence the other way round, or better still, only if the human mind in part consists of artefacts, will memetic evolution have an explanatory power equal to that of biological genetic evolution.

In conclusion I feel obliged to give you the following warning. I certainly don‟t want to argue or make plausible that the human mind doesn‟t exist or doesn‟t matter. Nor do I want to contend that brains are uninteresting organs, or that brains play no part in the propagation and spreading of memes. Quite to the contrary, ideas, fantasies, considerations and utterly dodgy and lucid thoughts all really exist and play an indispensible role in the rich and joyful life of humans. What‟s more, I believe that the study of the human brain will bring enticing and exiting new discoveries in the years to come. But, just like planet Earth is by far the most interesting planet within our solar system, though she isn‟t in the centre and everything on Earth owes its existence to the Sun, likewise the human mind is more interesting than artefacts, though the artefacts enable the human minds in all modes of its modern existence. In the words of Dennett in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea: What we are is very much a matter of what culture has made us.28

Balloon of the Mind‟, in Unweaving the Rainbow Dawkins puts forward his idea of a „software-hardware co-evolution‟. 28 Dennett 1995, p. 340, his emphasis.



A human child is shaped by evolution to soak up the culture of her people. Richard Dawkins in Viruses of the Mind Remove every element of culture around me, and I will be sitting naked, unwashed, bearded, and with wild hair in the riverbed of the Hunze. Of course it remains an open question whether or not I would then have unfolded the same profound philosophical thoughts to you as I will do now on the next pages. I cannot see myself differently from a creature built out of an indissoluble knot of strings of nature and culture. During the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, amidst the Greeks, Romans or people of the Middle Ages, or even during the first half of the 20th century, I would have been a different person. 29 Who I am and how I describe myself as a human being depends on the culture that shaped me. Some essentialists may believe that beneath all these layers of culture there is still a pure core, a soul that ultimately determines who I am. They might even attach a normative claim stating it is the obligation of every human to pursue that core in order to recapture a deeper self amidst the hustle and bustle of modern daily life. For the present, however, there is no reason to suppose that the genes that produced our body as a survival machine would benefit from the installation of such an autonomous soul in it. From a biological point of view the quest for our essence or our soul is rather a delicious cultural phenomenon, without which the blessings of modern psychology wouldn‟t have been poured out over our blood and bones. If culture plays such a significant role in the way in which we live our lives and describe ourselves as human beings, then what exactly is culture? Where does nature stop and where does culture start, or the other way round? And, perhaps the most important question, how has culture become so contagious? How has culture been transmitted onto us and how do we infect those near and dear to us with our culture? Formal definitions of culture30 suffer under the fact that every formal definition admits of exceptions that either cannot be subsumed under the

For a nice philosophical exploration of these and related themes see Mark Rowlands, Everything I Know I Learned from TV. 30 See footnote 5 of the Introduction.


definition while we hope they would be, or that follow from the definition while they obviously should not. The problem is that definitions of culture are often used to delineate culture from nature. The wish for a criterion to demarcate culture from nature goes hand in hand with a search for a sound definition of culture. But if we, for example, choose the most obvious way, and would define culture as learned behaviour and nature as behaviour fixed by genes, then apparent natural behaviours such as child care and food preparation disarms the demarcation. After all, chimpanzee mothers learn the caring for children from their mothers. Parental care isn‟t anchored in their genes. And the animal kingdom admits of many other examples of acquired behaviour. In fact, we are one of the many natural born cultural animals. Nature fades into culture, and in the same way the boundary between domesticated and wild animals cannot be drawn sharply. This doesn‟t mean that domesticated animals don‟t exist, or that they cannot be distinguished from wild animals. It just means that it is unfeasible to concoct a formal, comprehensive definition which separates „domesticated‟ from „wild‟. The same is true of formal definitions of „culture‟. Of course, in general culture can be distinguished from nature. But a formal definition which clearly demarcates culture from nature seems out of the question. Darwin wouldn‟t have agreed more. What‟s more, the use of a formal definition is discouraged by the fact that there are a lot of phenomena we indicate with the tag „culture‟. With regard to that, what goes for „game‟, goes for „culture‟ as well. 66. Consider for example the proceedings that we call „games‟. I mean board-games, card-games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? – Don‟t say: “There must be something common, or they would not be called „games‟ ” – but look and see whether there is anything common to all. – For if you look at them you will not see something that is common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them and that. 31 Look at the houses we live in, look at the clothes we wear, the television series we watch, the way we eat, sleep and make love, look at paintings and novels, governments and the flow of money. Do you see anything that is common to all, anything that makes all of them „culture‟? Perhaps we could find an element common to all of them, if we resort to a vague concept encompassing almost anything, or a disjunction of all the known appearances of culture. 32 But what should we learn from that? Not much more than that we cannot find an informative or interesting sound definition of the term culture. Because a satisfactory formal definition of culture is not possible, I will only confine the notion somewhat in order to be able to describe some phenomena. In what follows I will use culture to denote our mundane, everyday
31 32

Wittgenstein 1953, § 66. See Wittgenstein 1953, § 67.


culture. I won‟t be talking about avant-garde art, scientific discoveries, innovative technology, brilliant inventions or intricate economic constructs. I will limit myself to everyday home and garden culture, the culture (object and use of these objects) of kitchen knives, carrying bags, paperclips, mobile phones, cars and highways. To delineate all this from high culture, and to clarify, I will use the words everyday culture. Surely, the heart of every essentialist will ache for a sharp delineation or definition, from which important philosophical conclusions can be drawn. But what is true of definitions of games and culture is true of definitions of everyday culture as well.




The description of meme in the Oxford English Dictionary, cited at the beginning of the Introduction, shows spreading of culture by definition to be non-genetic: “An element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.” Cultural elements aren‟t just transmitted from one generation to the next, like DNA, but are also transmitted sideways. Our culture cannot only be adopted by our children or grandchildren, but also by our lovers, friends, acquaintances, pupils, and even perfect strangers. The notion of a meme was introduced by Dawkins as `a unit of cultural transmission‟33. Our everyday culture, then, is a conglomerate of memes that can be transferred from one person to another. The central question here is how the spreading of everyday culture can be described. In other words: can we find a description of cultural transmission that can be a genuine part of science (biology)? Can we describe the worldwide spread of knives, bags, paperclips, mobile phones, cars and highways in a non-trivial, scientifically convincing way? To start thinking on cultural transmission I will resort to a so-called ostensive definition. I will give some examples that are telling enough to me to give some basic understanding of the subject I will be talking about. Below are five examples of cultural transmission, from simple to baroque, from mundane to technological and from artefacts to behaviour.

During the Christmas days in my parents‟ house, there was a bowl with nuts and a nutcracker amidst the decorations. The nutcracker was a very straightforward tool, a metal pair of pincers in between which you could put a nut. You used manual power to crack the nuts open. Hazelnuts and walnuts were easy to crack. But some nuts, particularly almonds and Brazil nuts, were certainly not cracked open so easily. At the end of the Christmas days the nuts that kept resisting were taken out to the paved part of the garden, where my farther cracked them open with a hammer. The first few nuts were shattered as they were hammered down with too much force. But after a couple of tries my father had adjusted his force, and the kernels remained undamaged.

Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 192.


Chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) around Bossou, in West African Guinea, have comparable problems with the nuts of the oil palm (Elaeis oleifera). These nuts are very tough and they cannot crack them open using their hands or teeth. The chimpanzees use stones as hammer and anvil to crack the nuts open. In order to crack a nut they look for a flat stone on which to place the nut and another stone to hammer with. Then they pick up the hammer stone in one hand, while they place the nut on the anvil with the other, and hit the nut with one or more blows until it cracks. After this they pick out the edible parts, and sometimes they even sweep the anvil before putting down the next nut.34 The nuts are rich in nutrients and so nut cracking is very rewarding. Can this nut cracking behaviour be considered as a form of culture? Or would all chimpanzees living in the same ecological circumstances show the same behaviour? Do perhaps the oil palm and the type of stones around Bossou induce the behaviour? Several observations show this not to be the case. No chimpanzee in East Africa cracks nuts, while there are nuts and stones, too.35 On the other hand, in Bossou offspring master the ability while their parents are not able to crack nuts. This seems to indicate that nut cracking behaviour isn‟t transmitted genetically. In fact, differences between chimpanzees in West Africa seem to suggest that even the fine details of nut cracking belong to local culture. Only ten kilometres from the group in Bossou a group of chimpanzees live on Mount Nimba and they crack nuts of the Coula edulis tree. The chimpanzees from Bossou don‟t know these nuts. When members of the Bossou group were handed out these nuts, some picked up the nuts, sniffed them and bit them, but none of them even tried to crack the nuts open. Others just ignored the nuts. There was only one female, Yo, who immediately picked up the nuts and began cracking them. During the next few days two younger chimpanzees who had been watching Yo also began cracking the Coula nuts. No other chimpanzee from Boussou imitated Yo‟s behaviour. 36 This suggests that even the type of nut that is cracked is a locally restricted. The transfer of the ability to crack nuts from one chimpanzee to the next is a painstakingly slow process. Chimpanzees are lousy instructors. Children are not actively taught by their mothers, and, as the introduction of Coula nuts into the Bossou population showed, they are also bad imitators. Children discover the technique by sitting next to their mothers, watching them, and by playing with the stones she leaves behind. Little by little, during a trial and error

A description is always inferior to a video. I recommend to search on YouTube for “Chimpanzee nut cracking” (for example: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NivAusARwd8). 35 Cf. Matsuzawa 1994, p. 351. 36 Cf. Matsuzawa 1994, p. 364. Matsuzawa writes: “These findings suggest the hypothesis that the coula-eating female Yo was born in the neighbouring community and travelled the 10 kilometres to join the community at Bossou. Perhaps she had already learned to crack coula nuts at her community of origin, which had that cultural tradition.” Ibid. p. 365.


process of many years, the actions become instances of nut cracking. If a chimpanzee wants to have any chance of learning the nut cracking skills it must grasp the basic elements before the age of five. During the years thereafter their technique becomes further refined, until they gain the same agility as an adult. But chimpanzees who cannot crack nuts open at the age of five will never be able to learn the technique. Although the way in which the nut cracking behaviour spreads from one chimpanzee to the next differs enormously from the way we humans pick up and transfer behaviour, the term culture does seem appropriate, because some significant aspects still stand out. Nut cracking behaviour does certainly not belong to the innate behaviour of the chimpanzees. Furthermore, the behaviour is local, even concerning the details. What is more, chimpanzees get to master the technique through the interaction with other chimpanzees, especially their mothers. And last, but not least, nut cracking is but one of the many elements of chimpanzee cultures. Behavior varies somewhat in all animals, but in chimpanzees (Pan troglodytes) and in bonobos (Pan paniscus) behavior is so variable from population to population that, even when only one aspect such as tool use is considered, every chimpanzee population studied today has proved to have its own unique combination of tools and techniques.37

Fortunately The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias shows our all-embracing, refined and elaborate culture to exceed the culture of chimpanzees by far. In this wonderful book Elias shows how table manners changed over the past seven hundred years. This study contains, among other things, a lengthy discussion of etiquette books and treatises. Elias‟ exposition of the civilizing process induces a feeling of alienation. The distance between our everyday customs at the dining table and the manners of our noble ancestors is huge. It seems unthinkable that we could enjoy a tasty diner in the 13 th century in the company of dinner guests of that time. It is without doubt not the most well-known book of Erasmus, De civilitate morum puerilium (On the good manners for boys), but it is probably his best read book. It originally appeared in 1530 and for two centuries thereafter it remained an immensely popular work. In 1678 a Dutch version was released, Boeckje Aangaende de Beleeftheidt der Kinderlijcke Zeden. Elias sketches the popularity and the maddening speed with which this treatise spread over many different countries: It immediately achieved an enormous circulation, going through edition after edition. Even within Erasmus‟s lifetime – that is, in the first six years after publication – it was reprinted more than

Wrangham, de Waal & McGrew 1994, p. 2.


thirty times. In all, more than 130 editions may be counted, 13 of them as late as the eighteenth century. The multitude of translations, imitations and sequels, is almost without limit. Two years after the publication of the treatise the first English translation appeared. In 1534 it was published in catechism form, and at this time it was already being introduced as a schoolbook for the education of boys. German and Czech translations followed. In 1537, 1559, 1569 and 1613 it appeared in French, newly translated each time.38 In his small treatise De civilitate morum puerilium Erasmus exposes the way in which courteous young boys should behave. To illustrate the vast distance between the 16th century and our contemporary customs a longer quotation from Elias (I left out the parts in Latin): As has been mentioned, plates too are uncommon. [...] The table is sometimes covered with rich cloths, sometimes not, but always there is a little on it: drinking vessels, salt-cellar, knives, spoons, that is all. Sometimes we see the slices of bread, the quadrate, that in French are called trainchoir or tailloir. Everyone, from the king and queen to the peasant and his wife, eats with the hands. [...] [I]t is also necessary, and possible, for Erasmus to say: Do not expose without necessity “the parts to which Nature has attached modesty”. Some prescribe, he says, that boys should “retain the wind by compressing the belly”. But you can contract an illness that way. And in another place: [...] “Fools who value civility more than health repress natural sounds”. Do not be afraid of vomiting if you must; “for it is not vomiting but holding the vomit in your throat that is foul”.39 It should be borne in mind that Erasmus found it worthwhile to give the aforesaid advice. Most probably the customs were already changing, and he stylishly adapted to this, but nevertheless there must have been a practice which was not yet ‟civilized‟, a practice in which winds and vomit would have spoiled my appetite anyway. To put it differently, our philosopher must have expected that there were boys who would alter their demeanour upon reading his booklet. Elias describes how our contemporary etiquette is the result of a battle between nobility and citizens. The nobility changed its table manners to set itself apart from the lower class citizens. Whereupon the citizens copied the new etiquette in order to become nobler. Table manners not only evolved for reasons of contamination, but also to be distinguished from lower classes. The table manners of the lower classes are felt as embarrassing. Elias brilliantly illustrates this process with the introduction of the fork:
38 39

Elias 1982(2000), p. 47. Elias 1982(2000), pp. 50-51.


So why does one really need a fork? Why is it “barbaric” and “uncivilized” to put into one‟s mouth by hand from one‟s own plate? Because it is distasteful to dirty one‟s fingers, or at least to be seen in society with dirty fingers. The suppression of eating by hand from one‟s own plate has very little to do with the danger of illness, the so-called “rational” explanation. In observing our feelings towards the fork ritual, we can see with particular clarity that the first authority in our decision between whether behaviour at table is “civilized” or “uncivilized” is our feeling of distaste. The fork is nothing other than the embodiment of a specific standard of emotions and a specific level of revulsion. Behind the change in eating techniques between the Middle Ages and modern times appears the same process that emerged in the analysis of other incarnations of this kind: a change in the economy of drives and emotions.40 You probably know them, though they are certainly not your neighbours, the boors who devour chips in front of the fish ‘n chips booth with increasingly greasy hands. Couldn‟t they at least ask for a plastic box and a plastic fork? Hasn‟t anyone taught them any manners?

Once, not so long ago, there was a time in which there were no mobile phones, a time in which you didn‟t have to admit you are no good at texting, a time in which you could read a book during a long journey by train without being disturbed by much too loud chatters. But times have drastically changed. On the 29thAugust 2007 the NRC Handelsblad reported that there were 18.4 million mobile phones in The Netherlands. That is twelve percent more than the number of inhabitants. Within a period of thirty odd years mobile phones have developed from heavy, clumsy appliances nobody was really waiting for, to lightweight, handy, ingenious and fashionable communication devices with many useful extras. Phone booths are almost history, the number of telephone lines decreases, and even the DigID system of the Dutch government demands verification by mobile phone for some transactions. Many people claim they would be lost without their mobile phone. And they are probably right. How else could you stay in contact with your beloved ones on vacation? How else could you contact the RAC41 on a remote road? How else could your children travel to school safely? But mobile phones have a downside as well. Many youngsters spend all their money, and even more, on mobile phones and prepaid cards, because mobile phones are much more than neat communication devices. A mobile phone expresses status, wealth and youthfulness. Therefore, the unusable extras do not have to outweigh the extra financial sacrifices of their owners.
40 41

Elias 1982(2000), p. 107. Dutch: Wegenwacht.


Contemporary Dutch culture cannot adequately be depicted without grandchildren teaching their grandparents how to use a mobile phone. Mobile phones are dispersed to the farthest corners of the earth. Somewhere in between two and three billion mobile phones inhabit the earth, and it won‟t take long before they outnumber people. And with this dispersion comes unforeseen variation. In a lecture in 2005 James Katz42 showed a woodcarved replica of a mobile phone from Namibia43. And Jan Chipchase, a Nokia investigator specialized in the interaction between people and technology, explains in a TED lecture44 the way in which mobile phones transform the monetary transactions in Africa45. To send an amount of money to, for example, your sister you act as follows. Buy a pre-paid card for, say, € 50,-. Don‟t use the code on the card to upgrade your own credits, but give the code to the owner of the telephone shop in the village of your sister over the phone. The owner uses the code to upgrade his own telephone credits (so people can pay him to use his phone), and he gives your sister € 47.50. None of the Research and Development departments of telephone companies ever anticipated this use of mobile phones.

In sharp contrast with the nut cracking behaviour of chimpanzees, jokes are a cultural element that spreads with lightning speed in our culture of communication technology. A good joke pops up at an early morning breakfast, is told in the classroom a couple of hours later, occurs at a blog in the afternoon, and is translated and told on at dinner with a mother in a country far away. The multiplication and dispersal of jokes is exemplary to meme scholars. The way a joke spreads over the earth is less trivial than the few lines above suggest. To illustrate this I will tell you the story of a joke I encountered on the internet in the morning and told on to my children later that evening. The joke is told around in the United States and in written form cast around on the internet: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change. The most subtle semantical element is the word „change‟ that means something like replace as well as alter. But, to fully understand this joke more than an understanding of American English is necessary. In order to appreciate the joke, listeners have to know something about the authoritative status of psychiatrists in West European cultures, especially in the United States of America. Perhaps

James Katz is professor of communication and director of the Rutgers University's Center for Mobile Communications Studies. He was also an editor of Machines That Become Us: The Social Context of Personal Communication Technology . 43 A summary of this lecture is on: http://web.mit.edu/comm-forum/forums/cell_phone_culture.htm 44 For information on TED and the events they organize, see: www.TED.com. 45 This lecture can be watched on: http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/view/id/190


they also have to be confronted with the fact that people are only considered for psychiatric treatment if they are motivated, sometimes much to the frustration of others involved. And, finally, the joke becomes really funny, if it is known that there is a whole collection of jokes on the changing-of-light-bulbs theme (in which most of the times the ambiguity of the word „change‟ isn‟t used and which are for that reason alone less funny): How many zen masters does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: Two; one to change it, and one to unchange it. (Beware: one to change it and another to unchange it, is in fact fake zen. The true answer is: Four; one to change it.) How many surrealists does it take to screw in a light bulb? Two. One to hold the giraffe and the other to fill the bathtub with brightly coloured machine tools. You might be able to imagine that I translated these jokes about zen masters and surrealists without any mentionable trouble from English into Dutch. But the translation of the joke on psychiatrists to Dutch is a much more complicated matter. The problem is that the Dutch language hasn‟t got a verb that captures the double meaning of „change‟, as a straightforward translation shows: Hoeveel psychologen zijn er nodig om een gloeilamp te verwisselen? Antwoord: slechts een, maar de lamp moet dan wel zelf verwisseld WILLEN worden! To preserve the point of the joke in the Dutch translation we will have to use the word „veranderen‟, and the difficulty is that light bulbs are being „verwisseld‟ (replaced, changed) and not „veranderd‟ (altered, changed). So we might try to find something that, in contrast with a light bulb, can be altered: Hoeveel psychologen zijn er nodig om een password te veranderen? Antwoord: slechts een, maar het password moet dan wel zelf WILLEN veranderen! (How many psychiatrists does it take to change a password? Answer: only one, but the password has to WANT to change.) However, this last variant is no longer connected to the thousands of light bulb jokes circling in the world and that is part of the point of the joke. Maybe the next try is a reasonable alternative: Hoeveel psychologen zijn er nodig om een gloeilamp te verwisselen? Antwoord: slechts een, maar de gloeilamp moet er dan wel voor OPENSTAAN! (How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to be OPEN to change!) Admittedly, the word „verwisselen‟ doesn‟t appear in the answer, but in all other respects this Dutch version seems to consist out of all the elements of the 20

original. I told my children this last version. After this I lectured them lengthily about the mental health in the United States and the impotence of psychiatrists to put their much promising theories into deeds. Yet I fear that the spreading of these particular memes will come to a full stop in my children. The nice thing about jokes is that they spread so easily from mouth to mouth, but faster and differently than the flu. The same is true of table manners and mobile phones. Culture spreads more easily than the genetic material of primates and sometimes even more easily than viruses or bacteria. As indicated before, evidently if we want to strictly demarcate the spread of culture from the spread of bacteria or viruses, we will end up in an essentialist swamp. Roughly said, the spread of culture has got something to do with imitation, or, more hazily still, social contamination, and offspring as well as social companions can take on the cultural element. The speed with which this happens might be telling, as in the case of mobile phones, but does not decide whether or not something belongs to culture. The nut cracking behaviour of chimpanzees spreads via a slow and difficult process, but in all other respects it complies with what we call culture. If we would want to give a definition at all, it would be an all-inclusive definition like the one given by the Japanese primatologist Imanishi: Culture is socially transmitted adjustable behavior.


Zie Wrangham, de Waal & McGrew 1994, p. 2. Note that Imanishi doesn‟t mention artefacts. In the case of chimpanzees artefacts are not copied. In the case of humans they are, as shows the wooden replica of the mobile phone.



Can the examples of the previous chapter be described better by using the notion of memes? My answer will not be a simple “Yes” or “No”. It will not be a simple “Yes, but...” or “No, but...” either. My answer will be along the following lines: the way in which Dawkins describes biological evolution in terms of genes is fine. His treatment of evolution unearths the algorithms underlying evolutionary processes in a lucid way. Thanks to his writings every evolutionary process can be conceived of as an instance of this universal Darwinistic algorithm. Therefore, if we want an evolutionary science of memes, memetics, we should define meme as to be compatible with this algorithm. So far, Dawkins is right. But when he goes on to define memes he takes a wrong, though understandable, turn. He defines memes in such a way that it can no longer be clear when one meme is a copy of another meme. And since a clear understanding of copying processes and copies is vital to Darwinistic algorithms, memetics ran the risk of coming to an end from its onset. I will begin this chapter by depicting what I think are the undeniably strong points of Dawkins‟ angle on evolution. After this I will follow Dawkins‟ transition of the notion of a gene into that of a meme. I applaud Dawkins‟ efforts to conceive memes as closely as possible to genes, but I will also show how his conception leads to small Xeroxing problems: under Dawkins‟ definition it is not entirely clear when memes get copied. We might try to circumvent these problems by giving a definition of meme on a more abstract level of description. Though most writers on memes have done so, and though this also alleviates the pains of Dawkins‟ initial definition, these more abstract definitions inherit the Xeroxing problems of their precursors.

