Quelques idées sur la théorie des "memes"
A propos de l'article de Scientific American
The Theory of Memes
Voici deux textes sur la théorie des memes que j'ai rédigés plus pour m'aider à clarifier mes idées que pour être publiés, au moins dans l'état actuel de leur avancement. Touts commentaires et suggestions seront les bienvenus...
Ces textes sont écrits en anglais car extraits de communications avec des chercheurs anglais et je n'ai pas encore eu le temps de les traduire en français...
Pour en savoir plus sur les "memes" voir l'excellent site de La Société Francophone de Mémétique :
Some Ideas about the "Memes" theory
Concerning the Scientific American article
The Theory of Memes
Here are two texts about the memes theory which I wrote in order to help myself to clarify my own thoughts more than to be published, at least in their present state. All comments and suggestions will be welcomed...
A propos de l'article de Scientific American
Blackmore, "The Power of Memes"
Dugatkin , "Animals Imitate, too"
Boyd and Peter J. Richerson , "Memes Theory Oversimplifies how culture
Plotkin , "People do more than imitate"
American, Volume 283, Number 4, October 2000,
the whole series of articles with the bias of a parent of an autistic son whose
imitation skills, like those of most autistic people, are very different from
those of ordinary people. They can be excellent in pure imitation, often called
echolalia for language imitation, echopraxia for motor imitation but are
generally mediocre or inexistent in imitation that can be generalised in order
to be used in slightly different situations.
going further, I was struck by the word itself. "Même" with a
circumflex accent on the first "e" means same, similar, in French. It
is different from Identical (identique). This relates to and limits the critics
of Henry Plotkin concerning the trivial value of imitation.
Taking imitation in a useful sense,
it can't be the echopraxic or echolalic imitation similar to that of the
autistic child but only imitation skills that can lead to some generalisation
can be considered a favourable evolutionary trait. It may not be imitation in as
broad a sense as in Suzan Blackmore article, but in a larger sense than pure
mimicking. It doesn’t however exonerate Suzan Blackmore from the rest of Henry
Plotkin critics that "people do more than imitate".
is essential too, even in its basic form, for the development of procedural
knowledge, that is knowing how to do things, even if one doesn't know why. This
is a local knowledge that can be transferred as meme but which has limited
potential for generalisation. Conceptual knowledge comes at a latter stage when
one starts to understand why a technique works.
point in favor of Suzan Blackmore
though, imitation is most likely a necessary skill to perpetuate some
behavioural evolution, but most likely not sufficient. Even in the sense in
which she uses the word, imitation would lead to endless repetition of essential
skills. As a result, it would have been normal that human beings have continued
to pick berries, chew wild roots since that was a proper survival set of skills.
propose that in order to have evolution, there must have been perturbations and
a new adaptation through people acting outside pure past memes, As G.B. Shaw
said "The reasonable man adapts
himself to the world. The unreasonable man tries to adapt the world to himself.
Therefore all progress depends upon the unreasonable man."
This is where I come back to autistic people in a more positive way. I
have said that most autistic people have difficulties with imitation, except for
total mimicking : echopraxia exact
reproduction of a movement and echolalia exact reproduction of a sound.
This indeed wouldn't be useful as a survival skill. I can witness though,
that this as acted as an excellent mirror on our memes, showing us some of the
things we were doing via echopraxia and echolalia, in an even more efficient way
than a mirror, and helping us to escape our poorly adapted memes. In addition,
not understanding very well how to imitate other people efficiently (regardless
of their echopraxia capabilities), they tend to find their own solutions that
work. We ordinary people (autistic people self advocates call us "Neuro
typical") have then the ability to sometime realise that the
"new" solution can be a better one than the one transmitted by
previous memes. So influencial people may pick up this solution and transmit it
through a new meme.
Plotkin mentions one human skill that is essential to develop relationships with
others "Theory of Mind". Theory of mind is developed by the human
child around age three to three and a half. A lot of autistic children
do not develop such a theory of mind,
or develop it in an inappropriate way. Even though higher functioning develop
such a theory of mind, they develop it at a later time in their development, and
like a foreign language learned later on in life, the theory of mind they have
developed requires a lot more effort on their part and is not as natural to them
as for ordinary people. As a result they suffer often much less from inhibitions
to break social rules and can talk about new ways of doing things, even if the
meme that has perpetuated the classical method was still strongly present in the
U. Frith, "Autism",
Scientific American, June 1993, volume 268, Number 6, pages 78-84
term memes was coined in 1976 by Richard Dawkins
(Blackmore 2000). In Blackmore terms, ”Memes are stories, songs, habits,
skills, inventions and ways of doing things that we copy from person to person
by imitation” … ”It is tempting to consider memes as simply "ideas," but more
properly memes are a form of information.”
theory is based upon an analogy between genes replication and ”memes”
replication. Successful memes survive, the other become extinct. Memes can hence be considered as elements of personal and
societal behaviours that enable the transmission and evolution of culture
through time, simply by replication of attitudes and behaviours that are ”selected”
for their own qualities and, like in Darwinian evolution, without preconceived
like first to suggest that the definition of memes proposed by Blackmore needs
to be refined, it is, as such, too lose to enable the construction of a more
sturdy theory of human behaviour/culture evolution. What is the relation between
”stories, songs, habits, skills, inventions and ways of doing things”
? What is the quantity of information transmitted by memes ?
