Later On

A blog written for those whose interests more or less match mine.

They can host memes; what they lack is language

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Language (a meme, obviously) is in effect a significant meme amplifier: memes become easier to teach/communicate, to be recorded (initially in memory/lore/tradition, but the meme of writing is another meme-booster, and so on.

These crows can host memes, as the footage shows, but without the language meme, accumulation is slow. Once language enters the picture, memes really start to take over. Crows will not hit that Singularity-like meme bloom without language. Take a look.

It would seem that once any mimetic action at all is possible—chanting, or pounding rhythmically (seems possible: be pounding roots with rocks, an easily transmissible meme, the natural tendency would be to start pounding in rhythm—cf. Mickey Hart’s Drumming at the Edge of Magic. That meme discovery would lead to a little population explosion of rhythmical memes.

I sort of keep poking at the “meme” idea just to see how far it can go in more or less matching what we observe: Ptolemaic explanation, perhaps, but it does provide a curiously consistent storyline for what we observe happening over time.

Take a look sometime at The Horse, the Wheel, and Language: How Bronze-Age Riders from the Eurasian Steppes Shaped the Modern World, by David W. Anthony. The book begins (with a few paragraphs missing, shown by ellipses):

When you look in the mirror you see not just your face but a museum. Although your face, in one sense, is your own, it is composed of a collage of features you have inherited from your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and so on. The lips and eyes that either bother or please you are not yours alone but are also features of your ancestors, long dead perhaps as individuals but still very much alive as fragments in you. Even complex qualities such as your sense of balance, musical abilities, shyness in crowds, or susceptibility to sickness have been lived before. We carry the past around with us all the time, and not just in our bodies. It lives also in our customs, including the way we speak. The past is a set of invisible lenses we wear constantly, and through these we perceive the world and the world perceives us. We stand always on the shoulders of our ancestors, whether or not we look down to acknowledge them. . .

In traditional societies, where life is still structured around family, extended kin, and the village, people often are more conscious of the debts they owe their ancestors, even of the power of their ghosts and spirits. Zafimaniry women in rural Madagascar weave complicated patterns on their hats, which they learned from their mothers and aunts. The patterns differ significantly between villages. The women in one village told the anthropologist Maurice Bloch that the designs were “pearls from the ancestors.” Even ordinary Zafimaniry houses are seen as temples to the spirits of the people who made them.1 This constant acknowledgment of the power of those who lived before is not part of the thinking of most modern, consumer cultures. We live in a world that depends for its economic survival on the constant adoption and consumption of new things. Archaeology, history, genealogy, and prayer are the overflowing drawers into which we throw our thoughts of earlier generations.

Archaeology is one way to acknowledge the humanity and importance of the people who lived before us and, obliquely, of ourselves. It is the only discipline that investigates the daily texture of past lives not described in writing, indeed the great majority of the lives humans have lived. Archaeologists have wrested surprisingly intimate details out of the silent remains of the preliterate past, but there are limits to what we can know about people who have left no written accounts of their opinions, their conversations, or their names.

Is there a way to overcome those limits and recover the values and beliefs that were central to how prehistoric people really lived their lives? Did they leave clues in some other medium? Many linguists believe they did, and that the medium is the very language we use every day. Our language contains a great many fossils that are the remnants of surprisingly ancient speakers. Our teachers tell us that these linguistic fossils are “irregular” forms, and we just learn them without thinking. We all know that a past tense is usually constructed by adding -t or -ed to the verb (kick-kicked, miss-missed) and that some verbs require a change in the vowel in the middle of the stem (run-ran, sing-sang). We are generally not told, however, that this vowel change was the older, original way of making a past tense. In fact, changing a vowel in the verb stem was the usual way to form a past tense probably about five thousand years ago. Still, this does not tell us much about what people were thinking then.