The most underrated aspect of The Selfish Gene47 is that Richard Dawkins creates living space for all too human traits of character, such as empathy, and foremost real altruism. By making genes the focal point of Darwinian evolution, instead of individuals, humans need not be described as necessarily egoistic or

The Selfish Gene was first published in 1976. In the decades thereafter edition upon edition saw the light, with corrections and addenda. I will use the 30th anniversary edition because of its new introduction. See in the bibliography Dawkins 2006(1976) for references.


self-centred. Humans are the vehicles with which selfish48 genes propel themselves into next generations, but from this it doesn‟t follow that the vehicles are themselves egoistic. What is more, it could even be the case that the best strategy for a gene to increase its portion in the gene pool of future generations might be to create a sincere altruistic vehicle, down to its essential core. By replacing “survival of the fittest” by “survival of the fittest gene” Dawkins clears the way for survival and reproduction vehicles that are built on the basis of genetic material, but that don‟t have to have the same characteristics as the materials lying at their bases. That would be too straightforward a fallacy of composition. The fear that because of Dawkins‟ emphasis on genes man will cease to be the centre of the biological universe is to some extent legitimate. On the other hand, it also means that humans no longer need to enter the arena of bloodthirsty, egoistic procreation. Only genes strive to increase their relative frequency in the gene pool. It could even be the case that individual vehicles created by genes don‟t procreate, but nevertheless contribute to the success of their genes. This might be achieved by helping vehicles containing copies of the same genes as the vehicles themselves, for example. Dawkins‟ emphasis on gene selection, in contrast with the individual or group selection, explains the existence of natural human qualities that lots of people describe as being profoundly „unnatural‟, like homosexuality, deliberate childlessness, or a passion for Bach. Adopted children are a good illustration of this idea. A gene that contributes to a vehicle that cares for its offspring, in the end cares for copies of itself, because the chance that offspring possesses copies of this gene is big, at least fifty percent.49 The biological mechanism that puts the vehicle to childcare will, however, in some cases not be able to discern between own offspring and that of others. The vehicles of primate genes, for example, have the innate urge to look after children that reside in their direct surroundings. And once they have taken up care for a child, they won‟t yield it to another vehicle. Since in general primates can only take children in their possession that they carried and gave birth to, the mechanism works just fine, and the gene will put a vehicle to work on its own behalf. But because the chimpanzee vehicle cannot foolproof discriminate vehicles with the gene from vehicles without it, an urge for adoption is a possible consequence. A child that loses its mother is sometimes adopted by other chimpanzees.50


With terms like „selfish‟, „egoistic‟ and the like in relation to genes and memes I will follow the way in which Dawkins puts these terms to use. Genes and memes are not selfish in the same manner as humans are selfish. That is, genes and memes are not consciously aiming at their own success. Prosperous genes and memes can be described as being selfish. See also Dawkins 2006(1976) p. 30. 49 Actually it is much higher, as the gene for childcare has undoubtedly spread over the animal kingdom. 50 De Waal 2005, p. 28


In other words, an individual vehicle can have genuine feelings of affection and care for the offspring of other vehicles. That may sound unnatural from an evolutionary standpoint, but it isn‟t. As long as we keep in mind that the traits of genes don‟t have to coincide with the traits of character of the vehicle, traits that „go against nature‟ are a natural consequence of evolution. Genes are selfishly poised for promoting their own survival, but this is not necessarily true of the vehicles they give rise to (this would indeed be a fallacy of composition). The most dramatic example Dawkins gives in this connection is that of a calf that no longer tries to stay alive if that would be too costly for its mother. It would be better for the mother to invest her energy in the siblings of the calf: As soon as a runt becomes so small and weak that his expectation of life is reduced to the point where benefit to him due to parental investment is less thn half the benefit that the same investment could potentially confer on the other babies, the runt should die gracefully and willingly. He can benefit his genes most by doing so. […] There should be a point of no return in the career of a runt. Before he reaches this point he should go on struggling. As soon as he reaches it he should give up and preferably let himself 51 be eaten by his litter-mates or his parents. Not all the terms that are applicable to genes are automatically applicable to us. Our genes might be selfish, to the extremes aiming at survival, but we don‟t have to behave or feel that way. Concerning this, in The Extended Phenotype Dawkins writes: […] I have previously criticized Barash […] for suggesting that sterile worker insects care for other workers because they share genes with them. […] It would be more correct to say that workers care for their reproductive siblings who carry germ-line copies of the caring genes. If they care for other workers, it is because those other workers are likely to work on behalf of the same reproductives (to whom they also are kin), not because the workers are kin to each other.52 Dawkins has no use for explanations couched in terms of fitness of individual workers, individual survival vehicles. Workers still play an important part, to be sure, but the emphasis in his theory is on the fitness of genes. Daniel Dennett shows in his Darwin’s Dangerous Idea that this emphasis in part explains the power of Dawkins‟ evolutionary approach. In his analyses Dawkins isn‟t preoccupied with a specific unit of evolution (species, individuals or organisms). He is just looking for a way to make an evolutionary analysis

51 52

Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 130. Dawkins 1982, p. 85.


applicable. That is, he is exploring how the process can be described with an evolutionary algorithm53, as Dennett calls it. This is possible if: The outlines of the theory of evolution by natural selection make clear that evolution occurs whenever the following conditions exist: (1) variation: there is a continuing abundance of different elements (2) heredity or replication: the elements have the capacity to create copies or replicas of themselves (3) differential “fitness”: the number of copies of an element that are created in a given time varies, depending on interactions between the features of that element and features of the environment in which it persists. Notice that this definition, though drawn from biology, says nothing specific about organic molecules, nutrition, or even life. 54 An analysis of a process on the basis of an evolutionary algorithm can take place if the conditions of variation, replication and differential fitness are fulfilled. And exactly because of this the individual organism is a bad choice as the focal point of evolution. For one, individuals don‟t copy themselves! Perhaps in the case of asexual reproduction or cloning55 some sense can be attached to the notion of a copy of individuals, but when it comes to sexual reproduction it is impossible to fulfil the demand of replication. Individual vehicles simply don‟t copy themselves. My children are no copy of me, they are not even a halfhearted attempt at such. Only a sample of half of my genes is copied to my children. I am nothing more than a vehicle of survival and reproduction for this sample. Therefore I am no elementary particle in an analysis of human evolution. The genetic material in some nuclei in my testicles is.




As we have seen, a central element of Dawkins‟ evolutionary approach is the notion of a gene. And because this notion is of importance for understanding the notion of a meme, I will discuss his explanation in some detail. To Dawkins genes and memes both belong to the broader class of replicators: I define a replicator as anything in the universe of which copies are made. Examples are a DNA molecule, and a sheet of paper that is Xeroxed.56


Dennett 1995, chapter 2, paragraph 4: Natural Selection as an Algorithmic Process, p. 48 ff. 54 Dennett 1995, p. 343. 55 The best example would be a sort of copying machine used in Star Trek. “Copy me up, Scottie!” See below. 56 Dawkins 1982, p. 83.


This definition is clear enough. Please note that the definition does not state that replicators must be self-copying, or that replicators must be biological, based on hydrocarbons. A replicator is simply something that gets copied. This is true of genes, and to the same extent of memes. What must still be analysed, however, are the exact contents of the notion of a copy. For now we will settle for an intuitive understanding. So, once more, if a child originates from the genetic materials of two parents, its own genetic material is for one half a duplicate of that of one of the parents. Maybe even the features of the child are for one half an exact duplicate of the features of one of the parents. But the ensuing organism, the whole child, is not a copy of one of the parents. A Xerox machine produces a photocopy of the original. A joke teller copies a joke if he tells it on in exactly the same words. No copying process is flawless, but a mistake or error which occurs during the process of copying is something else than a built-in adjustment or merging. Below I will consider the notion of a copy again. If replicators are to be part of an evolutionary process they have to fulfil three conditions: (1) Fecundity: A replicator has to exist long enough to get copied. These copies are by definition the descendants of the replicator. The copies of the descendants are also descendants of the original replicator, et cetera. The generation of a descendant is the number of times a process of copying has had to occur to get to the descendant. Notice that two replicators can be a copy of one another, without being descendants, in the same way as two books can be copies of one another without being descendants. (2) Fidelity: The copies have to retain the structure of the original. (3) Longevity: The structure of a replicator has to stay intact for at least a couple of generations, so that a large number of copies can be made. 57 However, [n]o copying process is infallible. It is no part of the definition of a replicator that its copies must all be perfect. It is fundamental to the idea of a replicator that when a mistake or „mutation‟ does occur it is passed on to future copies: the mutation brings into existence a new kind of replicator which „breeds true‟ until there is a further mutation.58 The fallibility of the copying process produces variations. A process of evolution can occur when there is a selection in these variations which is decisive for the number of copies that are to be made of each variety. This is, of course, Darwin‟s central message of the origin of species. To Dawkins a gene denotes the replicator within the biological evolution. While a replicator, at least in principle, could also be a sheet of paper that was

“I have […] summed up the qualities of a successful replicator in a slogan reminiscent of the French Revolution: Longevity, Fecundity, Fidelity.” Dawkins 1982, p. 84. 58 Dawkins 1982, p. 85.


xeroxed, a gene is the focal point of Dawkins‟ biological analysis. The naive notion of a gene is a piece of DNA, the location where a protein is produced. The technical term for such a piece of DNA is cistron: If we wish, we can define a single gene as a sequence of nucleotide letters lying between a START and an END symbol, and coding for one protein chain. The word cistron has been used for a unit defined in this way, and some people use the word gene interchangeably with cistron.59 Dawkins argues that cistrons are a rather arbitrary choice for the unit of evolutionary selection, as if cistrons are a kind of atoms that jump from one generation to the next. But even a cistron can be cut in half as a result of a cross-over during the meiosis. The reason why cistrons are in general not a bad choice is that the longevity of cistrons is on average good enough to ensure natural selection between varieties. However, if longevity is the main reason to consider cistrons as a basis, then any random piece of DNA that stays together long enough for natural selection to do its job, can be considered a gene. That tallies with the definition of a replicator and with the fact that the features of organisms which Mother Nature selects are most commonly the effect of the interaction of multiple proteins and therefore multiple cistrons. In the title of this book [The Selfish Gene] the word gene means not a single cistron but something more subtle. My definition will not be to everyone‟s taste, but there is no universally agreed definition of a gene. Even if there were, there is nothing sacred about definitions. We can define a word how we like for our own purposes, provided we do so clearly and unambiguously. […] A gene is defined as any portion of chromosomal material that potentially lasts for enough generations to serve as a unit of natural selection. [In other words,] a gene is a replicator with high copying-fidelity. Copying-fidelity is another way of saying longevity-in-the-form-of-copies and I shall abbreviate this simply to longevity.60 Gene is not defined in terms of a cistron, but in terms of a unit of natural selection. Suppose humans could clone themselves in some kind of Star Trek scenario with a converted teleporter. And then suppose that the clones enter a battle in which only a small number of victors gets to procreate (by means of the duplicating teleporter). In short, suppose the conditions for an evolutionary process are met. In that case genes can be equated with individuals. However, since in our earthly evolution meiosis is the copying process underlying evolution, genes have to be defined in units with regard to meiosis. Another aspect that we will encounter with memes later on is that exactly what we depict as a gene is also dependent on selection. If Mother
59 60

Dawkins 2006 (1976), p. 28. Dawkins 2006 (1976), pp. 28-29.


Nature selects predators by the sharpness of their cutting-teeth, then it makes sense to speak of a gene for sharp cutting-teeth, even though sharp cuttingteeth are most probably the consequence of more than one cistron 61. What is needed to speak of a gene for X (in which X is some sort of characteristic) is that the characteristic X might also be absent. A gene for sharp cutting-teeth makes sense if there are organisms with less sharp cutting-teeth. Therefore Dawkins sees no difficulty in a gene for reading: Reading is a learned skill of prodigious complexity, but this provides no reason in itself for scepticism about the possible existence of a gene for reading. All we would need in order to establish the existence of a gene for reading is to discover a gene for not reading, say a gene which induced a brain lesion causing specific dyslexia. […] [I]t follows from the ordinary conventions of genetic terminology that the wild-type gene at the same locus, the gene that the rest of the population has in double dose, would properly be called a gene „for reading‟.62 What is remarkable about this definition of a gene is that the genetic materials no longer matter. If the mechanism underlying the copying and installing of characteristic X remains intact long enough for a selection to take place, it makes sense to speak of a replicator, a gene for X. So if the mechanisms that give rise to X are dispersed in several chromosomes, mitochondrial DNA and other structures of the cell talking of a gene for X could still make sense. Even if a feature of the environment is a necessary condition for X to arise, a gene for X could make perfect sense.63 In a prehistoric environment [a gene „for‟ dyslexia] might have had no detectable effect, or it might have had some different effect and have been known to cave-dwelling geneticists as, say, a gene for inability to read animal footprints. In our educated environment it would properly be called a gene „for‟ dyslexia, since dyslexia would be its most salient consequence. 64 As long as trait X is copied to next generations with fidelity and longevity there is a gene for X. Due to this the notion a gene for X becomes a theoretical term. But this shouldn‟t surprise us. Darwin drew up his theory of natural selection on
61 62

Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 39. Dawkins 1972, p. 23. Please note that the gene must be copied with fidelity and fecundity to the next generations. For that reason a gene for reading is a viable option, whereas a gene for writing a master thesis isn‟t. 63 Cf. 1995, p. 116: “The presence or absence of an instruction in a recipe can make a typical and important difference, and whatever difference it makes may be correctly described as what the instruction –the gene- is „for‟.” Thereupon Dennett discusses Dawkins‟ example of dyslexia. 64 Dawkins 1972, p. 23.


the basis of the variation in features of organisms. He knew nothing of the underlying biochemistry.65 Likewise, to Dawkins evolution is a universal principle, independent of the particular physical realization on planet Earth: What after all, is so special about genes? The answer is that they are replicators. […] Is there anything that must be true of all life, wherever it is found, and whatever the basis of its chemistry? […] Obviously I do not know but, if I had to bet, I would put my money on one fundamental principle. This is the law that all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities. The gene, the DNA molecule, happens to be the replicating entity that prevails on our own planet. There may be others.66 And maybe these others are memes...




Nut cracking behaviour, table manners, the use of mobile phones and light bulb jokes are transferred from one person to the next in a not quite genetic way. Although we can or cannot possess a gene for reading, the fine details of the art of reading are transferred to us by our cultural environment. This is also true of the use of forks or phones and the cracking of nuts. Because they are not reliant on the slow and sluggish process of biological reproduction, table manners and mobile phones spread with a rate that far outspeeds that of genes. And by the same token jokes, whether translated or not, might travel the earth within minutes. In the chapter Memes the New Replicators, which was initially the last chapter of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins writes: Most of what is unusual about man can be summed up in one word: „culture‟. […] Cultural transmission is analogous to genetic transmission in that, although basically conservative, it can give rise to a form of evolution.67 Table manners, mobile phones and jokes are part of our culture and spread via cultural transmission. During that process mutations arise. The mobile phones of today are the so-called third generation. Jokes change gradually because they are translated, interpreted and told on incompletely. Norbert Elias describes the evolution of table manners in a way that strongly reminds us of the way predators and preys co-evolve. If predators gain speed, preys will automatically gain speed as well. This process will continue until one of both will

Dennett writes that Darwin discovered an algorithm, that is, a method of the description that is not dependent upon the specifics of the physical realization: “We can now reformulate [Darwin‟s] fundamental idea as follows: Life on Earth has been generated over billions of years in a single branching tree – the Tree of Life – by one algorithmic process or another.” Dennett 1995, p. 51. 66 Dawkins 2006(1976), pp. 191-192. 67 Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 189.


outrun the other, which in turn will perish, or until an equilibrium is reached with both species at their maximum speed. The bones of an antelope cannot become any lighter, for then they would break when muscles are tensioned. In exactly the same way the table manners of our upper-class have reached a level of sophistication so that a further refinement would even baffle the members of the upper-class themselves. Dawkins seeks a description of culture that is analogous to genetic evolution. The nuclei of organisms contain the biological materials, the DNA, in the genes of an organism. What the organism, the survival vehicle, will eventually look like depends on a combination of DNA and environment. The totality of genes insofar they are part of the physically inheritable materials (mostly DNA), are called the genotype of an organism. The final traits of a survival and reproduction vehicle that comes into being by the interaction between DNA and environment, is called the phenotype. As has been outlined above, evolution is all about genes, according to Dawkins. Successful genes are the ones that contribute to a phenotype procreating more frequently than its rivals. Dawkins wants to use the same model for the evolution of the elements of culture. As the counterpart of a gene he chooses the meme: Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.68 A couple of sentences later, Dawkins approvingly quotes the comments given by Nicolas Humphrey on a draft version of the chapter: …memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme‟s propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. And this isn‟t just a way of talking – the meme for, say, “belief in life after death” is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over. 69 In other words, memes in the brain are like genes in the nuclei or the human body. Memes propagate to other brains via the behaviour they induce upon the vehicle they happen to reside in. The relation between memes and behaviour is analogous to the relation between genotype and phenotype. Our manners at the dinner table are a consequence of memes in our brains. And as our friends, children and members of the lower classes peep at our behaviour these memes
68 69

Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 192. Dawkins 2006(1976), p. 192.


are copied to their brains. Likewise a light bulb joke resides in our brain, and every time we tell the joke, or mail it, within the brains of the listeners or readers a copy of this meme pops up. In The Extended Phenotype Dawkins further refines the definition of a meme: A meme should be regarded as a unit of information residing in a brain […]. It has a definite structure, realized in whatever physical medium the brain uses for storing information. If the brain stores information as a pattern of synaptic connections, a meme should in principle be visible under a microscope as a definite pattern of synaptic structure. If the brain stores information in „distributed‟ form […], the meme would not be localizable on a microscope slide, but still I would want to regard it as physically residing in the brain. This is to distinguish it from its phenotypic effects, which are its consequences in the outside world…70 This image is easiest to understand if we look at the example of nut cracking chimpanzees. In the brain of the chimpanzees nut cracking memes are stored. These memes typically cause the nut cracking behaviour of West African chimpanzees. Other chimpanzees take on this behaviour as they watch the cracking of nuts. As has been described in chapter one, it takes a while for the nut cracking behaviour to completely sink in, but once they master the art, the brains of the copycat contain a duplicate of the original nut cracking memes. Exactly the same goes for table manner memes, mobile phone using memes and light bulb joke telling memes. If this description is justifiable, it could be of great importance to cultural studies. After all, it would mean that algorithms that are used in the science of biology could be applied to cultural phenomena. Memes could be just like genetic replicators, spreading from brain to brain. And with the dispersal of memes the evolution of culturally determined behaviour comes. That is, if this definition is justifiable.

The most important mechanism by which memes spread is imitation, as Dawkins states, “in the broad sense”.71 The example of the cracking of nuts of the oil palm shows chimpanzees to be fairly good imitators. And there are lots of other examples of imitation by chimpanzees. But all these examples turn pale in the face of the extent, speed and perfection with which humans imitate each other. Humans are natural born imitators. We are better at aping than any other ape. The copying and imitation of others is part of our deepest nature. What is more, during our childhood we have all been warned not to stretch our copying behaviour too far. There must have been a moment when your parents told
70 71

Dawkins 1982, p. 109. Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 194.


you: “Yes, and what if Mary jumps into a canal? Will you blindly follow her then as well?!” Evidently we copy others without thinking about it.72 That might be wholesome for our memes, although every now and then not so much for us. If this doesn‟t convince you, look again at the example just given. And ask yourself why all parents in The Netherlands say to their children at least once during their lifetime: “Yes, and what if Mary jumps into a canal? Will you blindly follow her then as well?!” Why do parents say this? Because it is such a sensible, wise, intelligent remark? Because they are afraid of having to drag for their prodigy on the bottom of a canal? A clever adolescent would remark, “Dear parents, all my life I am busy copying you, my brothers and sisters, my friends and teachers, and who knows who. I am a walking and talking Xerox. And suddenly you start complaining about the fact that I copy Mary. What complete nonsense. What is more, there are circumstances in which jumping into the canal after Mary might save my life.” This adolescent would be absolutely right. The cry “Yes, and what if Mary jumps into a canal? Will you blindly follow her then as well?!” is just a very successful meme that propagates from one generation to the next and from one parent to the other. In the essay Viruses of the Mind73, already mentioned in the Introduction, Dawkins likens the propagation of memes to the way in which biological and computer viruses swarm about. In the copying process of memes rational considerations don‟t have to play a part. The only thing that matters is that behaviour, and consequently the meme for that behaviour, spread among people: [T]he “craze” is a striking example of behavior that owes more to epidemiology than to rational choice. Yo-yos, hula hoops and pogo sticks, with their associated behavioral fixed actions, sweep through schools, and more sporadically leap from school to school, in patterns that differ from a measles epidemic in no serious particular. Ten years ago, you could have traveled thousands of miles through the United States and never seen a baseball cap turned back to front. Today, the reverse baseball cap is ubiquitous. I do not know what the pattern of geographical spread of the reverse baseball cap precisely was, but epidemiology is certainly among the professions primarily qualified to study it.74 The spreading of memes for a craze is comparable to the way memes for jokes disperse. Let us take a closer look at the process of spreading. Joke memes spread because people tell each other jokes. Because the telling of jokes is rewarded with laughter and approval, the possession of joke memes amplifies

This is also the upshot of the recently discovered mirror neurons. Copying behaviour is standard behaviour. In some circumstances we should even consciously suppress our copying behaviour. 73 Dawkins 1991. 74 Dawkins 1991.


our urge to pass the joke on. And if we do so, joke memes are copied to the brains of the audience. But exactly what is copied? Take the light bulb joke on psychiatrists as an example. “One, but the light bulb would have to WANT to change!” Suppose I tell this joke to a colleague who often has to deal with psychiatrists, and she bursts out laughing. One and a half hours later, while I am nipping my hot tea, another colleague wants to tell me a really good joke on psychiatrists. But much to his regret he cannot remember the point of the joke. “Doesn‟t matter,” I answer, “I already knew this one.” What exactly has been copied during the one and a half hours in which the joke travelled from my brains to the brains of my colleague? With genetic reproduction matters look simpler, because our DNA can be spelled out in a four-letter alphabet, A, C, T and G. As I pointed out before, my children received an exact copy of half of my DNA. A number of times there will be flaws in the copying process, or mutations, but the chance of this happening is very, very small compared to the overall fidelity of the process with which genetic material is prepared during meiosis. But passing on jokes is quite a different matter. Are neurological patterns copied with high fidelity from one brain to another? In this process there is nothing that comes even close to the four-letter copying process of DNA. At the microscopic level the dissimilarities between brains of different humans are enormous. We possess a different number of neurons, the way in which neurons are mutually connected is incomparable, and even the strength of the connections varies a great deal. So a one-to-one comparison of brains is out of the question. You have got a neural pattern, whatever that is, in your brain as a consequence of reading the light bulb joke on psychiatrists. But it is in all probability not an exact copy of the neural pattern in my brain. If a meme, described at a micro level, is a neural pattern, then you will have endlessly more exact copies of my genes in your body than exact copies of my memes in your brain (even after reading these pages). In order to use memes as the pivotal point of an evolutionary description of culture it is of the utmost importance that we are able to tell when some meme is a copy or a descendant of another meme. We must also be able to tell whether a meme is the same as or differs from another meme. Such are the consequences of Dennett‟s condition of replication, which is further strengthened by Dawkins‟ demand for the fidelity of successful replicators. If the neural patterns in my brain aren‟t copies of the patterns in your brain, a description in terms of an evolutionary process is out of the question. And an evolutionary description was exactly what Dawkins (and Dennett, and many others) wanted in the first place. The fact that the neural patterns supporting light bulb jokes in your brain are a consequence of the neural patterns on light bulb jokes in my brain isn‟t enough. Lava is a consequence of volcanic eruptions; lava spreads and has many consequences. That process is interesting and in some circumstances it is a matter of life and death. However, such a volcanic analysis will not be


conducted in terms of an evolutionary process. Neither can memetic processes be described in such terms if memes are defined as neural patterns. Is it necessary to have a neuron-for-neuron similarity in order to speak of the copy of a meme? Can‟t we define memes in some other way? Can‟t we take a different look at memes? Just as with the definition of a gene, the definition of a meme is dependent upon the process of copying. And what is copied when we pass a joke on isn‟t the neural pattern of the one who told the joke. Why don‟t we step back and look at the brain on some higher level? This is approximately the proposal by Douglas Hofstadter in his I Am a Strange Loop: Saying that studying the brain is limited to the study of physical entities […] would be like saying that literary criticism must focus on paper and bookbinding, ink and its chemistry, page sizes and margin widths, typefaces and paragraphs lengths, and so forth. But what about the high abstractions that are the heart of literature – plot and character, style and point of view, irony and humor, allusion and metaphor, empathy and distance, and so on? […] My point is simple: abstractions are central, whether in the study of literature or in the study of the brain.75 To elucidate Hofstadter‟s proposal I will tell you about recent events in my own neighbourhood. When the houses were built the contractor decorated every garden with ten odd buxus shrubs (buxus sempervirens). He evidently wanted to enrich the sight of the neighbourhood. These shrubs had grown to a height of about two meters, when many residents decided to take away one or two shrubs a year. This process continued until two years ago, when a gardener trimmed and sheared the buxus shrubs of my opposite neighbours into geometrical shapes, rectangles and pyramids. The effect was stunning. Precisely the strictly geometrical shapes accentuated the wild, luxurious parts of the garden. My neighbours loved it, and so did the rest of the residents. Of course nobody dared to admit that they just copied them, but nowadays every garden contains sheared buxus shrubs. Let us assume that the shearing and copying was done in exactly the same way. The copies have exactly the same dimensions as the original ones. Then the question is: are the pyramids in other gardens copies of the pyramids opposite my house? If we were to answer this question by sticking our heads deeply into the shrubs and by comparing them leaf-by-leaf and branch-by-branch, we would only find differences. The branching of buxus shrubs is random, and because the shrubs were differently sheared in the past, there will be hardly any similarities. It could even be the case that on closer examination a buxus shrub of one of my neighbours appears to consist of two intertwined trees. Then there is also no point in going down a further level to compare the pyramid buxus cell-by-cell or atom-by-atom. The differences will increase exponentially. And on

Hofstadter 2007, p. 26.


a quantum mechanical level we will no longer be able to see the wood for the trees. To compare the shrubs we have to take one step back and concentrate on their shapes and dimensions. If the overall shapes and dimensions of the shrubs match, one is a copy of the other one, however different the underlying structures may actually be. (Compare this to the following dialogue: “You did forge this Picasso!” “Well, Your Honour, I don‟t think so. If you compare these paintings on a quantum mechanical level, you will see that the differences are overwhelming.”) According to Hofstadter this line of thought should also be applied to the human mind or brain. To understand the processes of thought we should abstain from descending to such a level that we hit quanta and quarks. This is the mistake made by reductionists. To understand thought we will have to zoom out until symbols and concepts start to appear. Like the branching of a buxus shrub is a necessary precondition for the eventual shearing of a pyramid, the neurons, synapses, membranes, protons and quarks are of the utmost importance in building a brain. But to compare buxus shrubs or brains of different people we have to take an appropriate distance. Garden architects and cognitive scientists like Hofstadter have no use for quantum mechanical descriptions in these cases, and neither have I or has any non-reductionist. An interesting analysis of the human mind and a comparison between people must be written in a vocabulary some levels above the level of neurological structures. Hofstadter introduces the term symbol, in his opinion corresponding with the term concept: The idea I want to convey by the phrase “a symbol in the brain” is that some specific structure inside your cranium […] gets activated whenever you think of, say, the Eiffel Tower. That brain structure, whatever it might be, is what I would call your “Eiffel Tower symbol”. You also have […] a “penguin” symbol, […] being some kind of structure inside your brain that gets triggered when you perceive one or more penguins, or even when you are just thinking about penguins without perceiving any. […] In this book, then, symbols in a brain are the neurological entities that correspond to concepts, just as genes are the chemical entities that correspond to hereditary traits.76 Hofstadter uses the concept of a “counter in a supermarket” as an example. Whatever the neurological details of this concept may be, for all of us “counter in a supermarket” is connected to the concepts


Hofstadter 2007, p. 76.