theory is also not precise enough with regard to the processes that trigger
evolution of memes and how new memes are created. I will take those two points
in that order.
the concept of imitation that in fact needs to be made more precise and through
that a typology of memes (figure 1) according to their degree of closeness to
the original act, pure imitation or adapted imitation, as well as the intrinsic
complexity of the act, waving ”bye bye” as imitated by a young child isn't
of the same degree of complexity as quoting a verse of Shakespeare .
hence a two axis that will categorise imitations according to their degree of
freedom from the model and the complexity of the model.
Figure 1 : Typology of Immitation
Using a recipe
Adding to the recipe
Singing in tune
singing in a different key
improvising on a theme
Copying a behaviour
Copying a method
adapting a method
Use of object
Adapted use of object
adaptation of object
Copying an attitude Copying a behaviour adapting a behaviour
Pure imitation Adaptative imitation
the lowest level of freedom, echopraxia and echolalia are two modes of imitation
that reproduce in an purely identical way the behaviour of the model. This mode
of imitation is activated early in infancy as a basic imitation skill. Through
echopraxia the infant innately copies basic facial expressions such as open the
mouth close the mouth, and progressively more complex facial expressions.
Likewise for sounds through echolalia. These ”echo” modes of imitation
evolve from immediate into differed echopraxia and echolalia, that is, the
imitation takes place some time after the model stops acting. The infant
repeating attitudes or sounds long after the parent has stopped providing the
model. The next step in these modes of imitation is communicative or expressive
echopraxia/echolalia. The infant starts to use these modes of imitation in
context and for communicating basic needs.
In normal child development, echopraxia
is usually replaced by a richer mode of imitation taking some distance from the
model, it is however kept much longer through childhood and even adulthood in
populations who have some developmental disorders such as autism and other
pervasive development disorders (PDD). However, in that case the repertoire of
attitudes and behaviours that are imitated through echopraxia/echolalia tend to
become more complex given the motor and cognitive abilities generally available
at that chronological age. Longer sequences of behaviours and or language are
reproduced, but still with the same distinction between ”immediate”,
”differed” and ”communicative” use of echoing. Note also that when we
are faced with very new and somewhat stressful situations
we often react in an automatic mode of imitation very similar to
echopraxia or echolalia.
information content of memes depends upon their adaptive potential as well as
their complexity, even though complexity in itself is no guaranty of information
content… Information should be understood here in its scientific sense, that
is the one taken from the ”Information theory” (Shanon 1949),
extended from the communication domain to other scientific domains, in
particular biology and social sciences, using the more accessible definition of
information being the opposite of ”entropy”, Leon Brilloin invented
the word ”neguentropy” (Brilloin 1962). Entropy is the natural
tendency for physical elements to move in the direction of maximum uncertainty.
So in this sense, ”Information is what reduces uncertainty”. Life in
itself is an islet of information in a universe of ever increasing entropy.
Evolution has brought ever increasing level of information among chemical
elements through genetic replication/modification and selection. Can we say that,
likewise, memes tend to convey more and more information through memetic
in the genetic sense supposes that some perturbations do cause specific
modifications in the genes of various species. Small variations occur through
sexual based reproduction, but it is not enough to explain major changes in
species. These perturbations are quite the result of chance. Through time, the
natural selection will keep new genetic variations if they are more capable of
reproducing themselves and less prone to elimination by competing species.
genetic variations are caused by environmental factors such as natural
radioactivity, chemical emissions or for any other error in the transmission of
the genetic information, which trigger unpredictable genomic modifications.
These modifications are not at all conditioned by a better adaptation to the
environmental factor that originated them, which in most case was a transient
genomic changes result in non viable modifications of the new phenotype, very
few end up in stronger (genetically speaking) species which will be better
adapted to the overall environment in which they occur. A few are neutral and go
more or less un-noticed. If in a more or less distant future a change in
environment occurs, then perhaps one or more of those un-noticed genomic changes
may prove to be a useful survival one for the specie evolution. This phenomenon
is called ”exaptation” (Tattersall 2002). Indeed genomic variations
do not respond to environmental changes but precede them on a chance basis. The
role environmental changes comes later, in the selection process : If the genes
expression is creating a sturdier, more adaptable specie, then it will survive.
evolution in the behavioural and cultural domains something equivalent to
environmental perturbation must exist, otherwise, there would be very limited
reasons to see changes in previously successful memes. But, except in very vague
terms, the proposed theory of memes doesn't really explain what causes
variations in memes and the nature of those variations. Only error of
transmission are considered, not major changes such as those observed in genetic
S. Blackmore, ”The Power of Memes”, Scientific American, Vol 283 No 4,
October 2000, p 52-61
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Shannon & W. Weaver, "The Mathematical Theory of Communication", The University of
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“The Monkey in the Mirror: Essays on the Science of What Makes Us
Human”, Oxford University Press, Oxford 2002