Are the words we use today actually fossils of people’s vocabulary of about five thousand years ago? A vocabulary list would shine a bright light on many obscure parts of the past. As the linguist Edward Sapir observed, “The complete vocabulary of a language may indeed be looked upon as a complex inventory of all the ideas, interests, and occupations that take up the attention of the community.”2 In fact, a substantial vocabulary list has been reconstructed for one of the languages spoken about five thousand years ago. That language is the ancestor of modern English as well as many other modern and ancient languages. All the languages that are descended from this same mother tongue belong to one family, that of the Indo-European languages. Today Indo-European languages are spoken by about three billion people—more than speak the languages of any other language family. The vocabulary of the mother tongue, called “Proto-Indo-European”, has been studied for about two hundred years, and in those two centuries fierce disagreements have continued about almost every aspect of Indo-European studies. . .

I believe with many others that the Proto-Indo-European homeland was located in the steppes north of the Black and Caspian Seas in what is today southern Ukraine and Russia. The case for a steppe homeland is stronger today than in the past partly because of dramatic new archaeological discoveries in the steppes. To understand the significance of an Indo-European homeland in the steppes requires a leap into the complicated and fascinating world of steppe archaeology. Steppe means “wasteland” in the language of the Russian agricultural state. The steppes resembled the prairies of North America—a monotonous sea of grass framed under a huge, dramatic sky. A continuous belt of steppes extends from eastern Europe on the west (the belt ends between Odessa and Bucharest) to the Great Wall of China on the east, an arid corridor running seven thousand kilometers across the center of the Eurasian continent. This enormous grassland was an effective barrier to the transmission of ideas and technologies for thousands of years. Like the North American prairie, it was an unfriendly environment for people traveling on foot. And just as in North America, the key that opened the grasslands was the horse, combined in the Eurasian steppes with domesticated grazing animals—sheep and cattle—to process the grass and turn it into useful products for humans. Eventually people who rode horses and herded cattle and sheep acquired the wheel, and were then able to follow their herds almost anywhere, using heavy wagons to carry their tents and supplies. The isolated prehistoric societies of China and Europe became dimly aware of the possibility of one another’s existence only after the horse was domesticated and the covered wagon invented. Together, these two innovations in transportation made life predictable and productive for the people of the Eurasian steppes. The opening of the steppe—its transformation from a hostile ecological barrier to a corridor of transcontinental communication—forever changed the dynamics of Eurasian historical development, and, this author contends, played an important role in the first expansion of the Indo-European languages.

UPDATE: The more you get enmeshed in memes and their accumulation (and consider that all of formal education is specifically aimed at imparting memes, by definition), and that’s only a fraction of the memes we host (for example, one also must absorb/lean/adopt all of social conventions: memes that are learned and repeated).

Consider a problem like stack underflow due to zero divisor. That seems to me to be comprehensible only as a meme and in terms of memes, with only a tenuous reference to the physical world: it’s abstracted from the physical world. The knowledge of the meaning is memetic knowledge, passed along as cultural learning, much expedited by language and writing. One must be taught to understand the phrase and its referents.

Just an example of how looking at things through meme lenses gives an interesting take at the least, and to my mind actually a storyline (which involves causality or causal explanatory power).

Update again: It occurs to me that a good definition of “meme” is that it’s anything that one is taught. If it’s taught, it’s a meme. Period. But that does include very subtle knowledge not communicated via words: the meaning and use of social signals (that vary from culture to culture, thus obviously memes passed along by teaching of whatever kind), the proper way to handle the cutlery at a formal dinner, and so on.

People accumulate a lot of memes, obviously. Big energy drain, but the benefits are obvious (e.g., blogs). The costs seem also serious: I think we could pin global warming on memes.

The idea of meme has excellent explanatory capabilities.

Update again: Memes run wild! (And show they have strong meme-immune systems so that the meme, once it is established in the host, can reject attacks.) When you read the article at the link, and I hope you will, note the direction of memetic evolution in this instance.

Again: Read this article with your eye on memes.

Written by Leisureguy

27 December 2015 at 1:00 pm

Posted in Memes, Science

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