“grocery cart”, “line”, “customers”, “to wait”, “candy rack”, “candy bar”, “tabloid newspaper”, “movie starts”, “trashy headlines”, “sordid scandals”, “weekly TV schedule [...].”77 The list of connected concepts goes on for ten lines. Most probably this is the view many scholars have on memes. With it we leave Dawkins‟ initial definition behind us in terms of patterns in the synaptic structure, and move up a few levels until symbols and concepts start to appear. Memes become conglomerates of concepts and symbols that cause behaviour, and spread to other brains by imitative behaviour. In order to be able to speak of a copy the exact neurological realization no longer matters. It suffices that the copying process transfers a conceptual structure from one brain to another. The neurological details of the concepts “psychiatrist”, “light bulb” and “WANT” in your brain won‟t play any part in an evolutionary analysis of the spread of memes. As soon as you pass on the light bulb joke at a birthday party, the memes are transferred from your brain to the brains of the listeners. I agree with Hofstadter that we have to step back from the neurological details in order to view memes. The point of difference between us, however, is that while Hofstadter still peeps into heads and supposedly encounters concepts and symbols, I would take one step further back. To me, memes appear on the outside of our bodies. Memes are to brains, as pyramids are to buxus shrubs. The inside may vary, though the memes remain the same. This will suffice for now.


Hofstadter 2007, p. 84.





We have seen that some cultural phenomena, such as nut cracking among chimpanzees, table manners, mobile phones and jokes, can be described in terms of memes, and we have also seen that there are many similarities between memes and genes. This suggests that techniques, algorithms and types of analyses which are commonly used in genetical evolution can also be applied to the description of cultural phenomena. However, evolutionary algorithms and analytical strategies can only be applied if a definite content can be given to the notion of a copy of a replicator, be it a gene or a meme. With genes these matters seem pretty clear, owing to the neat ATCG-vocabulary. With memes matters are more complicated. Dawkins‟ initial strict definition, in terms of neural patterns, makes it virtually impossible to talk of actual, one-onone copies of memes. At the microscopic level of neurons people happen to be quite different. Any hope of finding a sensible criterion for a copy at this level is ruled out. Therefore it is inevitable that we compare memes in the brains of humans in the same way as we compare the shapes of, say, buxus shrubs. We should not compare brains neuron-by-neuron, but, as the suggestion inspired by Douglas Hofstadter is, concept-by-concept, or symbol-by-symbol. I will call this proposal memes as concepts. For now I will skip the question as to what concepts exactly are. All that matters is that somewhere in between neurons and outward behaviour a straightforward level of description of memes exists. At this level memes appear as concepts. Hofstadter is partly right. To describe memes we should zoom out. But as indicated, we should zoom out more than Hofstadter allows for. My aim is to make the idea plausible that memes had best be defined in terms of behaviour (or artefacts). In this chapter I will demonstrate that by seeing memes as concepts a sensible notion of a meme is not and cannot be produced. Mark, I will not argue that in the process of copying memes, no part is played by neural structures, symbols, or concepts. What is of importance is that in the copying of behaviour or artefacts it isn‟t necessarily the case that concepts are being copied. My point of departure is that we possess an intuitively satisfactory idea of when some kind of behaviour is the copy of some other kind of behaviour, or when some artefact is the copy of some other artefact. Surely, it is possible to undermine even this basic notion of a copy. However, if copying behaviour or artefacts is already incomprehensible, on what grounds could we ever have 37

assumed a correspondence of concepts? So, why is it meaningless to define memes in terms of concepts, with an intuitively clear notion of a copy of behaviour or artefacts? To begin with, I will make obvious that in order to be able to describe a process of evolution, the physical realization of the elements of the process does not have to be clear-cut (although the elements must have a physical basis, of course). This was true to Darwin, who described evolution without worrying about genetics. And it is also true of memes. This isn‟t an epistemological point, but an ontological one. It is possible to give a description of an evolutionary process the elements of which are not physically realized in the same way. As it comes to memes this means that a supposed instance of a copy of some behaviour does not have to be adjoined by a description of the way the behaviour is bodily or neurologically realized. This line of thought will gain some weight within the well-known philosophical doctrine of functionalism and the accompanying idea of the multiple realizability of mind. If a meme is physically differently realized in different carriers of the meme, on what ground can we evoke an underlying similarity in non-ephemeral concepts? Certainly we can just assume that carriers of the same meme possess the same concepts, but then concepts cease to be an explanation of memes, like DNA is an explanation for genes. So, what if someone passes on a joke in exactly the same way in which she heard it? What if she uses the same words with the same intonation and the same body language, and she gives precisely the same answers to the endless succession of follow-up questions the listeners pose to her? Surely in that case the underlying concepts must be the same?! Willard Quine‟s answer to this question was a definite “No!” His justification for this answer consisted in his Indeterminacy of Translation. I shall recount his arguments and show how they apply to memes. Does this mean that memes cannot exist, or that a meme is a senseless notion? No. It just shows that neither neurological tissue nor concepts can play a meaningful part in an evolutionary process of memes. No more, no less. But let us begin with the evolution as seen through the eyes of Darwin.

Right from Dawkins‟ very first definition it was clear that memes “propagate themselves ... via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation.”78 But exactly what is copied when one primate copies another one? “Behaviour is,” as I would answer, “and certainly not neurological structures or concepts.” What is more, there are situations in which behaviour is clearly copied without the accompanying concepts, or even with opposite concepts. A fine example of this is the so-called Tegenpartij (Opposing Party) of the Dutch satirical comedians Kees van Kooten and Wim de Bie. In their roles as Jacobse and Van Es these comedians established the Tegenpartij. This caricature of

Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 192.


extreme right wing parties was a definite hit on Dutch television. Jacobse and Van Es even developed a real election program, Rug op ’81 (Screw U ‟81). It was obvious how the Tegenpartij was to be interpreted. Van Kooten and De Bie belonged to the VPRO broadcasting company, which is unquestionably left-wing. So, the Tegenpartij was satire, meant to exhibit the absurdity of right-wing extremists. Still, the interpretation at that time was not as straightforward as it seems right now. Van Kooten and De Bie stopped their sketches on the Tegenpartij when it turned out that many viewers failed to grasp the false bottom. Hans Janmaat, a true right-wing politician, copied slogans of the Tegenpartij into his own, very real, election program. And he complimented Van Kooten and De Bie on the front page of his party tabloid. The behaviour of Van Kooten and De Bie was copied, but the concepts were turned upside down. My main objection to internalist definitions of memes, i.e. definitions in terms of brain or mind, is that the notion copy of a meme is stripped from every clear, empirical meaning. Copying DNA is a physical process, just like the Xeroxing of a letter. Within these processes a clear causal chain leads from original to copy in which morphology is preserved as much as possible. But it is not clear how a neural pattern can be copied to another brain, or how a concept of one mind can be copied to another mind. The easy answer to this objection is that we shouldn‟t worry about these particulars. It just happens. The moment we imitate others, we copy their memes. We have no knowledge of the exact workings of this process, just as Darwin lacked an adequate understanding of the process via which traits pass on from parents to their offspring. Blackmore wholeheartedly admits: We do not know the mechanism for copying and storing memes [...] No we do not.79 And she continues to sigh that Darwin likewise didn‟t know anything of the way in which the inheritance of traits is physically realized, but that despite this fact, our knowledge of evolution has grown immensely for more than a century. In the first century of Darwinism an enormous amount was achieved in the understanding of evolution without anyone having any idea about chemical replication, the control of protein synthesis or what on earth DNA was doing.80 This, for sure, cannot be denied. However, what goes for Darwinian evolution, doesn‟t automatically go for memetical evolution. It still remains questionable whether we will ever unearth a meme copying mechanism comparable to meiosis. And if we want to compare the study of memes to the work of Darwin, why don‟t we stress the fact that Darwin formulated his theory in terms of
79 80

Blackmore 1999, p. 56. Blackmore 1999, p. 56.


traits, and draw the conclusion that a theory of memes might get well under way without references to underlying mechanisms? Suppose the situation would have been different. Suppose the physical traits of an organism are not anchored within DNA or whatever straightforward describable structure. Suppose an image of our traits were stored away in every cell in a so-called monad81. A monad literally contains an image of the outward appearance of an adult organism, comparable to the image of the finches on the Galapagos Isles in Darwin‟s eyes. In the case of sexual reproduction two monads are merged into an image that looks like both. On the basis of this newly merged monad an organism is put together with whatever materials are at hand. Monadic children on the outside would then resemble their parents just as we do, but on the inside they might be totally different. Could Darwin have developed his theory of natural selection if he had studied monadic organisms instead of DNA-based finches? The answer would be “Yes” if the rate of reproduction of the monadic creatures were dependent on its traits. How traits are brought into the next generation is of no concern to the general theory of evolution. Certainly, in some cases the details do matter, but Darwin could do and did without these details, since his theory of evolution could be formulated without them. However far-fetched monads may sound, the situation with memes is comparable. As is already clear in the definition of meme in the Oxford English Dictionary, and as is acknowledged by almost all meme scholars, imitation is the foremost copying mechanism in the case of memes. Dawkins describes a meme as “a unit of imitation”82 and Dennett quotes this with approval. Blackmore similarly writes: When you imitate someone else, something is passed on. This „something‟ can then be passed on again, and again, so to take on a life of its own. We might call this thing an idea, an instruction, a behaviour, a piece of information… but if we are going to study it we shall need to give it a name. Fortunately, there is a name. It is the „meme‟. 83 […] Everything you have learned by imitation from someone else is a meme.84 But whereas the copying process of cells is directed at the DNA, the copying process of imitation is not directed at the underlying mechanisms. Imitation is directed at copying behaviour or outward appearances. How this copy is realized doesn‟t matter in case of an evolutionary description, as long as there is a good


Any relation between these monads and the monads as described by Leibniz is purely accidental. 82 Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 192. 83 Blackmore 1999, p. 4. 84 Blackmore 1999, p. 6.


enough similarity in outward appearance, just as there is in the case of monads or Darwin‟s finches. 85 As long as imitation is considered to be the first and foremost mechanism of the reproduction and multiplication of memes, then two questions suggest themselves concerning an internalist definition of meme. First, when memes are described in terms of neurons the question is whether imitation of behaviour would bring about a neuronal structure which is so exact that it could in principle be possible to delineate a part of a person‟s brain as a copy of a part of the brain of another person. Secondly, when memes are defined in terms of concepts, ideas or meanings it is the question whether copying behaviour leads to copies of the concepts, symbols, ideas or meanings accompanying this behaviour. In the previous chapter I simply swept aside the suggestion that imitation leads to exact copies of neuronal structures. What underlies this sweeping gesture is the thesis that the same behaviour can be erected on different neurological structures. In the process of programming computers a comparable disregard for microstructures holds. A programme might repeatedly make use of the function f(y)=√x. Now there are different numerical algorithms for solving this function, and consequently there are different ways of programming it. Exactly according to which algorithm f(y)=√x is programmed doesn‟t matter. As long as the algorithm behaves like the square root function, programmers will be indifferent as to whether it is solved via algorithm A or via algorithm B. In the case of copied behaviour the indifference is the same. As long as the imitation looks enough like the original behaviour, the precise details of the neurological realization don‟t matter. Maybe because of this there is not one meme scholar who defends the idea that imitation of behaviour leads to exact copies of neural structures. Already in 1960 Quine wrote that “[i]n speculative neurology there is the circumstance that different neural hookups can account for identical verbal behavior.”86 Up till now no one has recounted this. And in the meantime what Quine calls “speculative neurology” is supported by the theory and practice of neural networks. It is possible to show that any function can be realized in an unlimited number of different ways in a network with three layers. 87 One-to-one copies of neural structures can therefore play no part in a theory of memes. Dawkins‟ definition in The Extended Phenotype is indefensible. As could be expected, he has never repeated this definition. Will the same be true of concepts, symbols, ideas and meanings?

This situation is common to every copying process. Beyond a certain level we just stop asking the question of why a copy resembles the original. Should DNA molecules be equal to the original quantum by quantum, or string by string? Does it matter? 86 Quine 1960, p. 79. 87 In the technique of measuring and control (and in logic) something similar goes on. An exclusive-or port can be built using a combination of not- and and-ports, or a combination of not- and or-ports. The choice is a matter of economics, or practical considerations, not one of logic.





All of the above also follows from the philosophical doctrine of functionalism and the associated notion of multiple realizability. I will go into these doctrines in considerable detail in the next chapter, but for now I will use them as a means to get you in the right mind. So, in some sense this is just a digression, a way to make out once more that its physical realization can never be a part of the definition of a meme. Multiple realizability means that mental states (like pain, pleasure, excitement, love, as well as concepts) can be realized, or built, in different materials in different ways without the loss of features. So, apart from neuronal tissue underlying mental states that we find in the animals dwelling on the surface of our planet, other tissues in creatures on other planets and even nonorganic tissue might, give rise to mental states, when organized properly. Daniel Dennett writes: One of the fundamental assumptions shared by many modern theories of mind is known as functionalism. […] What makes something a mind (or a belief, or a pain, or a fear) is not what it is made of, but what it can do.88 As Dennett suggests at several places, functionalism and multiple realizability are generally accepted in modern theories of the mind. They are even important principles in all of the sciences. However, if this were true, it would make neuronal definitions of memes even more improbable. If even the materials which constitute mental states may vary without loss of features, then materials can never be definitive of memes, exactly because anything but the material realization is copied. This adds another reason for discarding neuronal definitions. The question remains whether the imitation of behaviour may lead to the copying of concepts, ideas or meanings. I will call this concept-imitation. Can concept-imitation be given a firm place in natural history? The answer I will defend in this chapter is “No!”. At least, that is the shortest possible summary. In fact my answer has a slightly more complex structure. The long version is: “Concept-imitation could in principle be defended. But if a theory of memes is erected on the basis of concept-imitation, any description of the evolution of culture in terms of memes will not be a natural science, but literary criticism. In other words, concept-imitation strips memes of their causal, biological powers.” A parrot is arguably the most intuitive counterexample of conceptimitation. A parrot parroting its master produces the same sounds, but I wouldn‟t like to defend the idea that the bird possesses the same concepts or symbols as his master. However, the parrot gives ample possibility for a nice thought-experiment. Suppose a capo speaks the following words over the phone while his parrot listens in: “Vito committed the murder.” When later that day the

Dennett 1996, p. 68.


detective enters, the brightly coloured betrayer screams, “Vito committed the murder!” Thereupon the detective turns his head to the capo and says, “Ah, I just heard that Vito committed the murder!” Are any memes copied from the capo to the detective? If we assent to this question, then the new question is whether or not the memes went through the head of the parrot. If not, the memes have apparently skipped a brain, the brain of the parrot. But then, where were they in the meantime? Suppose the detective entered the room three days later. Have the memes been hiding, just to perform a wondrous resurrection after three days? I have no difficulties with parrots imitating behaviour. The only thing I find worrying is that parrots copy something extra, which consists of concepts, thoughts and ideas. A first objection might be that the parrot just passes on the literal sentence, and not the underlying concepts or ideas, and that the detective subsequently and independently reconstructs the concepts and ideas on the basis of this literal sentence. What the detective has at his disposal is some sort of manual of translation, with the help of which he unearths the initial meanings of the sentence. According to another objection the parrot doesn‟t copy concepts, ideas, and meanings because the bird only screeches one and the same sentence over and over again under all circumstances. It would be a different matter when the parrot would mimic all possible linguistic behavioural dispositions of his keeper. If the parrot could accomplish that, surely it would have copied the concepts and symbols of the unlucky capo. Quine‟s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation argues against these last two objections. Let us once more return to the practice of passing on light bulb jokes (see chapter 1). Jokes can be passed on in a parrotlike manner. So, let us suppose that you and I grew up in the same linguistic environment, under the same linguistic circumstances. We speak the same dialect and matured in the same social class. We could even suppose that our dispositions for verbal behaviour coincide. One fine day in your company I utter: “How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change.” At the next birthday party you literally repeat these sentences, with exactly the same intonation. Have my memes been copied to your mind, to your brain, to your body? In other words, does sameness of behaviour guarantee sameness of meaning, sameness of concepts or symbols? (Below, after I have elucidated Quine‟s position on these matters, I will unravel the differences between concepts, meanings and symbols.)




Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson seriously doubt that beliefs can be replicators. They don‟t do so on formal Quinean grounds, but on the basis of the intuition 43

that the same behaviour in different people may be caused by different mechanisms: We doubt that beliefs [...] are replicators, at least in the same sense that genes are. [...] [I]deas are not transmitted intact from one brain to another. Instead, the cultural variant in one brain generates some behaviour, somebody else observes this behaviour, and then (somehow) creates a cultural variant that generates more or less similar behaviour. The problem is that the cultural variant in the second brain is quite likely to be different from that in the first. For any phenotypic performance there is a potentially infinite number of rules that could generate that performance.89 These thoughts are well in line with the thoughts unfolded in this chapter. However, Boyd and Richarson still believe something can be saved by the use of language: Language no doubt helps get many ideas from one person to another accurately, but words are subject to multiple interpretations. As teachers, we struggle mightily to be correctly understood by our students, but in many cases we fail. To the extent that these differences shape future cultural change, the replicator model captures only part of cultural evolution.90 So, while Boyd and Peterson have doubts about beliefs as replicators, they still think language might save some of the day. Quine is best understood as having doubts about beliefs in all types of behaviour, including verbal behaviour. Boyd and Richarson seem to hold that they are somehow able to discern sameness of meaning between themselves and their students. But Willard Quine outright denies the possibility of scientifically establishing sameness of meaning. In his Word & Object he formulates the Thesis of the Undeterminacy of Translation: [T]wo men could be just alike in all their dispositions to verbal behaviour under all possible sensory stimulations, and yet the meanings or ideas expressed in their identically triggered and identically sounded utterances could diverge radically for the two men, in a wide range of cases.91 Although Quine initially formulates 92 his thesis by using two persons speaking the same language, he explains the thesis with the help of an example in which
89 90

Boyd and Richarson 2004, p. 82. Boyd and Richarson 2004, p. 82. 91 Quine 1960, p. 26. 92 The clearest formulation Quine has ever given of this thesis is: “[T]he infinite totality of sentences of any given speaker‟s language can be so permuted, or mapped onto itself, that (a) the totality of the speaker‟s dispositions to verbal behavior remains invariant, and yet (b) the mapping is no mere correlation of sentences with equivalent sentences. ” This formulation brings to the fore that indeterminacy has no ontological import, since


a language has to be translated for which no translator exists. This process is aptly named radical translation. And exactly this didactical tool caused much confusion. Radical translation is a process based on observations which results in a manual of translation. This manual will also be underdetermined because it is ultimately based on observations. For any set of observations it will, in principle, always be possible to formulate infinitely many theories which cover the observations.93 However, the fact that manuals of translations are underdetermined is not important to Quine. With his thesis of indetermination Quine wants to express that even if radical translators were not hindered by underdetermination, they could still produce diverging and at some point contradicting manuals of translation for one and the same language. If Quine is right, and if internalistically defined memes fall under the scope of the thesis of indeterminacy, memes lose their causal powers, and consequently can be no part of a scientific, biological theory of culture. It would, for example, mean that two meme scholars, independently studying the flow of memes in the process of civilization, could come up with two different and irresolvable contradictory accounts while no increase in the knowledge of facts could ever help us decide which one was true. Below I will further develop these two steps. I will start out by carving out the demarcation between indeterminacy and underdetermination. Next I will make plausible that the thesis of indetermination is relevant to internalist definitions of meme. If this is the case, memes can happily be part of literary criticism, but not of biology.

Suppose some day in the 21st century scientists of the University of Groningen embark upon a theory explaining everything.94 They call it GUT, Groningen Unifying Theory. Natural phenomena, from the Big Bang and black holes all the way down to quarks and strings, can be described and explained with GUT. Their article involving the outline of GUT is sent to Nature soon afterwards, and before this the researchers even obtain a confirmation stating that it will be published in the next issue. Their noble dreams are severely disturbed, however, when they receive a copy of the awaited magazine. That month‟s Nature is not devoted solely to their glorious announcement, but also brings the tidings of LUT, the Leiden Unifying Theory. What makes things worse is that it looks as if a compulsory combined Dutch-Canadian trip to Sweden will be out of the question, because GUT and LUT are logically incompatible. Portions of GUT
the mapping is not between two domains (one ontological and one theoretical, for example), but within one domain (sentences mapped onto themselves). 93 These theories map observations onto an ontological domain, instead of mapping observational sentences on observational sentences, or ontologies on ontologies. Therefore underdetermination differs from undetermination. 94 Together with Jeanne Peijnenburg I have written quite extensively on the difference between underdetermination of theories and the indeterminacy of translation. See Hünneman and Peijnenburg 1992, 1996 and 2001. Here I will present our argumentation in a form that fits in with the discussion on memes.


do not admit of a counterpart in LUT, and the other way round. This incites a world-wide search for a crucial experiment, the result of which could give an unbiased answer to the question whether GUT or LUT is correct. Ten years of passionate study are dedicated to this subject, but nevertheless nothing of the kind can be found. In the next decade little by little everybody is persuaded to believe that no such experiment can possibly be devised. Every experimental result that would verify GUT would also verify LUT, and the same applies to result that would falsify the unifying theories.95 The two theories are empirically equivalent. So, just before the turn of another century, a Swedish bag of honour is awarded to delegations of the GUT and LUT research teams as both appear to be equally accurate. In her speech the leader of the Groningen delegations speaks of the world being explained and in some sense understood, but of no one being able to know the truth. In a more formal mode the underdetermination of theories would read as follows: Two theories, Th. 1 and Th. 2, can be empirically equivalent and yet logically incompatible. An experimental result would support Th. 1 if and only if it would support Th. 2, and yet there would be no way of reducing Th. 1 to Th. 2 or reducing Th. 2 to Th. 1. In Quine‟s own words: Physical theories can be at odds with each other and yet compatible with all possible data even in the broadest sense. In a word, they can be logically incompatible and empirically equivalent.96 The phrasing of indeterminacy of translation looks rather like the formulation of the underdetermination thesis. According to this doctrine two manuals of translation can be logically incompatible and yet equally compatible with the observable, linguistic, behaviour of those involved. In other words, two manuals can differ very much from one another while both fit the data equally well. The typical languages used to bring the thesis alive are Jungle, spoken by an isolated group of aborigines, and English, spoken by a group of islanders and their descendants. A Jungle/English manual of translation would consist of a number of rules combined with a lexicon for describing sentences of one language in sentences of the other. The thesis now says that there can be two Jungle/English manuals of translation which produce different English results for the same Jungle sentence, while there is no way of telling which is the right translation! Imagine for example that you, a descendent of the above-mentioned islanders, are planning a trip into the last jungle on earth in order to find the last group of aborigines. Before you leave you pay a short visit to the university library, and much to your surprise you find a pair of manuals for translating

Such is the case when the two theories are stated with the use of irreconcilable theoretical terms while both theories describe or predict that these terms escape observation at the same time. 96 Quine 1970, p. 179.


