Evolution and Memes: The human brain as a selective imitation device — Susan Blackmore





 The same argument explains why our brains seem especially adapted to soaking up some kinds of memes rather than others. For example, most people find mathematics and reading difficult, but adopting religious rituals, retelling stories and singing songs easy. This argument parallels an important argument in evolutionary psychology. It has become increasingly clear that the human brain is not a general purpose learning device but is adapted to learn some things more readily than others, based on genetic advantage in past environments (Pinker 1997, Tooby & Cosmides 1992). The equivalent for memes is that the brain is not a general purpose imitation machine, but one honed by memetic and genetic evolution to be good at copying some kinds of memes and bad at others. Songs, stories and rituals have long taken part in gene-meme coevolution while maths and reading are relative newcomers, using machinery that was not designed for them.

  1. Amit said:

    So, there is a “skew” to the human brain’s learning “preference”. Ergo

    1) Assertions (even if illogical) become more effective (in drawing agreement) if woven into an evocative storyline. Math (in general) jars, unless sequenced into datasets presented sequentially (deductive preference) to make it “palatable” to a broader (i.e. less trained) audience.

    2) Music (rythm, melody) can “move” children (to sway, tap their feet, emote via facial expression) long before they latch onto a spoken vocabulary

    3) Rote learning and memory-stuffing (reinforced by rythmic chanting) necessarily precede (and pave the way for more “associative”) “contemplative” education in most oriental religion (though this may also have to do with the timing of inventing scaleable handwriting and replication)

    4) When the optimism bias is repeatedly conditioned to hold a belief blindly (what we may call “faith”) by leveraging ritual/repetition, people can be motivated to do pretty much ANYTHING.

    Nice post! Thx.

    • “Nobody is going to run 100 meters in five seconds, no matter how much is invested in training and machines. The same can be said about using the brain. The human mind is no different now from what it was five thousand years ago. And when it comes to mathematics, you must realize that this is the human mind at an extreme limit of its capacity.” — Herbert Robbins

  2. madhuri said:

    Well written. But i dont understand the evolutionary part of meme. For example, idea X might be considered cool in the 80s. But, the exact opposite of X might become the it thing in the 90s. Where is the logical progression here?

  3. The evolutionary part of the meme applies to “cultural evolution”. In “regular” evolution, the question “Who benefits from a particular adaptation?” is answered by “the gene” (there are some minority dissenting opinions). In “cultural evolution”, the question “Who benefits from a particular cultural event?” is answered as “The meme”. There is no “logical progression” in “regular” or cultural evolution.

  4. madhuri said:

    Thanks for explaining, Unawoken. By logical progression, i mean things like cells getting together to form organisms. This benifited the genes of the cells that got together. These cells were at some point independent units. So, there is a logical progression from being independent unit to learning to co-operate. i dont see such evolution in memes. They seem quite random, materializing out of nowhere, and possibly vanishing as randomly.

  5. /madhuri, no there is still no logical progression in evolution (genetic). Just as cells cooperate because of gene-interests, similarly cells fight and devour/maim other cells because of gene-interests (Eukaryotic evolution, parasites, pathogens etc.). In memetics, memes cause meme-vehicles to cooperate as well. For example, a religion meme and an ‘afterlife’ meme may cooperate because they have better chances of surviving together.

  6. Also, consider the following. Dinosaurs were “cool’ in jurassic times, and humans are “cool” in our times. This is similar to your analysis of trends in 80s and 90s.

  7. madhuri said:

    ok, understood!

  8. wondered what saringan meant & its relevance here. very interesting. Dojutsu => memetic replication
    kekkei genkai => genetic replication

    nice article! i think I now understand the concept of their co-evolution much better. Thanks

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