Jungle into English and vice versa. The manuals are independently created by John O‟Groningen and Joan Lead. But the latter‟s manual is so beautifully printed and embellished with photographs of black naked hunters, that the size is hopelessly unpractical. The other manual is a true to the Dutch printing tradition, a neatly formatted, ready-at-hand pocket-book with an elegant typeface. Out of pure curiosity you take Joan‟s handbook with you as well as John‟s, perhaps to refer to the photographs. It is needless to say, that once planes and canoes have deposited you among the aborigines, your study of Jungle is guided by the easily portable manual. A few weeks later, you actually speak Jungle like a native without any incidents worth mentioning. Almost anything you could have wanted to talk about in your mother tongue, you are able to communicate in Jungle. Almost, that is. When one fine day a hunter is enjoying a nice cup of tea in your cabin while chit-chatting about rabbits, you are startled by phrases parts of which you have never heard before. You instantaneously reach for your manual which, as you notice with dismay, is at the chief‟s palace. No reason for panic, though. Out of a suitcase under the bed you carefully pull Joan’s Illustrated Jungle Grammar Book and Dictionary, and look up the phrases you did not understand. However, trying to construe the meaning of the whole sentence on the basis of what you already know and what Joan’s Illustrated tells you, you observe that there‟s something wrong in the state of translation. You are not able to combine the English translation of the phrases you have mastered up till now with the phrases you gather from Joan’s Illustrated. The obvious conclusion is that the rules for translation, squeezed between the photographs, must be wrong. But as you subsequently try to forget John‟s manual and master Jungle once again solely with the help of Joan’s Illustrated, you are forced to draw a different conclusion: communicating with the aborigines exclusively by means of Joan‟s manual progresses as smoothly as communication by means of John‟s. So the valid conclusion to draw is that, notwithstanding the undeniably good results they give when used separately, the two manuals apparently cannot be used interchangeably, because they yield dissimilar English translations. And since both serve communication just as well, why call either of them false? This is what indeterminacy of translation would look like in practice. When we replace the names of the anthropologists and the languages by abstract names, we can come up with a more formal description of the thesis, as we did in the case of the underdetermination of theory: suppose we have two manuals of translation, Man. 1 and Man. 2, used for converting sentences of Language X into sentences of Language Y and vice versa. Suppose further that communication between persons speaking Language X and persons speaking Language Y passes off satisfactorily regardless of the manual employed. Now, according to the indeterminacy thesis it is possible that Man. 1 and Man. 2 may come up with two equal sentences in Language Y as a result of a translation of one and the same sentence in Language X. Quine has given formulations of this thesis on numerous occasions. In conclusion I will quote the earliest, from Word & Object, and the latest, from Pursuit of Truth: 47

The thesis is this: manuals for translating one language into another can be set up in divergent ways, all compatible with the totality of speech dispositions, yet incompatible with one another. In countless places they will diverge in giving, as their respective translations of a sentence of the one language, sentences of the other language which stand to each other in no plausible sort of equivalence however loose.97 These reflections leave us little reason to expect that two radical translators, [i.e. translators who have no clues but the verbal behaviour of the persons whose language they are devising a manual for, cf. John and Joan, RH] working independently on Jungle, would come out with interchangeable manuals. Their manuals might be indistinguishable in terms of any native behavior that they give reason to expect, and yet each manual might prescribe some translations that the other would reject. Such is the thesis of indeterminacy of translation.98 Let us pause for a moment to consider what this would amount to in the case of memes. Suppose memes were defined as meanings99. Then, if the thesis of indeterminacy holds, two meme scholars could come up with two incompatible interpretations of the customs, stories and behaviour of the natives. And what is more important, there would be no way of deciding which one is true. Boyd and Richarson give a real life example of how this might come about: The generativist model of phonological change illustrates the problem. According to the generativist school of linguistics, individual pronunciation is governed by a complex set of rules that take as input the desired sequence of words and produce as output the sequence of sounds that will be produced (Bynon, T. 1977. Historical Linguistics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press). Generativists also believe that as adult people can modify their pronunciation only by adding new rules that act at the end of the chain of existing rules. Children, on the other hand, are not constrained by the rules used to generate adult speech. Instead they induce the simplest set of grammatical rules that will account for the performances they hear, and these may be quite different than the rules used by adult speakers. Although the new rules produce the same performance, they can have a different structure, and therefore, allow further changes by rule addition that would not have been possible under the old rules. 100 So although communication between parents and offspring runs smoothly, children may use different grammatical rules. Boyd and Richarson dispel the
97 98

Quine 1960, p. 27. Quine 1990, p. 48. 99 I will leave symbols for now and return to them at the end of this chapter. 100 Boyd and Richarson 2000, p. 155.


notion of a meme, because “even though there is no difference in the phenotypic performance among parents and children, children do not acquire the same memes as their parents.” Something similar holds for definitions of memes in terms of concepts, since meanings and concepts are closely linked. Of course in the end this will depend on how the term concept is exactly defined. I will take for granted that in order to formulate what someone believes, we will have to understand the concepts she employs and how her words express these concepts. As Davidson says, “[...] if we can understand what a person says, we can understand what he believes.”101 Two scholars might describe the flow of memes through the heads and customs of the natives in incompatible ways, and yet there would be no way of telling which one was true. Or, take our example of the dining etiquette as described by Norbert Elias. If the indeterminacy thesis holds, Elias might be quite right as far as the empirical facts are concerned. He might have described the table manners, customs, texts, houses, furnishing of the homes and everything else in an indubitable way. Yet, someone might come up with quite a different story about the concepts that shaped the behaviour and artefacts during these ages, and there would be no way of telling which one was true. Davidson actually considers the predicament of the meme scholars to be worse than that of linguists: A theory for interpreting the utterances of a single speaker, based on nothing but his attitudes towards sentences, would, we may be sure, have many equally eligible rivals, for differences in interpretation could be offset by appropriate differences in the beliefs attributed. Given a community of speakers with apparently the same linguistic repertoire, however, the theorist will strive for a single theory of interpretation: this will greatly narrow his practical choice of preliminary theories for each individual speaker.102 Linguists shape their analyses so as to fit all the native speakers of a language. But for a meme theorist no such thing could be the case. A meme theorist wants to develop an evolutionary description of culture and therefore has to know when memes are copied and when they are not. How else could our theorist claim that memes shape brains? This means that she must somehow be able to settle for the differences between individuals. But is there a difference between the predicament of linguists and sociologists on the one hand and physicists on the other? During a calculation on some natural phenomenon a physicist cannot switch between GUT and LUT, or the other way round. The description of phenomena and predictions should always be based on either GUT or LUT, and never for some part on the one and
101 102

Davidson 1984, p. 153. Davidson 1984, p. 153.


for another part on the other.103 What, then, is the exact difference between underdetermination and indetermination? If a memetic theory is indetermined, and if indeterminacy is a phenomenon common to all natural sciences, why should we worry about that? Ever since Word & Object, the indeterminacy of translation has appeared simultaneously with Quine‟s insistence upon its relative independence from the underdetermination of theory. More specifically, Quine asserted that indeterminacy of translations is not an indissoluble segment of the underdetermination of theory. Leaving the reasons for this aside for a moment, this claim is inclined to become confusing when it is added that translations form a branch of the respected scientific tree of knowledge: Though linguistics is of course a part of the theory of nature, the indeterminacy of translation is not just inherited as a special case of the underdetermination of our theory of nature.104 The difference between indeterminacy and underdetermination hinges on their respective ontological status. According to Quine assertions of natural scientists state what there is and how the things in the world hang together causally. Linguists and meme scholars, on the other hand, take the more mathematical course of action of mapping one domain onto another. Like the thesis of Fermat can by proven by mapping parts of the proof onto other branches of mathematics, communication between speakers can be energized by mapping the array of linguistic behaviour (of the speakers of language X) onto a second array of linguistic behaviour (of the speakers of language Y). Of course, such mappings take place within most natural sciences. Much of the knowledge of neural networks has been gathered by mapping these networks onto the science of magnetism. But such a mapping is no ontological theory! There is no causal connection between magnetic fields and neural networks.105 To differentiate these two Quine makes a distinction between genuine hypotheses (with ontological import) and analytical hypotheses (mappings). Genuine hypotheses constitute the natural sciences and are products of the more or less rational guesswork done by trained scientists. Their counterpart in translation consists of the analytical hypotheses. These are educated guesses as well, and these also form the basis for a manual of translation. To understand how genuine hypotheses diverge from analytical hypotheses, consider the next

This situation differs from the time when there were competitive theories concerning the character of light. Particle theories and wave theories could exist next to each other. The difference with GUT and LUT is that these latter theories explain everything, while the theories of light were strictly linked to separate sets of phenomena. 104 Quine in Davidson 1969, p. 303. 105 One of the most common fallacies in the philosophy of mind has to do with the process of mapping, and the ontological status of it. Once, when I explained to a group of scientists that some phenomena of consciousness could be mapped onto quantum logic, they immediately drew the conclusion that consciousness is a quantum mechanical phenomenon.


example. If after several experiments we find all investigated pieces of metal to expand when heated, we can, using a not too speculative, inductive logic from a genuine hypothesis saying “every piece of metal expands when heated.” Of course there are some uncertainties involved in this process, but these are only of the normal inductive kind. Likewise we can investigate the behaviour of the natives and find that on all the encountered occasions when they assent to the utterance of ‟Nkukomsuy‟, there are five cows within their visual field. In more Quinean terms, we could make a genuine hypothesis saying that ‟Nkukomsuy‟ has the same stimulus meaning to the aborigines as ‟There are five cows‟ has to Britons, maintaining it unless we find a counterexample. Translating „Nkukomsuy‟ with „There are five cows‟ would therefore present us with no indeterminate complexities. However, if we want to produce a Jungle/English manual of translation such a pairing off will not do, for there are infinite possible utterances in either language, and consequently pairing each of them with its correlate in the opposite language would take an infinity of time, ink and paper. In order to obtain a usable manual we will have to split the utterances into parts, „words‟, and give rules for combining them so as to get understandable translations of wholes, „sentences‟. These splitting and combining rules form the analytical hypotheses. So in addition to the genuine hypotheses about the natives, we could posit analytical hypotheses such as “ „Nku‟ means five”, “ „Suy‟ means cattle”, and “ „Kom‟ in combination with a mass term does the individualizing job that is performed in English by „sticks of‟ as applied to the mass term „wood‟, or „head of‟ as applied to „cattle‟ ”. These analytical hypotheses applied to the utterance “Nkukomsuy” yield the undetermined translation “Five heads of cow”. Analytical hypotheses form a mathematical apparatus with which observable facts of the behaviour of the Natives can be mapped onto observable facts of the behaviour of Britons. Analytical hypotheses don‟t make any assumption and don‟t state anything about the ontology. As Quine states in Word & Object, analytical hypotheses, and also the manuals of translation they make up, are hypotheses in an incomplete sense. “[T]he analytical hypotheses, and the grand synthetic one that they add up to, are only in an incomplete sense hypotheses. Contrast the case of translation of the occasion sentence [i.e. a sentence of which the disposition to assent or dissent depends on the circumstances in which it is uttered, like “Nkukomsuy” in the paragraph above, RH] „Gavagai‟ by similarity of stimulus meaning. This is a genuine hypothesis from sample observations, though possibly wrong. „Gavagai‟ and „There‟s a rabbit‟ have stimulus meanings for the two speakers, and these are roughly the same or significantly different, whether we guess right or not. On the other hand no such sense is made of the typical analytical hypothesis. The point is not that we cannot be sure whether the analytical hypothesis is right, but that there is not even, as there


was in the case of „Gavagai‟, an objective matter to be right or wrong about.”106 Allow me to place this short lecture on manuals of translation within the framework of the discussion on the definition of memes. My thesis is that memes defined in terms of concepts or symbols obtain the status of analytical hypotheses. In this way memes lose their ontological import, and consequently whatever causal powers they are supposed to have. Certainly memes so defined cannot be used in ways comparable to the way we use genes to explain the characteristics of organism. Therefore they are worthless as part of a biological description of the development of culture. I think Quine ultimately wants to give a logico-mathematical description of the difference between Verstehen (understand) and Erklären (explain). In order to just understand a phenomenon it suffices to couch it in terms we understood before the encountered phenomenon. We might, for example, map the current economic crisis on a story of Tom Poes, written by the Dutch writer and illustrator Marten Toonder.107 At one time Tom Poes visits the isle of the Trottles, froglike creatures. The Trottles are terrified of a Big Monster which visits their village every now and then, only to destroy it completely. In the end the Big Monster turns out to be nothing else but the sum total of the fears of the Trottles. The story of the Trottles may make us understand aspects of the current crisis, but does it also give us a causal explanation? The answer to this last question is a definite “No!”. Trottles may make us understand (Verstehen) but they won‟t give us the means to explain (Erklären). Likewise a definition of memes in terms of concepts or symbols (as conceived by Hofstadter) may help us understand phenomena within a certain domain. A manual of translation is certainly not useless, as any tourist knows. However, a manual of translation does not explain the behaviour of Natives. Manuals of translation and meme theories in terms of concepts provide us with an appealing way to look at facts, but they don‟t give anything that comes close to a causal explanation: If translators disagree on the translation of a Jungle sentence but no behavior on the part of the Jungle people could bear on the disagreement, then there is simply no fact of the matter. In the case of natural science, on the other hand, there is a fact of the matter, even if all possible observations are insufficient to reveal it uniquely.108 Then why is there not a fact of the matter in translation? The first important point to be realized when this question is answered is that manuals of translation are not meant to predict people‟s linguistic behaviour on any precise
106 107

Quine 1960, p. 73. I owe this example to the Dutch physicist Vincent http://dewerelddraaitdoor.vara.nl/, and search for ‟Icke & Tom Poes‟. 108 Quine 1990, p. 101.




scale. No English/German manual of translation, however detailed, sophisticated or broadly accepted, could have eased Carnap‟s discomfort when he saw that this sequence of Heideggerian utterances: Erforscht werden soll nur das Seiende und sonst – nichts; das Seiende allein und weiter – nichts; das Seiende einzig und darüber hinaus – nichts. was followed by: Wie steht es um dieses Nichts? Manuals of translation simply are not intended for predicting ensuing utterances on the basis of given ones. A smooth communication between representatives of two languages is the only guarantee they give. The closest they get to supplying prophesies is when utterances evoke straight assent or dissent, yet such provoked behaviour is not expected on the basis of translation but rather on psychological or sociological grounds. Think for example of some Africans who will assent to almost anything just to please the European speaker. Here an English/Swahili manual of translation will even lack this most rudimentary form of translation, while no one will question its status as a manual of translation109. Manuals of translation make us understand by mapping linguistic behaviour from one group onto that of another. This is similar to us understanding the current economical crisis by mapping the behaviour of the stock exchange onto the Big Monster‟s behaviour. All that matters in translation is the behaviour of those involved. In the case of a Jungle/English manual of translation this means the linguistic conduct of Britons and Natives. And all a Jungle/English manual does is describing a relation between linguistic behaviour of Natives on the one side and linguistic behaviour of Britons on the other side. No things enter into this picture. What is there is exclusively a function, mapping linguistic behaviour of one sort onto that of another. „Nkukomsuy‟ is paired off with „There are five cows‟ by means of such a function. So if you hear a Native utter “Nkukomsuy”, then formulate a sentence you would have uttered had you heard “There are five cows”, translate this back into Jungle, and try to utter your translation without too much accent. Of course you will have to take the cultural differences into account as well. But when this is done properly it leaves you with a smoothly running conversation about cattle. The job of a translator is not to devise hypotheses about dark

Well, there is actually one complication in this case. A translator could, in principle, embed this ever assenting behaviour into her manual of translation for Swahili. She could, for example, state that the meaning of Ndio is dependent upon the circumstances in which it is uttered. Most of the times Ndio just means Yes, but it might also mean nothing at all, or just a form of politeness. I am not sure whether such an addition would make a clearer manual of translation. Probably the remark of a cultural anthropologist that Africans sometimes don‟t answer questions of Europeans (say, “Has the bridge been washed away by the flooding?”) with a report of facts, but rather with something they think the European would like to hear.


entities like meanings, but to define a translation relation, coupling the behaviour of two language groups in order to enable them to communicate. Observable behaviour is the alpha and omega of any translation task, without an intermediary. In Quine‟s own words: Translation is not the recapturing of some determinate entity, a meaning […]110 A manual of Jungle-to-English translation constitutes a recursive, or inductive, definition of a translation relation together with a claim that it correlates sentences compatible with the behavior of all concerned.111 By now it will be clear why there are no theoretical facts of the matter in translations. Rather than changing, or adding to our ontology like new scientific theories do, translations merely combine distinct parts of our already established ontology. Therefore two diverging manuals of translation do not constitute two different ontologies, on the contrary, they can be devised to lock onto one and the same ontology. If we want to make a statement about the facts that make up the world, we will have to do so from within some physical theory. However, even with such an ontology we are not yet in a position to tell which of two alternative translations is more true to the facts, because by assumption both cover all the relevant facts equally well. So selecting one translation over another does not involve taking into account any question of facts, any question of truth.112 I essentially agree with Quine. Manuals of translation have no value as instruments of prediction, and for that reason they haven‟t been given the status of being part of natural science. I also think Hofstadter is right when he claims that “saying that studying the brain is limited to the study of physical entities […] would be like saying that literary criticism must focus on paper and bookbinding, ink and its chemistry, page sizes and margin widths, typefaces and paragraphs lengths, and so forth.” So it becomes the question whether we want the study of the mind/brain to be on an ontological par with literary criticism. To be sure, there is nothing inherently wrong with literary criticism. The only problem is that it doesn‟t provide us with an explanation or an outline of the causal connections between events in the world. If meme theory is like literary criticism, it would help us understand cultures. But I think this wouldn‟t be enough for Dawkins. A theory of memes should have a scientific status and explain how cultural phenomena come about. If we define memes in terms of concepts, close to meanings, memetic theories stop short of explaining anything.

110 111 112

Quine 1975, p. 322. Quine 1990, p. 48. Cf. Gibson, 1986, p. 153.


In the preceding paragraphs I argued that it is impossible to flesh out the notion of a copy of a meme on the level of single neurons. Detailed copies of neuronal structures are not consequences of imitating behaviour, linguistic or otherwise. Hofstadter tries to save the idea of copies by taking a somewhat distanced stance as regards the brain. He proposes a description in terms of concepts and symbols. Quine‟s thesis, however, says that two men could be just alike in all their dispositions to verbal behaviour under all possible sensory stimulations, and yet the meanings or ideas expressed in their identically triggered and identically sounding utterances could diverge radically for the two men, in a wide range of cases. If this is true, it is possible that two meme scholars having knowledge of all relevant neurological facts might come up with diverging descriptions of one and the same brain. Both descriptions could fit all the facts, and the question which one was right would have no substance. If this is true, theories of memes in terms of concepts, ideas or thoughts would be just as indetermined as a good manual of translation. This would rid memes of their causal, biological powers and though they could help make us understand cultural phenomena, we still could not explain them. Could this have been Dawkins‟ intention?




In chapter 2, in the end I translated How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change. into Hoeveel psychologen zijn er nodig om een gloeilamp te verwisselen? Antwoord: slechts een, maar de gloeilamp moet er dan wel voor OPENSTAAN! My translation involved a lot of considerations. In the first place there was the meaning of words as given by my dictionaries and particularly the ambiguity of the English word „change‟. But there were also the considerations on the culture of psychiatrists, my idea concerning the intentions of the original joke teller, my thought on the pun of the joke, the hype on light bulb jokes, and my meekness concerning the impossibility of giving an all encompassing translation. Quine‟s thesis is that these considerations enable the process of translation, and further states that all these considerations hang together to some extent. My knowledge of the English language, American culture, light bulb jokes, et cetera, together make a web of analytical hypotheses. Different choices in one place of the web may be compensated by choices in another place. Choices concerning the intentions may be compensated by choices concerning meaning. For example, to me the most important thought behind the joke is that psychiatrists will get nowhere as long as patients don‟t cooperate. But according to my backdoor neighbour the joke is about the fact that if psychiatrists can change 55

anything at all, it takes them lots of time and costs you loads of money. Her translation was: Kan een psycholoog in twaalf seconden een burn-out verhelpen? Antwoord: ja, maar dan moet het wel om een kapotte gloeilamp gaan.113 Who is right and who is wrong? Who has best captured the memes of the American originator? According to Quine this is a senseless question, without resolution. Probably the consequence of Quine‟s thesis that is most difficult to grasp is that what is true of speakers of different languages is also true of speakers of the same language. Whether or not jokers possess identical memes depends on the manual on the basis of which we compare two speakers. The neurological patterns in the brain of one joker have to be interpreted and mapped onto the pattern in the brain of the other one (because, once again, we lack a neat fourletter alphabet). And since the mapping we use has no other basis than the observed behaviour, there are no independent criteria for the truth of the manual. The question of whether two brains contain the same memes remains undetermined. This certainly seems strange. It would mean that an evolutionary description of memes is dependent upon manuals of interpretation for which we have no criteria of truth. What amounts to an evolving meme under one manual might be a succession of different memes in another. In ts way memes lose their physical reality and become evolutionary counterparts of literary criticism.

Ten years after the introduction of memes in The Selfish Gene Dawkins gave a new and enlarged description in The Blind Watchmaker: Brains evolved the capacity to communicate with other brains by means of language and cultural traditions. But the new milieu of cultural tradition opens up new possibilities for self-replicating entities. These new replicators are not DNA and they are not clay crystals. They are patterns of information that can thrive only in brains or the artificially manufactured products of brains – books, computers, and so on. But, given that brains, books and computers exist, these new replicators, which I called memes to distinguish them from genes, can propagate themselves from brain to brain, from brain to book, from book to brain, from brain to computer, from computer to computer. 114


Can a psychiatrist fix a burn-out in twelve seconds? Answer: yes, but only if it concerns a broken light bulb. 114 Dawkins 1986(2006), p. 158.


Notice that strangely enough the first sentence states that brains communicate with other brains. In Quine‟s analysis people communicate with people. And although brains certainly support this process of communication, it cannot be reduced to a process between brains. I think Dawkins‟ preoccupation with brains is a consequence of his informationalist view, as I will describe in the next chapter. But it is important to realize that because Quine focuses on outward behaviour, the description of the web of internal process in terms of memes becomes indetermined. Be that as it may, how could we ever watch memes jump from brain to book to laptop without a manual of translation? There is not even a hint of sameness in internal structure here. Compare Susan Blackmore‟s description in The Meme Machine, which takes this thought one step further: The conclusion I have come to from all of this, is to keep things as simple as possible. I shall use the term „meme‟ indiscriminately to refer to memetic information in any of its many forms; including ideas, the brain structures that instantiate those ideas, the behaviours these brain structures produce, and their versions in books recipes, maps and written music. As long as that information can be copied by a process we may broadly call „imitation‟, then it counts as a meme.115 I dare question whether this description keeps things as simple as possible. To Dawkins‟ long list Blackmore adds „ideas‟, which is understandable in the light of their further writings. And the process she broadly calls „imitation‟, comes very close to the discussed process of translation. In fact I think imitation and translation have come to coincide. How else could we speak of memes transgressing from books to brains to maps to DVD‟s to computers and then back to maps again? The memes of table manners propagated from brains via etiquette books to table settings to paintings to children‟s verses to the ideas of Amy Groskamp-ten Have116 and finally to internet sites to contaminate brains all over the world. Under these definitions memetic theories become a branch of literary criticism. But then memes will lack any causal power. This would be fine, if it were not true that Blackmore claims memes drive our brains to an ever increasing size: Memes changed the environment in which genes were selected, and the direction of change was determined by the outcome of memetic selection. So the selection pressures which produced the massive increase in brain size were initiated and driven by memes.117
115 116 117

Blackmore 1999, p. 66. The undisputed Dutch champion of etiquette. Blackmore 1999, pp. 74-75.


With their enrichment of the notion of the meme Dawkins and Blackmore undermined their positions as natural scientists. Both want memes to be a part of scientific, biological explanation, but both are left behind in desperate need of an objectively true manual of translation. If Quine is right, as I think he is, then Dawkins and Blackmore have called the notion of a meme into being as well as killed it. They are left with literary criticism or the history of ideas, whereas what they really wanted was enriched biology.




Can we salvage memes? Or, better still, are there good reasons to continue using the notion of a meme? I think there are, as I will argue in chapter 5. I will leave the details of argumentation till then, and for now settle for a Quinean definition of memes. If Quine is right, we should limit our analysis to observable behaviour, and leave the rest to literary criticism. Let us give a down-to-earth answer to the question of what is copied and what is imitated. We copy artefacts. We imitate behaviour. Our bodies and brains enable us to do so. But in order to enable us, our bodies and brains don‟t have to contain memes themselves. meme An (element of) an artefact or behaviour that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation.



As part of their equipment bodies evolved on board computers – brains. Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker

No doubt Richard Dawkins thought and wrote under the influence of the philosophy of mind which dominated the 1980‟s. These were the heydays of the computer metaphor for the description of the brain and mind in which, to use the then popular catch-phrase, mind is to brain as software is to hardware. And when software becomes associated with mind, it is but a short intellectual stroll to the idea that viruses of the mind are like software viruses. So it is quite understandable that Dawkins modelled his idea of memes after the idea of software. Memes are the software that makes up the human mind. I think, however, that Dawkins made a serious mistake of judgement here. I think he should not have committed himself to this computer metaphor. But as Dawkins himself states, he experienced little choice: For those, like me, who are not mathematicians, the computer can be a powerful friend to the imagination. Like mathematics, it doesn‟t only stretch the imagination. It also disciplines and controls it.118 As I will explain in the first paragraphs of this chapter, once one is controlled and disciplined by the computer metaphor at least two aspects of the human brain and mind seem obvious. The first is that the human brain is an information processor, or, to use a euphemism, processes information. The other is that the mind/brain is composed of modules, much like computers are composed of parts and computer programmes are composed of routines and subroutines. The combination of these two aspects of the computer metaphor makes a description of memes as mind modules seem very likely. Memes enter and alter the mind much like the weekly software updates on my Microsoft computer replace faulty modules of the Windows programme. Though many contemporary philosophers write as though they shrug off the computer metaphor, most are still unconsciously disciplined and controlled by the ideas of brains processing information in an array of modules. I must

Dawkins 1986(2006), p. 74.


admit that I am, like they are and like Dawkins is, very much controlled and disciplined by the computer metaphor, and I would not dare to state that the brain doesn‟t process information or that there isn‟t some abstract level of description on which modularity is discerned. On the other hand, as I will explain throughout this chapter, I doubt whether information processing is the only thing our brains do. And I also doubt whether processes of the human brain/mind can always be neatly divided into modules. Most importantly, when it comes to memes I think we had better do without information processing and modularity. Therefore, alongside my description and analysis of functionalism and modularity I will also explain how we can describe memes without the metaphor of the mind as a computer. I will show that once we turn our attention to other, more biological aspects of the human organism, memes might meaningfully resurface. Not as modules inside the brain, but as modules outside the brain. These outside modules do influence our brains but they do so without entering them. I deliberately speak of brain here. Whether or not modules outside our brains are also outside our minds depends on our views about where the minds stop and the rest of the world begins. But before we turn to these intricate issues, let us first look at the aspects and still dominant influences of the mind as a computer metaphor.

Ever since I have driven an old Volkswagen, the following dialogue between my mechanic and me is bound to occur at least once a year. Please, bear in mind that my mechanic knows that I try to spend as little money as possible on my car. Mechanic: “Look here, Ronald, part X is out of order and must be replaced.” Ronald: “If you say so…” Mechanic: “The cheapest solution is to replace X with an identical part of a generic brand.” Ronald: “That brand wouldn‟t be Volkswagen, would it?” Mechanic: “No, as I said it is a generic brand, but it functions just the same. I have used it on numerous occasions, and there haven‟t been any complaints.” Ronald: “But it wouldn‟t be an original Volkswagen part?” Mechanic: “No, that would cost you at least twice as much.” Ronald: “But then my car would be all Volkswagen again…” Mechanic: “Yes. But it would function in exactly the same way, while you would be a poorer guy.” Ronald: “I think it‟s better to use part X of Volkswagen.” Mechanic: “For heaven‟s sake, why?” Ronald: “Because this car is a Volkswagen, and once you start replacing parts with non-Volkswagen parts, it stops being a Volkswagen. If I would succumb to that, I might just as well have bought a Skoda right away.” Mechanic: “The client is king.”


In the jargon of professional philosophers the mechanic defends a typical functionalist position. He holds that the replacement of a car part with a spare part which functions in exactly the same way doesn‟t alter the character of the car. Of course his arguments only hold when the spare part really functions in exactly the same way. I will dub this philosophical mechanical position physical functionalism. So, in formal terms physical functionalism states that parts may be considered indistinguishable if and only if they perform the same mechanical or physical function. In other words, A and B are indistinguishable in all relevant aspects if and only if the replacement of part A by part B in no way alters the functioning of the whole. This last formulation has a tautological taste. What it all comes down to is the phrase ‟in all relevant aspects‟. If my mechanic replaces the Volkswagen dynamo with a Skoda dynamo, his right to claiming that by doing so the overall functioning of the Volkswagen is preserved wouldn‟t be diminished if the Volkswagen dynamo were black and the Skoda dynamo white. In this case the colour of the dynamo is irrelevant to the causal relations between the dynamo and the rest of the car. Dennett formulates this kind of functionalism as follows: What makes something a spark plug is that it can be plugged into a particular situation and deliver a spark when called upon. That‟s all that matters; its color or material or internal complexity can vary ad lib, and so can its shape, as long as its shape permits it to meet the specific dimensions of its functional role.119 [Emphasis in original] Notice that this formulation is almost trivial as well. The first part gives nothing more than the analytical definition of a spark plug (“A spark plug is a plug that delivers a spark when called upon”). It is the second sentence that does the job of explaining functionalism since it states which features don‟t matter. The situation is actually more complex than Dennett envisages. Spark plugs must have more traits than the ability to deliver sparks at the right moment. They must also be stainless, incombustible, easy to remove and place, long-lasting and they must possess numerous other qualities, my mechanic would add. But this doesn‟t impede the message Dennett communicates. Anything that also has these additional features counts as a spark plug. As Dennett himself once and again remarks, functionalism stands at the heart of modern science: Functionalism is the idea enshrined in the old proverb: handsome is as handsome does. Matter matters only because of what matter can do. Functionalism in this broadest sense is so ubiquitous in science that it is tantamount to a reigning presumption of all of science.120

119 120

Dennett 1996, p. 68. Dennett 2005, p. 153


What this comes down to is what E.J. Dijksterhuis called The Mechanization of the World Picture. In modern science the world is analyzed in mechanical terms "with the aid of a concept of mechanics". Different parts of the world are connected by cause and effect. The task of science, and certainly of the more respectable natural sciences, is to disentangle the push and pull relationships between different parts of the world. This attitude sets off scientific and technological insights ranging from the heart as a pump to the combustion motor. It would be expected of a methodological principle so ubiquitous that at least one attempt at a more or less formal description, followed by a lengthy wordy debate without a satisfactory conclusion, can be found. But “handsome is as handsome does” is as close as one will get to a definition of mechanical functionalism. The difficulty is that what counts as functional and what doesn‟t has to be explicitly specified. But what counts as functional is at the same time dependent on our interests and fascinations. So, in a very broad sense, something like this might cover the reigning preoccupations in modern science: Definition: A description is functional iff it is couched solely in notions of primary qualities, mathematics and cause and effect. So a functional description of the left front door of my Volkswagen should only contain notions about its shape, weight and the way it mechanically relates to the rest of my car. But, as my mechanic knows very well, to me secondary qualities do matter. Something I call feel is most important. There are many, many doors that could in principle replace the left front door of my Volkswagen with the preservation of even the most minute functional details, but to which I would still exclaim: “The primary qualities are acceptable, but the secondary qualities are rather off”.121 Regarding my own body I am more of a functionalist than regarding my own Volkswagen. If my heart fails I have no objection whatsoever to having it replaced by a distinctively non-human, non-organic pump and pacemaker. The same goes for my teeth, my hip or knee joint, in fact the same goes for all my body parts. As long as the substitute part maintains the worthwhile functions of the original, I really don‟t care what it is made of. I would even go one step further. The replacement may in all respects differ from the original, except for its function. If my lungs fail I would humbly accept being attached to a lung machine, taking the loss of feel and secondary

Martha Nussbaum writes in an obituary (Tragedy and Justice: Bernard Williams remembered) on her teacher, the philosopher Bernard Williams: “And if I recall with pleasure some things he sometimes said about my work, I also recall, and perhaps with more verbal exactitude, the time I ran past his King‟s College provostial window in orange running shorts with a pink top, only to be told later that the primary qualities were acceptable, but the secondary qualities rather off. (This was the furthest he would ever go, as a man very much in love with his wife, and it was characteristic of his somewhat self-delighted style.)” Internet: http://bostonreview.net/BR28.5/nussbaum.html


qualities for granted. This brings to the fore the pragmatic, or even opportunistic contents of functions. The lung machine counts as a functionally equivalent replacement because it brings oxygen into my blood and removes carbon dioxide. Obviously other functions are not preserved. My running abilities, my capacity to climb mountains and my sexiness, to name but a few, are severely diminished. Here an ambiguity in the term function can be seen. Functionalism can be directed either at the modern scientific mechanistic attitude, or it can point to a restricted set of functions the object under investigation can perform. Dennett‟s example of the spark plug already shows this narrowband functionalism. Narrowband functionalism typically states the aspects and properties that don‟t matter and therefore are disregarded. [S]ince science is always looking for simplifications, looking for the greatest generality it can muster, functionalism in practice has a bias in favor of minimalism […]. [W]ings don‟t have to have feathers on them in order to power flight, and eyes don‟t have to be blue or brown in order to see.122 Wings have to have feathers to ensure insulation, and the wings of a peacock have to have feathers to ensure sex appeal, which might also be a function of the colour of the eyes, but since we are not interested in these functions, we narrow our examination to powering flight. So, there is functionalism which tries to explain as much as possible in mechanistic terms. And then there is narrowband functionalism that zooms in on just one or two aspects of an object under investigation. These tastes of functionalism are not contradictory. The difference is just that narrowband functionalism narrows down the number of possible functions under investigation. Now, narrowband functionalism is fine, it delivers strong sparks to scientific research and it should go on. But when the narrowband functions are supposed to be the only relevant functions, something might be pushed out of sight, or even quite literally get lost. This is the case when it comes to informationalism.

Informationalism is a specific type of narrowband functionalism which today is very popular within the philosophy of mind123. Its sole focus is the informationprocessing capacity of systems. During the 1970‟s informationalism originated from the remains of psychological behaviourism and developments in neurology, computer science and technology. 124 The notion that the human mind could
122 123

Dennett 2005, p. 153 And even within neurology and the popular media on these topics. 124 I will not go into the historical details of the origin of informationalism, but concentrate on the typical and widespread narrowing of scope informationalism brought about.


best be described in terms of mathematical functions coupling stimulus and response, input and output, was made intelligible by behaviourism. Computer science refined the possibilities to do so, enabling scientists to use top-down analysis and programming languages, and bottom-up simulation to study the mind. Arguably, the single most compelling rationale in favour of informationalism is a thought experiment concocted by the philosopher Zeno Pylyshyn in 1980. He astutely invites us to regard a single neuron as a simple adding device. All a neuron actually does, according to this image, is adding up the incoming signals from other neurons and delivering a signal itself whenever a certain threshold is reached. Even in 1980 an ordinary computer chip could perform exactly the same function. It could even be programmed so as to mimic the flexible learning capabilities of a neuron. Now suppose we would replace one neuron of a human‟s brain by a computer chip carrying out its precise function. We would place such a chip in the brain and appropriately attach the incoming axons and the signal receiving dendrites from other neurons. Would this human experience the difference between the periods before and after the replacement of the neuron by the chip? Would she report something like: “I feel a very slight but definite loss in my information- processing capacities…”? Probably not, though the reason for this lack of awareness might be mundane. It might be due to the fact that humans in general need a major difference in stimulus to notice changes. The replacement of one neuron might have effects that remain undetectable for the experimental subject. So, what would happen if we replaced two neurons, or ten, or ten percent of the total number of neurons of our subject? Would she notice it? Would she notice it, given that the chips performed exactly the same input-output function as the original neurons? Would her mind perish more and more by every neuron-chip replacement we performed? Would she, for example, keep saying the right words, but would these words gradually become devoid of meaning? According to Pylyshyn this would be a “rather astonishing view”: If more and more of the cells in your brain were to be replaced by integrated circuit chips, programmed in such a way as to keep the input-output function of each unit identical to that of the unit being replaced, you would in all likelihood just keep right on speaking exactly as you are doing now except that you would eventually stop meaning anything by it.125 [Emphasis in original] To be honest, we don‟t know what would happen, because this thought experiment is beyond the capacities of our imagination. But as Dennett explained, thought experiments are pumps to boost our intuition, rather than logical steps in a justification.


Pylyshyn 1980.


A popular strategy in philosophy is to construct a certain sort of thought experiment I call an intuition pump [...]. Intuition pumps are cunningly designed to focus the reader's attention on „the important‟ features, and to deflect the reader from bogging down in hard-to-follow details.126 [Emphasis in original] Pylyshyn does indeed deflect our attention from the wet and messy details of neurons. He bypasses aspects like neurotransmitters, cell chemistry and hormones. The sole „important‟ feature Pylyshyn draws our attention to is the information-processing capacity of neurons. And if a single neuron is understood as an information-processing unit, then a group of neurons straightforwardly linked up can be understood as an information-processing unit as well.127 And so on until the whole brain is understood as one big information-processing unit dividable into interconnected subunits and can be studied as such. This picture provides philosophers and empirical scientists of mind with a way to open Skinner‟s black box.128 The top-down method to develop complex computer programs and a strategy called reversed engineering coincide. If software engineers have to write a complicated program, they begin by specifying the overall functionality or task of the program in most general terms (top). After this they divide this task into subroutines, smaller tasks that, when executed successively, accomplish the top task. These subroutines are then further divided into subsubroutines, until a sub…subroutine is small enough to be written down in computer language. Similarly when you are confronted with a human brain performing a certain task, you may ask yourself via what intermediate steps this task was accomplished by the brain. You divide the task into smaller subtasks, and look for empirical evidence confirming your division. So, for example, if you are analyzing a visual task you make some educated guesses as to the subtasks or subroutines the brain of the subject performs. These guesses can, for instance, be made on the basis of neurological knowledge, fMRI-scans or known performance of subjects in other visual tasks. Out of this analysis you devise a smart task which addresses one subroutine differently from the other one. A subsequent experiment should then show the accuracy of your initial analysis, say, by way of reaction times. Then you proceed to the next level of analysis, to deeper and deeper subsubroutines. And so on, until you eventually reach the level of neurons. According to Hilary Putnam (as early as 1960, 1967129) every creature with a mind can be described and investigated along these functionalist lines.
126 127

Dennett, 1984, p. 12. That is, if axons and dendrites just non-magically remit a signal from one neuron to the other, any group of joint neurons is also an information processing device. 128 John Heil 1998, p. 92. 129 Remember, it is at the same time that Quine formulated his Thesis of Inderterminacy. By the end of the 1980‟s Putnam had changed his views, and indeed came very close to Quine‟s. At that time Shagrir (2005, p. 233) characterizes Putnam as follows: “Putnam


He likens the functional description of the brain/mind to the functional description of a computing device. Such a description of a computing device consists of a list of instructions describing how the machine reacts to certain inputs. The machine receives an input while it is in a certain state, and then goes into another state and produces a certain output. This is called a state transition. In formal terms: If the machine is in state Si, and receives input Ij, it will go into state Sk and produce output Ol.130 This formulation clearly betrays the behaviourist roots of functionalism. Most of the state transitions will not be visible from the „outside‟, though. And the output of state transitions will often be used for the storage of intermediate results.131 In this way the output of a state transition may be fed to the next state. So, if the machine is in a certain state when it receives an input, a sequence of state transitions may follow, of which a number will be purely internal state transitions, invisible to the outside observer. Et voilà, Skinner‟s black box is opened. Alternatively the mind/brain can be described as a network of computing devices.132 Each device has its own list of state transitions, and the output of these transitions can either be externally or internally fed to other internal devices. Logically speaking, if certain requirements regarding timing are met, such a network can be rewritten as one serial computing device. But for purposes of intelligibility and realism describing the brain as a bunch of interconnected computing devices will in most contexts be preferred. 133

argues [...] that the same thought can be realized in different computational structures. The argument is simple: functionalism is a holistic theory on which a mental state is defined by its causal relations to other mental states. But it is quite possible that two individuals, John and Mary, though somewhat different in functional organization [...], both believe that water is wet.” For Putnam informational organization remains important. Quine goes one step further. Even if John and Mary have exactly the same functional organization, we can still attribute different beliefs to them (see Chapter 3). Since Quines criticism is more devastating for internalism, I will stick to Quine‟s, and leave Putnam‟s aside. 130 The number of states, inputs and outputs is finite. In Putnam 1967 he describes a probabilistic automaton. In such an automaton state transitions occur with a certain probability. This refinement doesn‟t concern us here. 131 This is due to the fact that Putnam models his description on the Turing Machine which has no separate internal memory and external output. 132 See, for example, Marvin Minsky, The Society of Mind. Simon and Schuster, New York. Daniel Dennett, Seymour Papert and Allan Newell have given argumentations to the same extent. And there are many others. 133 Pylyshyn hints at this possibility in LePore and Pylyshyn 1999, p. 8 ff. Herbert A. Simon on the other hand, when writing about the human information-processing system, remarks that “[a]part from its sensory organs, the system operates almost entirely serially, one process at a time, rather than in parallel fashion. This seriality is reflected in the narrowness of its momentary focus of attention.” [Simon 1979, p. 255]


So, in the 1970‟s and 1980‟s Skinner‟s box was pried open134 with an informationalist tin-opener. David Marr in his Vision: The Philosophy and the Approach (Marr 1982) writes: What does it mean, to see? The plain man‟s answer (and Aristotle‟s, too) would be, to know what is where by looking. In other words, vision is the process of discovering from images what is present in the world, and where it is. Vision is therefore, first and foremost, an information-processing task […].135 [Emphasis in original] Notice how easily Marr reasons from a process to an information-processing task. For Marr informationalism is not narrowband functionalism at all. On the contrary, Marr envisages informationalism as the alpha and omega of many aspects of the world: The need to understand information-processing tasks and machines has arisen only quite recently. Until people began to dream of and then to build such machines, there was no pressing need to think deep about them. Once people did begin to speculate about such tasks and machines, however, it soon became clear that many aspects of the world around us … are primarily phenomena of information processing, and if we are ever to understand them fully, our thinking must include this perspective.136 And in 1987 Ray Jackendoff declares informationalism to be a great success: The computational theory of mind grows out of the conception of the brain as an information-processing device, analogous to a computer. In comparison with earlier analogies – brain as hydraulic mechanism, as steam engine, as telephone switchboard – the computer analogy has been remarkably successful in capturing the general public‟s imagination […] as well as in generating fruitful programs of research.137 During the 1980‟s informationalism all in all became the central creed of cognitive psychology. And with it the apparent narrowness of informationalism fell into oblivion. Informationalism was identified with an all-encompassing functionalism. It is this step from researching very specific (viz., informationprocessing) aspects of the human brain and mind to equalling it to a computer

I have borrowed this phrase from Lauren Slater. Her book Opening Skinner’s Box (2004) gives a lively description of psychological experiments after Skinner. Though she does not explicitly write about informationalism, these experiments suggest a modularity of the brain. 135 Marr 1982, p. 103. 136 Marr 1982, p. 103. 137 Jackendoff 1987, p. 14.


that obscures other possible qualities. I do not want to deny the merits of this narrow vision. Even in general, focussing on only one or two aspects of the object under investigation pays off many times. But, as attractive as informationalism is, and as beautiful as some of its results are, we should always be aware of its narrowness. As I will describe in the next paragraph, the main appeals of informationalism might also impede progress in other subjects, such as memes.



Informationalism has two main appeals: multiple realizability, briefly mentioned in the previous chapter, and modularity. Jackendoff gives a concise description of both, starting with multiple realizability: Two properties of computers recommend the analogy. First, the information content of data and programs (especially those written in high-level languages) can be stated independently of physical instantiation in any particular computer. […] Thus there is a sense in which, like the mind, the information in the computer is autonomous – inhabits a separate domain – from the mere hardware that supports computation.138 Please note the almost ironical logic with which Jackendoff compares the information in the computer with the mind, instead of the other way round! Information in computers inhabits a domain separate from the mere hardware, just like the mind.139 For this reason we can write computer programs without worrying too much about the machine running the program. In exactly the same manner we can study the computational processes of the brain without worrying about the neurological details. In the words of respectively Marr, Fodor and Jackendoff: There must exist an additional level of understanding at which the character of the information-processing tasks carried out during perception are analyzed and understood in a way that is independent of the particular mechanisms and structures that implement them in our heads.140 Let's leave it at this: the standard reason for stressing the distinction between virtual and physical architecture is to exhibit the actual organization of the mind as just one of the possibilities that could have been realized had the environment dictated an alternative arrangement of the computational elements. 141

138 139

Jackendoff 1987, p. 15. In doing so Jackendoff returns to a sort of dualism. My point of departure will be that the mind is physical. In lyrical words, to create a mind a spark plug is needed. 140 Marr 1982, p. 110. 141 Fodor 1983, p. 36.


[J]ust as we need not deal with the actual wiring of the computer when writing our programs, so we can investigate the information processed by the brain and the computational processes the brain performs on this information, independent of questions of neurological implementation.142 Strictly speaking, Jackendoff is absolutely right. If we concentrate on the processing of information in the brain, we can describe and analyze this without the troublesome details of neurons or other brain structures. Jackendoff, however, turns this restricted statement into an unconditional principle, as he continues: This approach is often called functionalism; the idea behind this term is that the function rather than the physical substance of the brain is significant in studying the mind.143 [Emphasis in original] With this statement Jackendoff presumes that information processing is the only (important) function of the brain as far as the mind is concerned. 144 But, the physical substance of a spark plug matters. It wouldn‟t be enough to have a device that delivers a “1” when a spark is needed and a “0” otherwise. The physical substance of a car door matters. The materials should shut out noise, wind and cold and reduce the impact of reckless fellow road users. If the function is physical, materials matter. So only when we concentrate solely on non-physical, information-processing functions does substance not matter.145 In other words, multiple realizability is the correct idea that informationprocessing tasks146 can in principle147 be realized in radically different media.148

142 143

Jackendoff 1987, p. 15. Jackendoff 1987, p. 15. 144 John Heil, in an overview, characterizes functionalism in exactly the same way: “A mind is a device capable of performing certain sorts of operation. States of mind resemble computational states, at least to the extent that they are shareable, in principle by any number of material (and perhaps immaterial) systems. To talk of minds and mental operations is to abstract from whatever realizes them; it is to talk at a higher level.” [Heil 1998, p. 91] 145 Fodor, like Jackendoff, simply states that computation is all that matters: “I shall assume without argument that mental processes are computational insofar as they are cognitive…”[Fodor 1983, p. 13]. If one is willing to grant Fodor this, multiple realizability follows by sheer logic. 146 And as far as the human mind is concerned, only information-processing tasks matter. John Searle‟s Chinese Room thought experiment brings this aspect to the fore. Even if „the room‟ is processing linguistic information in exactly the same way a native speaker would, it would still not be clear if every functional aspect of the brain of the native speaker was captured. (I will develop this theme in more detail in the next chapter.) 147 Insofar as the information processing is not dependent on some physical process, like, for example, real randomness is dependent on quantum mechanical processes.


We should, however, strongly resist the urge to broaden this idea to all processes taking place in the human brain or mind. The second appeal of informationalism is modularity. To quote Jackendoff again: Second, the ways in which programs are organized – in terms of goals and subgoals […] – resonate with commonsense intuitions about the organization of problem solving, learning, and other cognitive tasks.149 This is a fairly strong claim, of which I wouldn‟t quite know how to defend it. Let‟s begin by looking at the way computer programs are organized. In the early days of computer science programming languages were not sophisticated150 and computer memories were very small. To write a program the number of lines comprising a program had to be strictly limited, and at the same time only a tiny programming vocabulary was available. Thus programmers made all kinds of shortcuts and clever loops in the code so as to reduce the use of memory and the number of calculation steps. As a result these programs were very small indeed and moreover almost impenetrable for anyone but the programmer. Reading a program was like unravelling a huge plate of spaghetti with indefinitely long branching streamers. As computers started to have more memory and became faster, newly refined programming languages were developed. These languages made it possible to write readable computer programs. Readable, that is, to other humans (computers didn‟t mind these improvements). Computer programs were sliced into pieces, modules, that could be written and tested apart from the rest of the program. But apart from ease of development and readability this meant that the programs got bigger, that some of the same lines of code were repeated in different modules, and that the execution of a program comprised many more steps. If at some point speed or memory became a point of concern, the simple solution was to wait for six months to have the hardware developers solve the problem.151 The style of writing computer programs has altered from hodgepodge to top-down. Start with the whole job (for example, calculate the percentage of employees at risk of heart attack). Next, break up this task into smaller subtasks (read the total number of employees, establish for each employee the chance of getting a heart attack, and calculate the percentage). Now slice these


In the science of Artificial Intelligence multiple realizability is not problematic. That is, as long as this science just aims at writing „smart‟ computer programs. Cf. Dennett 1981, p. 82 149 Jackendoff 1987, p. 15 150 Assembly, or the most basic editions of BASIC, based on the maddening GOTO statement. 151 We all trusted the law of Gordon E. Moore, co-founder of Intel, according to which every two years computing hardware doubles in speed and memory capacity.


subtasks into even smaller tasks or modules, and so on until a machine 152 understands what you are talking about. But what is the relation between these neatly written top-down programs and the human brain or mind? How is the human brain actually organized? Like a plate of spaghetti, or like a neatly written top-down computer program? My common sense says that it is somewhere in between, but definitely closer to a plate of spaghetti.153 How do we organize problem solving, learning, and other cognitive tasks? Well, sometimes we do take them on step by step, substep by substep. But at other times we jump right to conclusions and deliver the justifications afterwards. However, the modularity of computer programming resonates beautifully with the idea of the compartmentalization of the human brain. Of course, compartmentalization “traces back to Franz Joseph Gall, the founding father of phrenology and a man who appears to have had an unfairly rotten press.”154 In his Modularity of Mind Fodor states that “[…] the best research strategy would seem to be divide and conquer: first study the intrinsic characteristics of each of the presumed faculties, then study the ways in which they interact.” 155 Modularity isn‟t just a way of writing clear and comprehensible computer programs, it is also the best research strategy for the human mind. From here it is just a small step to the thesis that the human mind/brain is modular.156 The smart point of modularity is that different modules can operate independently and, true to the architecture of the brain, in parallel. Who can resist modularity if it coincides with the dominant approach in software engineering, the best research strategy and the parallelism of the brain? “Modules are mandatory.”157 Though I agree that modularity has its blessings, I think that the claim that it is necessary betrays a scientific mind that is too disciplined and controlled by the computer metaphor. Modularity, like multiple realizability, has led to many new insights, as I will show in the ensuing paragraphs. But we should always be prepared to look back over our disciplined shoulders and ask what the results would have looked like if we had been controlled by different metaphors. To conclude these remarks on functionalism and informationalism, multiple realizability and modularity I would like to say a few words on information and cognition. From the 1980‟s onward the fields of cognitive

Actually it is not the machine but the compiler. But this is just computer science macho bla-bla. 153 Marco Iacoboni (2008) is of the opinion that the idea of a strictly modular mind initially prevented the scientists at the Parma University to discover what are now known as mirror neurons. These neurons perform multiple, intertwined functions, none of which can neatly be separated from the others (Iacoboni 2008, pp. 8-10). 154 Fodor 1983, p. 15. 155 Fodor 1983, p. 9. 156 Fodor shows some reservations: “When I speak of a cognitive system as modular, I shall there-fore always mean "to some interesting extent."” Fodor 1983, p. 37. But the rest of his book is one long exposition on the modularity of mind. 157 Jackendoff 1987, p. 261.


psychology, cognitive science and neuroscience have come to bloom. These fields revolve around the notions of information and cognition. As is so often the case, these notions are rarely if ever clearly defined. In a general sense it might be said that cognitive sciences study the flow and processing of information within brains and between brains and their environment. I concede that this doesn‟t elucidate these notions one bit (!), and I will return to this topic in chapter 5. For now I will just take information as an unproblematic notion, and write as if it is clear that cognition and the processing of information are indissolubly connected.






Sometimes it seems as if the philosophy of mind in the first decade of the 21st century has left all the tricky assumptions of informationalism behind. And indeed, no one will submit any longer to the claim that minds are to brains as software is to hardware. This formula has even become something of a Janus face. But while everybody solemnly turns away from the computer metaphor, traits of this paradigm still discipline and control much of the work. The creed is renounced but the logical structures remain. This isn‟t necessarily a bad thing. Embodied cognition, for example, has come about precisely because some main traits of the computer metaphor have been preserved. Admittedly, in embodied cognition mind is no longer ephemeral software; it is built out of down-to-earth physical components. However, as I will show, multiply realizability and modularity still play an indispensible role. Though this lets memes enter the scene nicely as outside components of a cognitive process, further analysis of the role played by informationalist assumptions is required. But let us first turn to cognitive externalism. Cognitive externalism is the idea that if it is the computational functions that matter, and not the way in which these are physically realized, and if to a reasonable extent the brain can be sliced into modules, then why should location matter? Why should information-processing modules reside within the physical boundaries of the brain? Or, put the other way round, why should a process that occurs outside the brain principally be withheld the status of cognitive process? Such is the upshot of the Parity Principle formulated by Clark and Chalmers: Parity Principle. If, as we confront some task, a part of the world functions as a process which, were it to go on in the head, we would have no hesitation in accepting as part of the cognitive process, then that part of the world is (for that time) part of the cognitive process.158 In this Parity Principle the presence of multiple realizability is obvious. How else could we speak of a part of the world if it were to go on in the head, if it were

Originally in Clark and Chalmers 1998, p. 8, this is a slightly better worded version from Clark 2008, p. 77.


not only for the functionality of that part of the world? Inga‟s memory versus Otto‟s notebook has become the classical example for externalists to drive this point home. Inga‟s memory is in working order. Otto suffers from Alzheimer‟s disease. When Inga wants to go to the Museum of Modern Art she uses her memory to find out it is on 53rd Street. When Otto wants to go the Museum of Modern Art he uses his notebook to find out it is on 53 rd Street. So, whereas the process of locating MoMA in the case of Inga is realized solely in neurological tissue, the very same process in Otto comprises a mixture of neurological tissue, the movement of muscles, the use of eyes and, last but not least, his notebook. As Clark and Chalmers write: Otto is constantly using his notebook as a matter of course. It is central to his actions in all sorts of contexts, in the way that an ordinary memory is central in an ordinary life.159 [My emphasis] In the way, that is, in the functional, information-processing way. When we look at Inga and Otto from a distance we will see them both going to the MoMA, both saying to the cabdriver, “MoMA, 53rd Street, please.” Both will exit the car in front of the museum and both will walk to the exhibition which attracted them there in the first place. Only when we zoom in on the details of both will we find that Otto‟s notebook is part of Otto‟s memory process, whereas in Inga‟s case it is not. So, why not consider the notebook a part of Otto‟s cognitive mind? In both cases the information is reliably there when needed, available to consciousness and available to guide action, in just the way we expect a belief to be. Certainly, insofar as beliefs and desires are characterized by their explanatory roles, Otto‟s and Inga‟s cases seem to be on a par: the essential causal dynamics of the two cases mirror each other precisely.160 This brings Clark and Chalmers to the following conclusion. The moral is that when it comes to belief, there is nothing sacred about skull and skin. What makes some information count as a belief is the role it plays, and there is no reason why the relevant role can be played only from inside the body.161 From an informationalistic point of view Clark and Chalmers are absolutely justified in drawing this conclusion. If we disregard everything else, and just focus on the information processing that goes on, then certainly “there is nothing sacred about skull and skin.” In embracing this conclusion we should suppress the urge to hastily enlarge this narrow band functionalism to an all159 160 161

Clark and Chalmers 1998, p. 9. Clark and Chalmers 1998, p. 227. Clark and Chalmers 1998, p. 228.


encompassing functionalism. Therefore I would not endorse the universal “… when it comes to belief…”, but rather hold that insofar as a belief plays an informational role there is nothing sacred about skull and skin in so far as that informational role is concerned. Even this more careful conclusion allows memes to re-enter the mind, as we will see after we have rephrased the parity principle to do away with the intuitively false assumptions of modularity.




In a subtle way the parity principle connects to the idea of the modularity of brains and cognitive processes. The parity between Inga and Otto is associated with Inga‟s brain on the one side and Otto‟s notebook (and his muscles and eyes) on the other. But by no means is it clear that we could, even in principle, slice out a portion of Inga‟s cognitive processes that would play the same, and only the same role as Otto‟s notebook process. Can, for example, Inga‟s process be sliced into a portion that contains the information about the MoMA and a portion that performs the looking up of that information? I seriously doubt that this could be the case162, and at this point I would certainly not want to be committed to this view. So it is not clear what should be compared with what qua role. We can circumvent this difficulty by rephrasing the parity principle: Holistic Parity Principle. If two organisms solve some cognitive task, and one of them uses a part of the world that the other doesn‟t, and if we have no hesitation in accepting that the latter is completing its cognitive task, then that part of the world is (for that time) part of the cognitive process of the other. So, although the modularity of the mind has certainly played an important role in the historical development of externalism, I think externalism can be phrased and developed without it. This relieves us from the responsibility to underwrite the modularity thesis and to state exactly what cognitive processes can replace a particular part of the world. Some organisms function in the same cognitive way as other organisms in combination with a part of the world. Otto plus notebook is functionally equivalent to Inga. Actually the only part that stands on itself throughout the story about Otto and Inga, is the notebook. Otto could give his notebook to Inga, and she could then add the notebook to her cognitive processes. As she learns to use and trust the notebook, she might begin to put addresses out of her mind, like we forget about telephone numbers stored in the memory of our mobile phone. After a while she might become very similar to Otto in that she would be lost to a certain extent if she lost the notebook. Although she would be able to relearn

Jackendoff argues that understanding language requires a modular description of the language faculty. If this were the case we could in principle slice the brain up into functional modules. These modules could be used as hook-ups for the determination of meaning. If this were true, Quine‟s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation wouldn‟t hold.


the addresses by heart, whereas Otto would not, Inga could become as dependent on Otto‟s notebook as Otto himself. The notebook is a module that can be transferred from Otto‟s mind to Inga‟s mind. On that note, let us return to the definition of meme. I have shown that the early definitions of meme by Dawkins, Blackmore and Dennett work out badly when it comes to giving flesh to the notion of a copy of a meme. Therefore I altered the definition to: meme An (element of) an artefact or behaviour that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation. This definition seems to preclude the possibility that memes enter into the human mind. But Inga and particularly Otto show this is not the case. That is, memes do not so much enter the mind, as that the human cognitive mind comes to encompass certain memes. This is a special case of what Clark dubbed the 007 principle: The 007 principle. In general, evolved creatures will neither store nor process information in costly ways, when they can use the structure of the environment and their operations upon it as a convenient stand-in for the information-processing operations concerned. That is, know only as much as you need to know to get the job done.163 In Clark‟s Supersizing the Mind the same principle is labelled intelligent offloading.164 This idea of intelligent offloading is itself a special case of a general tendency in organisms to try to move the information-processing burden from the brain to the body and from there on to the background. Let us call this the B3 principle. B3 Principle. Organisms will try to move the informationprocessing165 burden from brain to body and from there on to the background as much as possible, if they can. Evolutionarily speaking this makes perfect sense. Brain tissue consumes more energy than bodily tissues, which in turn consume more energy than the background environment. Offloading information saves energy which can then be put to use in other activities, such as procreation. From now on the term intelligent offloading will be reserved to indicate the offloading from body to background.

163 164

Clark 1989, p. 64. Clark does not give a clear cut definition of intelligent offloading. But the index seems to suggest that he is talking about the same phenomenon. Clark 2008. 165 I intentionally use the words information processing. The B3 principle only holds in the narrow band functional domain. There might be other causes that would prevent intelligent offloading.


The offloading from body to background is a topic in itself in animal behaviour. Animals will try to save energy if their environment can accomplish some task for them. Vultures silently wait till lions have brought down their prey. Crows use the traffic lights and cars on crossroads to quickly crack open nuts166. Predators make use of the occasional bushfire to have a feast. And high-ranked baboons simply steal the food their low-ranked congeners have painstakingly gathered. Intelligent offloading, the offloading to accomplish a cognitive task, is a special case of this overall tendency of bodies to offload. I will return to this topic at length in the next chapter. So, memes are kinds of behaviour or artefacts, or parts of either, that can be copied. According to the 007 principle and the B3 principle humans will extensively make use of memes if these will relieve the brain off some of its information-processing burden. With this some memes become an integral part of the human mind. So, in the end I partially agree with Dawkins, Blackmore and Dennett. Memes can be part of the human mind, but only the memes that are artefacts or kinds of behaviour that are part of information-processing tasks. To clarify this, let us take a look at two examples of chapter one, nut cracking chimpanzees and table manners. In the course of eight to ten years West African chimpanzees learn how to crack the nuts of the oil palm tree open. Young chimpanzees observe the behaviour of their mothers and through a massive amount of trials they slowly shape their behaviour until they are able to independently crack the nuts open. In line with the above definition of a meme the nut cracking behaviour of the chimpanzees makes up a meme, or a complex of memes. These memes are copied from chimpanzee to chimpanzee. But, is there any intelligent offloading involved? Is the knowledge of nut cracking stored somewhere in the environment? Compare the hammer and anvil chimpanzees use to my Stanley hammer. When I hit the first nails with my Stanley, which my brother had offered me as a birthday present, I thought it was worthless. But, as my brother told me, I had to get used to the Stanley, and the Stanley had to shape to my behaviour as a carpenter. Slowly the dents in the head, the result of hitting thousands of nails, made the hammer more suitable to my style of hitting nails (compare this with the wear and tear of a fountain pen). There is a lot I don‟t know about my hammer. I don‟t know its length or weight, the exact materials used, the shape or the reason why I have got a lifelong guarantee on the handle. Yet all these features matter to my hammering capabilities. The features are not the result of my intelligence but the result of the hammering experiences of numerous generations of carpenters preceding my efforts. My Stanley contains intelligence about the average strength of a man, his arm length, nails and wood.


See the video on http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ig63XvdqiD4.


Tool use is a two-way sign of intelligence: not only does it require intelligence to recognize and maintain a tool (let alone fabricate one) but a tool confers intelligence on those lucky enough to be given one.167 I am like a vulture preying on the effort and knowledge of previous generations of carpenters. Consequently, the noble art of hammering is transferred from human to human partly by hammers. It is a lot like Inga using Otto‟s notebook. Once she gets used to the book, she preys on the information gathered by Otto. Chimpanzees do not transfer the art of nut cracking via hammer and anvil. To be sure, they know what to look for. They intentionally seek stones that fit the job, and occasionally resort to wooden alternatives. But when tools are broken when used, the chimpanzees often continue using stones. 168 So, only in a very small sense can the stones be considered as offloaded knowledge. They fit in with the behaviour of the chimpanzees, without significantly making the behaviour of the chimpanzees fit in with them. Therefore the hammers and anvils of chimps cannot be counted in as memes, while their behaviour can. Chimpanzees don‟t offload their knowledge into the background, so there is no possibility of picking it up for other chimpanzees. With court etiquette and table manners intelligent offloading is abundant. Etiquette books are to the nobility and especially to the middle classes what the notebook is to Otto. They enable them to find their way in the intricate landscape of behavioural obligations. As Inga picks up Otto‟s notebook and starts using it as navigational support, she inherits Otto‟s knowledge. Not in her head, but quite literally in the notebook. Inga could also replace Otto‟s notebook. Giving Otto a notebook with different addresses would change his knowledge. Similarly, etiquette books embody knowledge. They are knowledge modules. We could replace an etiquette book, just as we could replace a spark plug. We could even replace the book on 16th century court etiquette with a manuscript on the court manners of an Egyptian Pharaoh, or the table manners of 21th century vegetarians. As long as the human using the book would uncritically follow the rules in the book, her manners wouldn‟t be bad. But there are other types of offloading in etiquette as well. The way tables are laid in classy restaurants, for example. For every course there are specific pieces of cutlery. At the beginning of the dinner all these pieces are laid on the table, in such a way that you can easily determine which cutlery to use. Just pick up the knife, fork and spoon that are most distant from your plate. After the course the waiter will remove the pieces, and it is clear what cutlery should be used for the next course. Of course you can still mix up the use of knives, forks and spoons, but there is at least some support. Further examples of offloading are the placement of chairs in a room, the use of servants to guide you or stripes and stars on uniforms. All these contain knowledge offloaded into the background. This knowledge is heavily modular
167 168

Dennett 1996, pp. 99-100. Matsuzawa 1994, p. 360.


and can be replaced by plug-and-play. In this way memes can become part of the cognitive information- processing mind of humans. This re-entry of memes into the human mind might seem rather bleak, though. Memes understood in this way certainly don‟t play a constitutive role in the conscious human mind. It could still be held that there are human minds on the one side, and helpful artefacts on the other. The notebook doesn‟t alter Otto‟s conscious mind. It functions like unconscious modules or processes in our brain. Otto cannot consciously experience the information in his notebook, like Inga can experience the information in her head. Memes thus understood are mind tools, not the building blocks of human experience. Can we do better? In their original proposals Dawkins and Blackmore saw memes as constitutive of the human mind. But in their view to be constitutive of the mind, memes had to enter the head as software. Can we do better than just cognitive functionalism? Can memes be constitutive of our consciousness without entering our head?

Is there a difference between Otto and Inga? According to the holistic parity principle there isn‟t. This principle, however, is only concerned with the narrowband functionality of the processes Inga and Otto plus notebook.169 But what if we shift gear and change to a broader type of functionalism? In other words, are there non-information processing aspects that matter to Inga an Otto, but that tend to be overlooked when the focus is narrowed by informationalism? Let‟s rephrase the question a little. Who would you rather be, given that they are holistically indistinguishable on all narrowband functionalist accounts, Inga or Otto plus? I will approach this question indirectly by way of Alva Noë‟s account of perception. There is something strange about Noë‟s book Action in Perception. He doesn‟t use the words information or information processing. An odd thing, for sure, in an age obsessed with information. To Noë talk about the perceptual aspects of the mind cannot be separated from talk about the way perceptual functions are embodied. Perhaps a description of the information processing done by brain and body could indeed be given, but taken on its own this would not explain our perceptions. Informational processes might be multiple realizable, but human perceptions are not, they are tissue dependent to some important extent. It is instructive to contrast Noë‟s treatment of vision with James Gibson‟s ecological approach. Gibson, as well as Noë, stresses the importance of the environment. Both are, in this sense, externalists. To both bodily movements


To be more precise, the modularity of the mind must also hold in a very strong sense for there to be no cognitive difference between Otto and Inga. I will assume this to be the case. The philosophical view of Noë on enactment is independent of views on modularity.


play a central role in perception. But whereas Gibson expresses his approach entirely in terms of information, Noë uses enactment to couch his ideas. Let us begin with Gibson. In his ecological account of perception, Gibson starts off with broadening the notion of information to cover almost everything that is around us and to which our perceptual apparatus can in principle respond. This broadening is by no means trivial, but it dovetails with narrowband functionalism in that it transforms, or better still narrows, a physical phenomenon to its informational content. Let us try to distinguish light as physical energy, light as a stimulus for vision, and light as information for perception. What I call ecological optics is concerned with the available information for perception and differs from physical optics, from geometrical optics, and also from physiological optics.170 So ecological optics makes the environment available for informationalist approaches. From the primary qualities of the light surrounding us he distils the information this so-called ambient light might convey: There is a vast literature nowadays of speculation about the media of communication. Much of it is undisciplined and vague. The concept of information most of us have comes from that literature. But this is not the concept that will be adopted in this book. For we cannot explain perception in terms of communication; it is quite the other way around. We cannot convey information about the world to others unless we have perceived the world. And the available information for our perception is radically different from the information we convey.171 [My emphasis to highlight his obsession with information] Granted, Gibson does add a fine externalist point, but only to externalist accounts that are already committed to narrowband functionalism. Gibson‟s is not a fundamental critique on informationalism. It just widens the scope of informationalism to accommodate the background. What we thought to go on in the brain, that is, the processing of visual information, takes place at the boundary where our eyes and the ambient light meet. The notion ‟optical array is in this respect telling. It transforms the sea of light we bathe in, into discrete portions, neatly arranged into an array 172. Once we think of ambient light as an array, the movements of our eye can do the processing, instead of our brain. Mark Rowlands gives a concise summary of Gibson‟s fifth chapter:

170 171

Gibson 1979, p. 47. Gibson 1979, p. 63. 172 An array is also a much used object in computer programming. Information is often structured into an array to allow multiple and iterated processing. The physical eye in Gibson‟s account almost regains the properties of the Cartesian mind‟s eye, or the read/write head of the Turing Machine, as the computational centre of vision.


Light carries information because the structure of the optical array is determined by the nature and position of the surfaces from which it has been reflected. The optic array is, as Gibson puts it, specific to the environment. Because of this, an organism whose perceptual system detects optical structure in the array is thereby aware of what this structure specifies. Thus, the perceiving organism is aware of the environment and not the array and, more importantly, is in a position to utilize the information about the environment embodied in the array. The more information available to the organism in its optic array, the less internal processing the organism needs to perform. Understanding of the internal processes involved in visual perception is logically and methodologically secondary to understanding the information that is available to the perceiving organism in its environment.173 I think Gibson is right as to the computational properties of ambient light and moving eyes. For one thing, Gibson shows that perception is situated, strongly dependent on our bodily movements, especially our eyes, our position in space, and the specifics of the ambient light we are in. But, his account is narrow in that it focuses solely on information extraction. Our body and eyes have become part of the information extracting process that, according to others, goes on solely in the brain. In principle the physical details still don‟t matter. If we were to feed the optical array into a computer, it could, like our eyes, scan the array and extract the same amount of information. Noë, though acknowledging the externalist merits of Gibson 174, considers his treatment too detached from the specifics of the human body. This is, of course, a consequence of the underlying thesis of multiple realizability in Gibson‟s ideas.175 According to this thesis “the algorithmic level of description of cognitive phenomena is autonomous with respect to the implementation level.”176 But, [t]he enactive view applies pressure to [this] thesis. If perception is in part constituted by our possession and exercise of bodily skills – as I argue in this book – then it may also depend on our possession of the sort of bodies that can encompass those skills, for only a creature with such a body could have those skills. To perceive like us, it follows, you must have a body like ours.177

173 174

Rowlands 2003, p. 171. [Emphasis in original] Noë 2004, p. 21-22. 175 Noë doesn‟t argue against the thesis of multiple realizability per se, but against the informationalist version I present here. That is, the idea that when we know the information- processing properties of physical processes, these can be implemented on various devices. 176 Noë 2004, p. 24. 177 Noë 2004, p. 25.


Notice that Noë does not deny the information extracting properties of our body and senses. His view of enactment is that information extraction is indissolubly connected to the physical specifics of our bodies. It is reliant on the exact specifications of our body parts. Noë simply brings too hastily drawn informationalist conclusions to a halt. The way in which we perceive is connected to the way our body is composed. 178 More specific: Perceptual experience acquires content thanks to our possession of bodily skills. What we perceive is determined by what we do (or what we know how to do); it is determined by what we are ready to do. … [W]e enact our perceptual experience; we act it out.179 Now please reconsider Inga, Otto and his notebook. As I have said Inga and Otto plus notebook are, by stipulation, informationally equivalent. They are behaviourally indistinguishable. But, do Inga and Otto perceive the world in the same way? Does the world look to Inga as it does to Otto? Let us make a very bold assumption180 and state that Otto is so much used to his notebook that most of the time he doesn‟t even notice the notebook. Otto‟s notebook is, to use Clark‟s term, transparent. Otto uses his notebook like we use our watch. Carelessly, without even noticing it, we glance at our watch and adjust our behaviour to the time. When someone asks us the time, we thoughtlessly turn our wrist and lift our left arm. 181 Quite the same goes for Otto. His notebook is transparent. Our memory is also transparent. Most of the time we don‟t even notice we are making memory calls. Still, transparency does not yield equivalence. This comes out best when we experience a memory breakdown, when a name or an address is on the tip of our tongues, so to speak. The best advice for what to do in those circumstances is to relax and not think about it for a while. Probably the address will pop up in your memory when you least think about it. But what about Otto? What should he do if an address is not on the page he opens? He should probably develop some smart strategy for flipping over the pages until he encounters the address. So the way in which Inga enacts her memory is pretty different from the way Otto enacts his notebook. Both systems (Inga versus Otto plus notebook) process information in exactly the same way. But whereas Otto‟s memory recalls are dependent on brain, muscles and eyes, Inga‟s memory recalls are only dependent on her brain (and perhaps her body). Though Inga and Otto

Noë acknowledges the fact that this comes close to Gibson‟s account of affordances. But Gibson used affordances only to supplement his theory of perception. To Noë “all objects of sight (indeed all objects of perception) are affordances.” Noë 2004, pp. 105106. 179 Noë 2004, p. 1 180 It is probably too bold, according to Erik Myin, for example, who in a lecture demonstrated the sheer implausibility of someone like Otto actually existing. 181 Clark 2003, pp. 40-41.


plus notebook are informationally equivalent, according to Noë, Inga perceives address retrieval in a different way from Otto. This difference cannot be reduced to a difference in information processing. There is a functional difference between Inga and Otto after all, a difference in enactment. This brings us to the difficult question of when a function is duplicated. Some definite answer may be given as to the informational properties, although this is by no means clear (see Chapter 3). But it is certainly the merit of narrowband functionalism that it allows us to centre on some aspects of organisms while keeping a blind eye to others. However, as Noë has it, perception might be reliant on the physical details of implementation. You might actually have to mention hands and eyes.182 Therefore broad functionalism will always be subordinate to scientific discoveries. When biologists uncover new details about the human body, or about bodily tissues, the algorithm describing cognition might have to be couched in quite different terms. And it might show that all the time we might have been wrong about our perceptions. My mechanic may be wrong. Maybe there is a physical property that matters. A physical property that Volkswagen parts possess and generic parts don‟t, a property that determines the way in which I perceive spare parts. Or, consider an even more mundane example. What is the difference between watching a movie on my laptop computer and watching it at the cinema? Especially, when you bear in mind that the part of our retina with which we actually see covers no more than a thumbnail on the distance of an arm length? I think there is no notable difference as far as the information processed is concerned. But there is a difference in enactment. In the cinema we have to turn our heads more, slightly but significantly. And, the sound comes from further away and surrounds us, so movement of our head and ears brings about a different flow of sound waves on our eardrums. This difference in the consequences of bodily movements and the anticipation thereof cause a variation in experience. Bodily matter and movement matter to mind. As a final example, this might not be to the taste of everyone, consider the remarkable difference in sales figures between the Playstation 3 and the Nintendo Wii. Jon Cogburn and Mark Silcox write: Compared to the Sony Playstation 3 [...] the Nintendo‟s Wii‟s graphics are primitive, and most of the games that have been made for it (so far) are consistently childish in content. Yet demand for the Wii was so great that as late as August 2007 (over eight months after its initial release) used consoles were being purchased on Amazon.com for $ 150 over the retail price. By this date the Wii had outsold the Playstation 3 by three to one [...]183

182 183

Cf. Noë p. 2004, p. 25. Cogburn and Silcox 2009, p. 17.


Why? Cogburn and Silcox seek the solution to this puzzle in enactivism, which they describe as follows: Enactivist theories of perception hold that humans do directly perceive the world. According to enactivism, this direct perception is a function of the way we physically manipulate ourselves and our environments. [...] [E]nactivism provides a compelling explanation of why Wii game-play is more realistic.184 The Wii is more realistic because of the Wii‟s controller. I will not explain the ins and outs of Wii gaming, and if you are not familiar with it I invite you to have a talk to a teenager and ask her all about it. The short version is something like this. In order to direct the video game on a Wii, movements have to be made resembling gestures in the real situation much more closely than a keyboard or the controller of a Playstation. When using the latter device only the fingers have to be budged. When playing on a Wii the arm and body have to be moved as well. The graphics of the Wii is childish, but because the interface forces us to enact the real life movements, playing on the Wii feels more realistic. Cogburn and Silcox conclude: [W]hy does Wii play seem more realistic to players, even though the visual interface is so much worse? Answer: enactivism is true. Perception is not an isolated mental phenomenon, [...] but rather a function of one‟s overall sensorimotor profile.185 We should not jump to hasty conclusions. In the years to come, empirical science will show whether enactivism is true. However, enactivism gives a compelling explanation as to why people prefer Wii memes over Playstation memes. And these reasons have nothing to do with the processing of information. We prefer the Wii memes because of the sensorimotor profile they provide us with. This idea gives us a new way of looking at memes. Might memes be more than passive, unconscious scaffolds of our cognitive mind? Might memes actually enrich our mental life, the way in which we experience the world?



Otto‟s notebook makes a difference for the way in which he enacts memory tasks, and consequently for the way in which his memory feels to him. So, a meme can not only enter into our (cognitive) mind, but at the same time it can alter the way in which we experience a cognitive task. Informationalists tend to overlook this, probably because the overall input-output function of the organism plus background is considered instead of the particular ways of enactment. Manipulation of the environment helps the organism to solve a

184 185

Cogburn and Silcox, p. 21. ogburn and Silcox 2009, p. 48.


cognitive task it would otherwise have to perform in its brain. 186 Hence offloading. But when we view the use and manipulation of the environment as enactment, memes, whether understood as artefacts or as behaviour, also get a certain feel, to use the forbidden four-letter f-word. This has three consequences that are important for a viable evolutionary account of memes. In the first place, because of the feel we prefer some memes to others. We prefer biological memory to notebooks in a lot of cases. This is because we enact biological memory differently from notebook memory. The passage about a dangerous mountain walk in our diary can be helpful in recalling the walk, but it could never replace the memorable experience! We externally store telephone numbers, dates, addresses and codes, or else we use all sorts of mnemonic reminders. The enactment of memory recall in these cases comes close to brainy memory recalls of otherwise meaningless figures. But with more meaningful episodes enactment matters, and it matters because it provides memories with feelings. Therefore we preferably use our biological memory, or else alternatives like photographs or video, although somehow the latter will always fall short. Memes evolve because we select and duplicate some memes over others. The B3principle says that we prefer memes for reasons of saving energy. The theory of enactment suggests a slight revision. We might actually prefer some memes to others because we prefer some form of enactment to another, even though it consumes more energy. Secondly, in some sense boundaries do matter. This follows from the fact that we enact the memes we attach ourselves to. Different artefacts and different ways of behaviour fit differently in with our boundaries. This fit itself can influence the way in which we experience the meme. The third consequence is more important. Memes might give us genuine new ways of experiencing. To some extent this is trivial. Microscopes and telescopes unveil things never seen before. But this is not quite what is meant here. Microscopes and telescopes may simply reveal new information, but they also add content to existing ways of perceiving. However, some artefacts might also add to the number of types of experiences we have. Consider texting187 on your mobile phone as an example of experience enrichment. The texting technique was originally introduced without far-reaching pretentions. The amount of data sent by way of texting is minute in comparison to the amount of data transferred during an ordinary phone call. Nevertheless, texting took on, and today telephone companies obtain a substantial part of their income from texting services. How could this happen? The main reason, or so I argue, is because texting is not about information at all. It is not about the information contained in the text message itself, nor about colateral information, such as “I am thinking of you”, “We are friends” or “Don‟t hesitate to call.” No, texting literally alters the way in which
186 187

See, for example, Clark 1977, p. 64. In Dutch: sms„en.


we experience others. In that respect it had best be compared with tactile visual sensory substitution (TVSS) experiments, as described by Clark 188 and Noë189. TVSS is a mode of quasi-seeing without any involvement of eyes or visual context. […] The subject is outfitted with a head-mounted camera that is wired up to electrodes (say, on the tongue) in such a way that visual information presented to the camera produces patterns of activation on the tongue.190 After a short training period the subjects begin to report visual experiences, they are able to grab and throw objects into a basket. Subjects even experience certain well-known visual illusions such as the waterfall illusion.191 On Clark‟s account “[t]he human eye provides one […] complex of information, the TVSS grid another…”192 So, “[t]he lesson, once again, is that our brains are amazingly adept at learning to exploit new types and channels of input.” 193 But this doesn‟t even begin to describe the experiences subjects report. Subjects enthusiastically testify that they regain a lost way of experiencing the world, sight. Within the theory of enactment this means, according to Noë, that “the laws of sensorimotor contingency governing the quasi-vision of TVSS are like those of normal vision, at least to some substantial degree […].” 194 Would TVSS provide subjects with visual experiences even if they were born blind? Would TVSS provide subjects with visual experiences even if they were born blind and had no visual cortex? Yes, it would. Because the visual experiences occur in the cortex connected to the tongue, “[w]hat makes a locus of brain activity a locus of visual activity is, precisely, the fact that this activity is deployed in the services of this larger sensorimotor task […].”195When subjects are connected to a TVSS device they perceive the world in a way they could not do without it. When people are connected to mobile phones with texting they experience social relationships in a way they couldn‟t experience without it. Texting is not just a fast alternative or substitute for letters, postcards or emails. Texting takes place within an array of different kinds of behaviour that makes the subjects experience the presence of others in new and incomparable ways. Texting lets us enact others in a way that old-fashioned presence and distance would not. That is why youngsters tell their parents and grandparents
188 189

Clark 2003, pp. 124-126. Noë 2004, p. 110 ff. 190 Noë 2004, p. 111, see also Clark 2003, p. 125. 191 Noë 2004, p. 111 and there is a very convincing video to be seen on: http://www.pbs.org/kcet/wiredscience/video/286-mixed_feelings.html. Meanwhile the American corporation Wicab has developed a commercial version of a TVSS device, called Brainport. 192 Clark 2003, p. 126. 193 Clark ibid. 194 Noë 2004, p. 112. 195 Noë 2004, p. 112.


to experience a community of mutually texting individuals before judging. In his latest book Noë writes about texting: My mother thousands of miles away is present, for she is just one phone call away. The funds in my U.S. bank account are available to me here in Germany in this age of electronic banking, and so they are, in that sense present – that is to say, they feel present to me. The use of instant messaging provides a striking example of this kind of extended presence. Studies have shown that the use of messaging amongst teenagers in Japan has transformed the dynamics of social relations. Kids text back and forth throughout the day. They rarely send informative or detailed messages; the informational content of their sendings tends to be minimal. In effect, they are “pinging” each other: letting each other know that they are online, or in reach, or “there”. [...] In this way, the practice of texting [...] creates a new modality of social presence.196



Narrowband functionalism combined with externalism shows how memes can enter the mind. Nevertheless, it falls short of explaining the lure of some memes over others, because it fails to observe functionality beyond information and the processing of it. When we move from this rather bleak perspective to an enriched paradigm of enactment, memes gain in evolutionary power. They do not just function as offloading devices, but alter the way in which humans experience the world. In the next chapter I will show this to be a very viable possibility, and with it I hope to sanction Noë‟s account from an evolutionary angle.


Noë 2009, pp. 83-84. My emphasis



"Man the cow parasite" is probably how non-man defines man in his zoology books. Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness of Being

Why should we use the term meme? Why not just stick to terms like artefacts, behaviour, or, if you insist, information and ideas? I will contend that the introduction of a new term, like meme, into evolutionary biology is only feasible when memes have empirical effects and are themselves part of the ontology of biology. Biology is not a science like elementary particle physics. Biology is about species, organisms, cells and DNA. Theories on evolution are causal descriptions about how organisms changed under the influence of changing environments. As was shown in chapter 3, information and meaning should be precluded from biology as long as two different researchers can come up with contradictory descriptions and there is no way, not even in principle, to decide who is right or who is wrong. Therefore, biology should limit the use of theoretical terms to an absolute minimum. Preferably, in evolutionary biology it should in principle always be possible to eliminate a theoretical term and ground it in entities having an obvious causal impact. Do memes play a causal role, then? Remember I defined memes in terms of artefacts and behaviour. So the question becomes: do behaviour and artefacts play a causal role in evolutionary biology? Can it sometimes be the case that, where artefacts and behavioural changes lead, inherited changes follow?197 Or, to put the question into a catchphrase: do memes push genes, at least some of the times? For if it is always the other way round, we could just as well describe the happenings of memes as a phenotypical effect of genes. So, do behaviour and artefacts sometimes have effects on genes? One of the possible effects of behaviour pushing genes is called the Baldwin effect, after the American psychologist James Mark Baldwin, who wrote a paper in 1896 called A New Factor in Evolution.198 Baldwin described the way in which learned behaviour can become part of the inherited behavioural
197 198

Cf. Jablonka and Lamb 2005, p. 289. See Baldwin 1896.


repertoire of a species of organisms. To describe the Baldwin principle Avital and Jablonka use the imaginary species tarbutnik199 (after the Hebrew word for culture, tarbut). Since the use of this species has become somewhat of a tradition, like Quine’s Gavagai!, I will submit to the explanatory use of the tarbutnik. So, suppose that at some point in biological history the environment of the tarbutnik undergoes a considerable change. Suppose further that only the individuals capable of learning novel behaviour are able to survive and procreate. This then would lead to new generations of tarbutniks all of which are also adept at learning the new behaviour. So far, the new behaviour isn‟t part of the genetic behavioural repertoire of the tarbutniks, though the learning behaviour is. But things might start to change due to the following. It was arguably Darwin‟s greatest merit, that he showed all traits of a species to display a considerable variation from one individual to another. Tarbutniks are all capable of learning the new behaviour, but some will do so more quickly and easily than others. The tarbutniks which are apter at learning the new behaviour, and which spend less energy in learning, have more energy left for procreation. Consequently, following generations will show an increased frequency in the traits enabling individual tarbutniks to grasp the novel behaviour more quickly. Some of these traits might not be learning skills at all, but traits leading directly to the desired behaviour, thus saving the energy normally consumed by learning. So, as this process repeats itself over many generations, eventually a generation will develop of which the individuals won‟t have to learn the behaviour at all. They simply develop it as an innate trait. Though it is not difficult to imagine something like the Baldwin effect going on, the question how often in natural history the Baldwin effect has actually taken place is far more complicated to answer. Dennett discusses this question200, and concludes that: “[...] the Baldwin effect is not at all an alternative to natural selection, but it is nonetheless an important extrapolation from, or extension of, orthodox theory that potentially can explain the origins of many of the most challenging adaptations.201 Dawkins accepts that the effect may have played a role in evolution, with the explicit provision that it should not in any way be understood to be Lamarckian.202 And Terrence Deacon considers the Baldwin effect to be of importance in the evolution of human language.203

199 200 201 202 203

Avital and Jablonka, p. 3, and ff. Dennett 2003, p. 70. Dennett 2003, p. 72. Dawkins 1982, p. 170. Deacon 1997, p. 322, and ff.


Godfrey-Smith shows that the Baldwin principle has to be supplemented with what is called niche-construction to yield a genuine force in evolution. 204 Organisms can construct their own niche by altering the environment in which they live. To return to the tarbutniks, suppose some of them have acquired the skills of predicting the behaviour of other tarbutniks. These „mind-reading‟ tarbutniks use their capacity to outwit the others and in this way food and mate resources become more accessible to them. Over the generations tarbutniks will generally become better mind-readers. But then the social environment will have changed. Just mind-reading will not suffice anymore, and more elaborate mind-reading skills will develop. And so on. Within this new environment tarbutniks without mind-reading skills will have a hard time breeding.205 A combination of niche-construction and the Balwin effect is understood to be at the heart of many human traits. Some humans are better at digesting lactose than others, and in many cultures almost none of the adults are able to digest it at all206. When at some prehistoric point milking behaviour began, the amount of nutrients that could be pulled out from an animal vastly increased, as compared to just consuming its meat. Therefore the capacity to drink milk and digest lactose gave some individuals an edge over others. Consequently the ability to milk, drink milk and the capacity to digest milk spread over some populations. This led to a change in environment in tribes drinking milk. Within these tribes individuals with lactose intolerance became maladapted. So, once farming and milk drinking behaviour catch on, some genes are pushed out.207 Might artefacts have had the same effects? Obviously some kinds of human behaviour are heavily dependent on artefacts. In some sense, even domesticated cows are artefacts, natural findings shaped to the needs of humans. Hunting, to name a more evident example, is dependent on the existence of arrows and bows, since humans are too slow and clumsy to catch a prey with their bare hands like chimpanzees do. Or, if prehistoric humans could perhaps still catch prey empty-handed, bows and arrows would have given some hunters a definite edge over others. But as soon as bow and arrow caught

The Baldwin Effect supplemented with niche-construction is already implicitly present in Deacon 1997, Godfrey-Smith accentuates its importance. For example, Godfrey-Smith 2003, p. 56. 205 Allison Jolly, Andrew Whithen, Robert Byrne and many others have suggested that some such process lies at the origin of human mind-reading capabilities. 206 98% of Southeast Asians, 90% of Asian Americans and 80% of Alaskan Inuit are lactose intolerant, according to the NCMHD Centre for Nutritional Genomics (webpage: http://nutrigenomics.ucdavis.edu/nutrigenomics/). 207 Conversely, because of the fact that our ancestors began consuming meat some formerly maladaptive genes might have been allowed in. “Tool-use no doubt helped early humans in butchering their dinners. But there is evidence that the advance to cooking and using knives and forks is leading to crooked teeth and facial dwarfing in humans.” (Source: National Geographic News, http://www.nationalgeographic.com/) Another spicy detail is the fact that vegetarianism is only possible within a culture where food is cooked. The length of our intestines betrays a meat eating history, since they aren‟t long enough to sufficiently digest raw vegetables.


on, the environment changed and individuals without the skill to use these artefacts would have seen the number of potential prey dwindle. Hunting equipment might have boosted the tool using agility of early humans. Perhaps the most telling trait originating from some sort of nichecreation in combination with the Baldwin effect is the fact that we are naturalborn cyborgs. [W]hat is special about human brains, and what best explains the distinctive features of human intelligence, is precisely to enter into deep and complex relationships with nonbiological constructs, props and aids.208 Even granting that the biological innovations that got this ball rolling may have consisted only in some small tweaks to an ancestral repertoire, the upshot of this subtle alteration is now a sudden, massive leap in the space of mind design. Our cognitive machinery is now intrinsically geared to [...] artefact-based expansion [...]209 Such a distinctive human feature might only have come about when the early use of tools created a new niche in which humans without the ability to use tools became maladapted and extinguished. Today the inability to use tools and/or to perform complex sequences of behaviour is called dyspraxia and is described in the DSM-IV+210. Our ancestors learned to use tools, their successors slowly acquired the genes for this aptitude, thus enabling them to use even more complex tools. And we, the successors of the successors of these successors, are diagnosed with dyspraxia if we are not able to connect to our culture based on artefact. Whether or not Baldwin effects and niche-creation are robust evolutionary forces, it remains questionable if they supply us with a satisfactory justification for the use of the term meme, for three reasons. First, though they explain the way in which some artefacts and kinds of behaviour drive genes, they do not necessarily imply that artefacts are themselves part of an evolutionary process. Suppose the tarbutniks by accident stumble upon a huge pile of neolithic tools, huge enough to supply every tarbutnik with the necessary tools. Then why should the tarbutniks copy and select those tools? They carefully preserve the tools they find, perhaps they even repair them, but they don‟t copy them, because there is simply no need to do so. Baldwin effects and niche-creation treat behaviour and artefacts on a par with natural resources. But what is more, secondly, Baldwin effects and niche-creation take place on an evolutionary timescale. How could these processes explain the rapid

208 209

Clark 2003, p. 5. Clark 2003, p. 8. 210 The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM). Published by the American Psychiatric Association.


multiplication of mobile phones, from one to billions within one generation 211? Baldwin effects and niche- creation might explain our cyborgian nature, but they do not clarify the nature of successful memes, nor do they provide reasons for adopting memes as an interesting biological category. And thirdly, Baldwin effects and niche-creation take organisms as their focal point. Behaviour and artefacts are of assistance in the evolutionary success of organisms like tarbutniks, and for that reason they are able to drive genes, or still better, the relative quantity of alleles of some genes. Genes remain the fundamental force in evolution. This is, however, in clear contradistinction to the purport Dawkins originally attached to memes: As an enthusiastic Darwinian, I have been dissatisfied with explanations that my fellow-enthusiasts have offered for human behaviour. They have tried to look for „biological advantages‟ in various attributes of human civilization. [...] The argument I shall advance [...] is that, for an understanding of the evolution of modern man, we must begin by throwing out the gene as the sole basis of our ideas on evolution.212 Can we get forceful memes that are not dependent on effects advantageous to genes? Or, that may be even damaging to an organism and its genes? It is here that I will return to Richard Dawkins‟ own writings on evolution. Dawkins‟ idea of an extended phenotype fits well in with regular evolutionary theory and provides us with a possible mechanism of the way in which memes copy themselves, and in the process of doing so change our minds.

The impact of a gene may reach far beyond the boundaries of the organism it resides in. A spider‟s web is probably the easiest illustration of this thought. A spider‟s genes not only influence the specific appearance of a spider, but they also control the structure of the web it builds. Because of this they form an important factor in the amount of prey a spider will catch during its lifetime. Better webs contain more prey at the end of the day, and better webs are the result of genetic differences which will fare better under evolutionary pressure. Since the web is no part of the spider‟s body, and therefore no part of what is ordinarily considered to be the phenotype, Dawkins tags the web as part of the extended phenotype of a spider‟s genes. Beaver dams and termite mounts are other examples of extended phenotypes. A flooding lake surrounded by gnawed down trees behind a beaver dam is part of the extended phenotype of beaver genes. The bodily features and behavioural specifics of beavers are geared to dams and lakes. The one couldn‟t exist without the other, just as the body and the web of a spider are dovetailed

Because the procreation of some artefacts takes place within one generation, switching to epigenetics will not give memes a genuine place in evolution either. 212 Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 191.


to entail maximal efficient fly catching. Niche-creation is nothing more than the notion of the phenotype extended to encompass the entire environment. In creating a dam and consequently a flooded lake beavers create a niche for themselves to fish in. The genius of Dawkins‟ The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype was that he diverted the point of application of natural selection from the bodies of organisms to the genes, or more specifically, to the genes in the germ cells. Genes will try to get into the next generation in as big an amount as possible.213 Any gene that behaves in such a way as to increase its own survival chances in the gene pool [...] will, by definition, tautologously, tend to survive. The gene is the basic unit for selfishness.214 Moreover, they will literally go to some considerable length to achieve this. The human body and the human brain are not the holy grail of evolution. They make up the machine by means of which the genes of our gametes propel themselves into the next generation. But this machine, important though it is, is certainly not the boundary of the power of a gene. A gene may influence the environment, and may even influence other machines to their own advantage. From the gene‟s point of view, environmental structures as well as other organisms are possible means of increasing its quotum in the gene pool. Dawkins describes the adverse effects of viruses as an example of the long reach of the gene: When we have a cold or a cough, we normally think of the symptoms as annoying byproducts of the viruses‟ activities. But in some cases it seems more probable that they are deliberately engineered by the virus to help it travel from one host to another. Not content with simply being breathed into the atmosphere, the virus makes us sneeze or cough explosively.215 But the long reach of the mechanism becomes most obvious in the case of a truly devilish, devious parasite, the Nematomorph hairworm (Spinochordodes tellinii). During the early phase of its life this hairworm lives and develops inside a grasshopper, until the time comes for the worm to transform into an aquatic adult. By then they measure already several times the length of the grasshopper‟s body.216 The hairworm secretes a protein which influences the


I will not defend the use of intentional terms when speaking about genes. For a reduction of such terms to a biochemical vocabulary see Dawkins (sic!) 1976(2006) pp. 36-45. 214 Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 36. 215 Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 246. 216 If your stomach is strong enough, watch the video Alien Parasites on YouTube, and be impressed by the unthinkable length of the parasite. (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xu9bqt2OgFM or search for ‟alien parasites‟).


nervous system of its host and induces a bizarre desire to swim in this strictly non-aquatic creature. [O]n the border of a forest near Avène les Bains in southern France. Hordes of infected grasshoppers – more than 100 a night – arrive at the pool during summer nights at the behest of the parasites.217 Once the grasshopper hits the water the hairworm emerges, leaving its host behind dead or dying. So much for gratitude. The truly devious point is that the hairworm influences the mind of the grasshopper. The infected grasshopper searches a pond to hop into and subsequently goes for a swim. It doesn‟t just wriggle and squirm, it seeks for and deliberately jumps into water. The behaviour of the grasshopper belongs to the extended phenotype of the hairworms genes. Put the other way round, the genes of the hairworm hook into the mind, brain and behaviour of the grasshopper. Dawkins: Any nervous system is vulnerable to manipulation by a cleverenough pharmacologist.218 This leads to what I have called the Central Theorem of the Extended Phenotype: An animal‟s behaviour tends to maximize the survival of the genes „for‟ that behaviour, whether or not those genes happen to be in the body of the particular animal performing it. … [T]he theorem could apply, of course, to colour, size, shape – anything.219 As it is, the tactic of the genes of a hairworm has a disadvantage. The hairworm has to physically enter the grasshopper in order to drop off the behaviour pushing proteins into its brain. Can we come up with even more subtle and devious examples of organisms which just deliver the proteins? In The Extended Phenotype Dawkins‟ favourite illustration is the cuckoo nestling luring its host, and even birds occupying other nests which happen to fly by (!), into nourishing it. I think that the cuckoo nestling must be doing rather more than just „fooling‟ their hosts, more than just pretending to be something that they aren‟t. They seem to act on the host‟s nervous system in rather the same way as an addictive drug. [...]


Nicolas Wade ‟Parasitic Hairworm Charms Grasshopper into Taking a Swim‟ in the New York Times, September 6, 2005. 218 Dawkins 1982, p. 71. 219 Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 253, his emphasis.


So enticing is the red gape of a cuckoo nestling that it is not uncommon for ornithologists to see a bird dropping food into the mouth of a baby cuckoo sitting in some other bird‟s nest! 220 The genes for the red gape of nestlings manipulates the mind of other birds, and seduces them to drop food at the expense of their „own‟ genes. Let us pause to think about pigs. From the perspective of humans, pigs serve our needs. We may treat them inhumanely or cruelly, and we may feel sorry about that, but at the end of the day bio-industry delivers us proteins and fats in quantities our hunting ancestors never dreamed of. But now, change your perspective to that of the genes of pigs221. Pork is to humans what the red gape is to parenting birds. Humans spend huge amounts of their financial and energetic resources on the multiplication of pig genes, even at the expense of their own genes. We grow fatter, become unhealthier, and die more often through heart attacks and high blood pressure because the genes of pigs entice our minds and thereby transform us into huge pork feeders. The Cannabis plant uses a comparable, but even more subtle strategy. The plant produces THC222. For no rational reason, humans seem to like the effects THC has on their brains and minds. They like it so much that they go to some considerable length to grow, harvest, dry, process and refine Cannabis plants. They will even risk their freedom or life for it in some circumstances. To the good of whom? Well, just as the genes for a red gape use a flaw in the brains of parenting birds, so the genes for THC use a flaw in the brains of humans. The genes for the THC production in the plant even recruited Californians to improve their share in the Cannabis gene pool. Nowadays Nederwiet (derived from Californian Cannabis) contains up to at least four times as much THC as it did in the 1970‟s.223 Human bodies and brains were not selected for the excessive consumption of pork or the smoking of weed. The survival machines of our genes are imperfect, and therefore susceptible to the machinations of alien genes.

Memes will have earned their place in the ontology of natural history, once it can be shown that they outwit genes and propagate with the help of and preferably even at the expense of genes. Otherwise they could just as well be regarded as part of the extended phenotype of organisms within ordinary evolutionary theory. I think, though, Dawkins was right when he wrote that the
220 221

Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 249. And not to the perspective of pigs! They are probably very unhappy with the tactics their genes opted for. 222 Tetrahydrocannabinol is the main psychoactive substance found in the Cannabis plant. 223 The level of THC in Nederwiet has risen from 5% in 2000 to 20%, or even 28% in 2004.


meme “… is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup…”224 In other words, I would be surprised to find that memes have already developed strategies in deviousness comparable to the strategies of genes for the red gape in cuckoos or genes for THC in Cannabis. So if we want to find memes we will have to look even harder than in the case of parasitic genes. We will consciously have to change our perspective, and adopt the stance of the meme, looking at humans as the sole possibility for survival and procreation. Such a change of view is hampered by the attractions of informationalism. Consider the THC inducing genes of Cannabis again. What does THC do? Or better, what does THC do with regard to the information processing of humans? My answer would be “Nothing at all” or even “The intake of THC diminishes the information-processing capacities of a human brain.” Being stoned is not a state that can be explained in terms of information processing. The state has a certain feel, has certain attractions, but to rewrite this into a flux of information would be preposterous, and would make us miss the point of gene selection. Certainly, if people want to grow weed they use knowledge, and process information to do so. Just like the grasshopper on its way to water. But as soon as the THC kicks in, the enactment of the world is intoxicated, at the expense of information processing. Dawkins introduced memes to elucidate cultural phenomena just when informationalism reached a climax. As a consequence memes have always been considered as the carriers of information. Even as late as 2004 Sterelny still wrote: Cultural inheritance is important, but only if we think of it as an information flow between biological individuals.225 I think Sterelny is seriously mistaken. If informationalism is true, human minds will contain information that will maximize the utility of their environment. In the end every meme will be of some sort of service to some gene or complex of genes. In other words, the recounting of memes could always be reduced to the fitness of genes. Maladaptive behaviour will be explained as bugs in the information processor. THC makes the brainy processor collapse, nothing else. But then again, why would we pursue a chemical that just makes our capacities collapse if it were not for the feel of that collapse? Informationalism is not completely mistaken. Informationalists are mistaken in thinking that information processing is the only thing going on in the human brain. To memes the human mind is a tool for propagation and reproduction. It is their extended phenotype. A meme doesn‟t have to enter the human mind to recruit it. Or, as Dennett writes: A scholar is just a library‟s way of making another library.226

224 225

Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 192. Sterelny 2004, p. 253. My emphasis.


Strictly speaking Dennett is wrong. Libraries don‟t qualify as memes, and libraries don‟t recruit humans to make copies of themselves. Books sometimes do, and books sometimes use scholars, but libraries are never literally copied and the number of libraries is far too small to demand selection. However, Dennett is right in depicting the scholar as the extended phenotype if a library were to qualify as a meme. But if the library were a meme, in what sense does it have to enter the mind of a scholar in order to make a copy of itself? The hairworm enters the grasshopper quite literally, but we would be out of our head to suppose that a library uses the same trick. So Dennett, like many others, comes up with an ephemeral type of meme: Memes are […] invisible, and are carried by meme vehicles – pictures, books, sayings […]. Tools and buildings and other inventions are also meme vehicles.227 These invisible entities jump from book to brain to body to artefact and back to brain again. And they even have the power to reshape the human brain on entry. The haven all memes depend on reaching is the human mind, but a human mind is itself an artifact created when memes restructure a human brain in order to make it a better artifact for memes.228 Try and supplant meme with information in this last citation. Nothing will change and the senselessness of memes within informationalism will come to the fore. Dennett, as an apprentice of Quine‟s, should have known better. To have an impact on the course of biological evolution, memes must have physical qualities. So, let us pause and return to the material (empirically verifiable) definition and explanation of memes. I would prefer Inga‟s memory to Otto‟s notebook because of the feel of the enactment. I also prefer some notebooks to others, though their informational content is exactly the same. I prefer them for some „red gape‟ reason. Some notebooks simply look and feel better, just like Volkswagen parts feel better than generic parts. Memes not only convey information, although they do this as well, but they also produce effects in our minds that are not describable within informationalism. Memes may sometimes exploit the flaws in our brains. They may even make us jump into canals for no apparent reason.

The challenge for meme theorists is to come up with at least a few examples of parasitic memes. Without such examples the meme paradigm, or meme
226 227 228

Dennett 1991, p. 202. Dennett 1991, pp. 203-204. Dennett 1991, p. 207.


vocabulary, would lack the force needed to play a role in biology. To bring this paper to a close I will discuss three possible examples of parasitic memes. I am not sure whether these considerations will stand up to empirical scrutiny. The point of these examples is rather didactic than scientific. They give you an idea of what a science of memes would have to show in order to become just that, a science. WOODEN CUTLERY Let us return to the example of the introduction of forks, as described in chapter 2. If Norbert Elias is right, if the members of the bourgeois copied forks (and all the other table manners) in order to become the equals of the noblemen, and if climbing the social ladder contributes to fitness (more surviving children), then forks won‟t qualify as memes. In that case the fork copying behaviour of humans might be explained as the extended phenotype of their genes. The noble behaviour of the human vehicle gives the inhabitant genes an evolutionary edge over genes resident in boors. If this is true, table manners and abundant cutlery don‟t qualify as memes. But in a slightly different story, forks might perhaps qualify as memes. I don‟t know whether the following tale is true, but if it is it would show the force of wooden cutlery to shape human behaviour, without any pay-off for the inhabitant genes. I was told the story by Jeanne Peijnenburg in a personal conversation. Unfortunately I have been unable to find other sources. The story is like this. In the 12th or 13th century Franciscan monks decided to use wooden cutlery in order to live true to their vow of poverty. Wooden cutlery was the cheapest cutlery available at that time. Today, however, wooden cutlery is very expensive and the monks have to import it from Norway. So, it could be said, that it would be rational to switch to cheap, sustainable metal cutlery. In fact, it would be surprising if some monasteries would still be using wooden cutlery. But, as you will have guessed, in some monasteries there is an ongoing debate about these matters. Some hold that they should live according to the vow of poverty. Others cling to the tradition presumably set by the saint himself. Notice that there is a strong parallel between my preference for Volkswagen parts and the preference for wooden cutlery. Both seem to be submitted to red gape reasoning. Wood has a poor look, a feel of poverty. What causes Franciscans to order copies of the wooden cutlery has less to do with rationality and poverty than with ineffable feelings. The enactment of wooden spoons and wooden knives differs from the enactment of the metal substitutes. The feel of the very enactment , and not the rationalizations of it, drives the meme preserving efforts of Franciscans. Advertising companies have long known that rationality only supplies justifications and no incentive to buy. That is why commercials seldom just provide reasons for buying products.


MOBILE PHONES If I had to choose one candidate meme which has truly begun to crawl out of the primeval soup, I would definitely choose the mobile phone. In the previous chapter I already praised the abilities of mobile phones to change the way in which people enact others. We are now in a position to rephrase this ability. Mobile phones make use of certain flaws in the human brain. They are on a par with genes for THC and genes for fat and proteins. Or perhaps mobile phones are even better, since they make use of several flaws at once: they make use of our poor information storage and processing capacities as well as of our desperate longing to keep „in touch‟. Leslie Chang‟s documentary novel Factory Girls gives a grim description of the lives of Chinese factory girls. One of them, Min, at some point decides to leave her job to move to a factory of a former colleague who invites her to come. [Min] spent the night in a hotel near her factory; while she slept, someone broke the lock on her door. The thief took nine hundred yuan and Min‟s mobile phone, the only place where she had stored the numbers of everyone she new in the city: the excolleague who was her only link to her new job, the friends she had made since going out, and the boyfriend who had gone home.229 The status of Min‟s mobile phone comes very close to that of Otto‟s notebook. Human memory is awful at storing meaningless data, and it is especially bad at storing strings of digits. Min, like other migrants, is in desperate need of a mobile phone: The mobile phone was the first big purchase of most migrants. Without a phone, it was virtually impossible to keep up with friends or find a new job. [...] In a universe of perpetual motion, the mobile phone was magnetic north, the thing that fixed a person in place.230 But is it only memory tasks a mobile phone performs? Chang writes about the abundant roles mobile phones fulfil. People referred to themselves in the terminology of mobile phones: I need to recharge. I am upgrading myself. [...] A girl might signal her interest in a young man by offering to pay his mobile-phone bill. Couples announced their allegiance with a shared phone, though relationships sometimes broke up when one person secretly read text messages intended for the other. [...]
229 230

Chang 2008, p. 95. Chang 2008, p. 95.


The quality of Chinese pop music had deteriorated in recent years, I was also told, because migrants chose the least sophisticated songs for the ring tones of their phones. [...] Manufactured, sold, stolen, repackaged, and resold, the mobile phone was like an endlessly renewable resource at the heart of the Dongguan economy.231 And most dramatically: With the theft of her phone, the friendships of a year and a half vanished as if they had never been. [Min] was alone again.232 If psychology has shown anything at all, it is that humans have a craving for close contact with other humans. It is much like the consumption of carbohydrates. In the wild a gene for behaviour that would maximize the intake of food rich with sugar would be a very good gene indeed. But in industrialized western societies the supply of carbohydrates is so immense that this same strategy will have detrimental consequences. The same goes for close contact. Monkeys and apes spend a lot of their time grooming other individuals. As De Waal and others have shown233, the rationale behind this behaviour has nothing to do with hygiene or removing vermin or salt crystals. Primates groom in order to strengthen social bonds. Like sex, social bonding is essential for their fitness. So while the rationale may be the strengthening of social bonds the proximate cause will be a near sexual feeling. That is what the job of a masseuse in some primate species is all about. Mobile phones jump at these feelings. They make grooming possible everywhere, anytime. A session of texting is much like grooming, as is a quick call just before arriving home. Don‟t make the mistake of thinking that telephones are all about transfer of information. They are not. Surely some part of telephone traffic is transfer of information, but most of it is nonsensical, it doesn‟t remove vermin or crystals. Mobile phones are very much like the red gape of a cuckoo‟s nestling, an irresistible opportunity to drop a line. H UMOR Why do we laugh? When I started to look into this matter, I soon found out that a scientific treatment of laughter requires at least another chapter, and probably another paper. So I will brutally brush aside everything that has ever been written about laughter, and begin at the meme‟s end. THC makes us stoned. But, being stoned is not something the human brain was ever selected for. Susceptibility to drugs and alcohol is of no survival
231 232

Chang 2008, pp. 96-97. Chang 2008, p. 97. This sentence is followed by an equally dramatic opening sentence of chapter 10: “After Min‟s mobile phone was stolen in the summer of 2004, she built a new life from scratch.” (p. 270) 233 See for example De Waal 1982, pp. 20-23, and ff. De Waal speaks about “social grooming.”


value, and has no informational advantages. It is simply a fluke, a consequence of the specifications of our wetware, as is our obtuse craving for carbohydrates or social contact. Suppose, just suppose, laughter likewise has no survival value whatsoever. We laugh for just the same reason as we get stoned or drunk, and it is no coincidence that alcohol and THC induce laughter. Laughter doesn‟t increase fitness. On the contrary, too much laughter may seriously hinder procreation. Look at it from the other way , from the traditional way, the „right‟ way, the human way. Suppose you hear or read the next light bulb joke: How many psychiatrists does it take to change a light bulb? Answer: only one, but the light bulb has to WANT to change. By now this certainly is an old joke. You might even be somewhat annoyed because you have to read it for the umpteenth time. Now ask yourself the following question: Has the informational content of the joke changed during the pages of this paper? If so, look again at the joke as it is printed in chapter 1. Has its informational content changed? Of course it hasn‟t. You have changed, and therefore the joke is no longer funny (if it ever was). To an informationalist this means that the way in which your brain processes the information contained within the joke has changed. Where formerly the processing of the joke caused lungs contractions and jerky movements of your midriff, there now remains just the silent humming of neurons. So the same joke produces different streams of information in us at different times. Why do you prefer one stream of information to the other? I think it is because you prefer jokes that make you laugh, for whatever reason. Jokes, then, use this odd preference of humans to procreate, multiply and evolve. That is why jokes are all around us. That is why we value stand-up comedians. That is why we value humorous people. Surely, jokes may also convey information, even important information. But we tell jokes because the enactment of jokes makes us laugh. And jokes have chosen our brains, because by some strange, though fortunate, accident, they are prone to laughter. Whatever the neural mechanism behind laughter may be, from the perspective of jokes it will be no more than an incredible stroke of luck.

The Dutch philosopher Bas Haring has written a popular little book on evolution. On page 50 he writes: What about artificial pets? They talk – or rather babble –, feel when you caress them and beg for attention. They are real pets, but plastic pets, with a built-in computer and a polyester fur. Wouldn‟t evolution be also applicable to them in the future? This will be the case when these animals are able to procreate. To me this doesn‟t seem a too complicated task for the manufacturers of toys. All they have to do is produce a toy pet 100

that is able to copy itself with materials it gathers from its environment. Who knows what might happen? Maybe even an infestation of pet toys might occur! 234 Haring is right. The very moment pet toys start to procreate in considerable numbers, evolutionary description will be applicable to their species. But Haring is wrong if he thinks pet toys will have to take care of their own procreation in order to enter the battlefield of evolution. As I have shown in the preceding pages, pet toys might take on a different tactic. They might take the meme route. They might use humans, us. They might drain our procreational resources to their own advantage. Parasites, but parasites we pet. Do memes exist? Have the previous paragraphs indisputably shown memes exist in some sort of empirical solid sense? With the exception of mobile phones, I think there are probably no artefacts or kinds of behaviour that might qualify as a non-biological selfish replicator, a meme. And although many books have been written on the subject, memetics hasn‟t exactly developed into a branch of the natural sciences. According to the diagnosis I present in this paper, this is mainly due to the fact that internalist definitions cannot provide the basis for an empirical theory. If we want to liken memes to viruses we will have to take this into account. Memes are viruses that don‟t enter brains or bodies. What then about the human mind? Well, if you are an internalist you can simply state that the human mind is part of the extended phenotype of memes. But this amounts to nothing more than saying that our minds are shaped by the culture we live in. As I have shown in the last two chapters, externalists have another, more interesting option. They can view memes as constitutive of certain processes of the mind. Clark and Chalmers would view them as constitutive of cognitive processes. Noë would consider them to be a part of new feelings and modalities as well. If Clark and Chalmers are right, we would only lose some information or information-processing capacities, if we were to lose our memes. If Noë is right we will feel estranged at the very moment some of our memes are lost. The first lesson to be drawn from the history of the meme concept is that the view of the human mind as the centre of the universe is nearing its end. Although human minds are shaped by memes, memes do not enter into human minds. If memes are viruses, the human mind must be like a fever. Viruses are not a part of a fever, though they might be causing it. The phenotype of memes reaches far beyond the boundaries of artefacts and behaviour. If memes leave the old gene panting far behind, as Dawkins suggests 235, in the longer run memes will grow and cultivate human brains more than our genome. But isn‟t such the inevitable fate of a species which at some point has developed into natural-born cyborgs?

234 235

Haring 2001, p. 50. My translation. Dawkins 1976(2006), p. 192.


But these are just speculations about the future. There is also a currently important lesson to be learned from the history of memes. It is time for a quick wrap-up of the strands of indeterminacy and informationalism, time to return to Quine. Cognitive science has teamed up with state of the art scanning techniques to present us with a picture of the flow of information through our heads. They quench our thirst for self- knowledge with pictures of brains, with bright dots and arrows depicting the flow of information. But if Quine is right, and I think he is, these pictures are undetermined. Surely, activation patterns are solid empirical facts. No doubt about that. But the flow of information is quite another thing, because information only appears through a manual of translation. The flow of information is parallel, but additional to the patterns of activation. Question: How many bits of information does a light bulb contain? Answer: None, you can‟t eat light bulbs, nor smash nuts with them (chimpanzee). Answer: One bit, a light bulb is either on or off (ICT specialist). Answer: One bit, a light bulb is either broken or it isn‟t (electrician). Answer: Two bits, a light bulb is off, a short time on, or a long time on (boy scout). Answer: A couple of bytes (manufacturer). Answer: A couple of kilobytes (linguist). Answer: A couple of megabytes (memeticist). Answer: A couple of gigabytes (cultural sociologist). Answer: A couple of terabytes (Spinozist). Answer: All of the answers above might work out fine, all might even work out fine simultaneously, and there is no way of telling which one is right or wrong (Quinean). Do you see the light?






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In 1976 Richard Dawkins introduced the notion of a meme in The Selfish Gene. A meme is the cultural counterpart of what a gene is in biology. Memes are the units of cultural transmission, just like genes are the units of biological transmission: both kinds of transmission can give rise to a form of evolution. The expectations surrounding the new concept were high. Many books, articles, scientific papers, magazines, internet forums, symposia and documentaries were devoted to memetics, the science of memes. However, the interest in memes withered as quickly as it had blossomed. In this thesis I examine why memes never gained a genuine scientific status, despite the great amount of energy that was put into memetics. Today no real meme scholars are left, certainly not within the field the notion originated from, scientific evolutionary biology. Dawkins wanted to introduce a replicator that could compete with genes. According to his own criteria it should always be possible to tell whether a meme is a copy of another meme. But very soon after the introduction memes came to be considered as mental entities. As a result it became impossible to give an unambiguous description of memes, and thus an unambiguous notion of a copy of a meme. Moreover, if memes are defined in terms of ideas, thoughts and the like, Quine‟s thesis of the indeterminacy of translation applies. Two meme scholars can both give an adequate explanation of a cultural phenomenon, whereas their descriptions of the memes involved would irreconcilably diverge. In this case memetic analysis comes to rely on a manual of translation and therefore cannot be a proper part of a natural science like evolutionary biology. Most probably the definition of memes in mental terms was driven by the fascination with software and computer viruses of the 1980‟s. Memes were likened to software modules. Without this preoccupation Dawkins and others might have settled for a more Quinean definition of memes in terms of behaviour and/or artefacts: meme An (element of an) artefact or behaviour that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means, esp. imitation. Had Dawkins been satisfied with a definition such as this one, he could have employed a method of analysis that he uses repeatedly in The Extended Phenotype (1982). He could have described memes as (parts of) parasites that compete with genes and their survival vehicles, organisms. Most probably this would have been the only way to give memes a scientific ontological status, 106

because as long as memes are not capable of influencing and exploiting genes, they can be put aside as nothing more than figments of the mind, with at most a literary status. First supervisor: Prof. dr. A.J.M. Peijnenburg Second supervisor: Dr. F.A. Keijzer Third assessor: Dr. B.P. de Bruin Discussion of the thesis: Friday, May 7, from 15.00 till 16.00 hours in the Omegazaal, Oude Boteringestraat 52. Graduation: Friday, May 7, at 16.30 hours in the Faculteitskamer Rechten, Academiegebouw, Broerstraat 5, Groningen.