Thursday, September 25, 2014


We left off talking turkey.
Turkeys suffer from the general sterotype of having bird-brains, yet they have an innate, instinctual intelligence which has been honed by natural selection.  So, let's look at the lineage of a thanksgiving meal.

It is now generally accepted that birds are the modern descendants of a branch of dinosaurs.  Going back to the fossil record, we have evidence that some dinosaurs like hadrosaurs had well developed organs for communication.  Other dinosaurs cared extensively for their young for months after hatching.  They were social creatures.  They utilized memes.  Their memes were also closely tied to genetic concerns. 

For most organisms, memes remain in strict service to the genes.  Deviations from this servile position can endanger the individual and group (if the memes fail to promote survival behaviors) as well as expend too many calories (by stimulating activities unrelated to survival and reproduction). 

Human memes are a special case.  They are unique, they are more complex, but they may not be as advantageous as the commoner types of memes we see in the rest of the animal kingdom.  Environmental pressures select for small brains and caloric efficiency.  If most creatures had the capability to reflect on the human brain and its caloric consumption, they would no doubt conclude it is an aberration. 

Yet, the human brain is a product of natural selection.  Stripped of physical defenses, we were dependent on individual and group cunning to maintain our status among the living.  We fit into a niche: bipedal, defenseless omnivore.  The environment selected increased communication organs and large brains.

Dale Russell suggested that given other environmental pressures the dinosaur lineage might have produced humanoid creatures.  This theorizing is productive in that it allows us to understand the algorithmic nature of natural selection.  It is possible our niche could have been filled by creatures rather different from ourselves.  We are a special case, but we are not unique, elect or chosen.  We are natural.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

An Alien Intelligence: Turkeys

Wild turkeys are a wonderful example of genetic and memetic evolution.    Imprinting of a parental voice and vocalization begins before hatching. The display by males to communicate dominance is observed in young poults less than a week old.  Wild turkeys have distinctive vocalizations for distress, reassurance and even identification of poisonous and non-poisonous snakes.  Their vocalizations serve to network data about their environment, providing information which increases individual survival within the group.  This is especially vital to the survival of the species during the crucial stages of development, before reproduction, when an individual brain does not have enough experience and memory to navigate the environment on its own. 

In the first couple weeks, turkeys rely on the mother completely for protection.  They play and explore the environment close to the mother.  As they become larger, caution decreases and curiosity increases and they learn about their environment through networked, coordinated behavior as well as individual experience.  This activity appears to be completely dependent on the genes. 

Turkeys do not have language as humans do.  Instead, they have a set of memes directly created by the environmental selection of genes.  These memes trigger chemical cascades in their brains and bodies.  Alert calls create excited behavior, the flight/fight response and close physical proximity to family members.  Roosting calls trigger relaxation, allowing all brains in the network to power down in a synchronized fashion.  These roosting calls may be triggered by a change in light frequency as the sun sets or other environmental cues.  The genes and memes are closely tied to the environment because selective pressure demands efficiency.  Pain and other stimuli elicit vocalizations which trigger chemical cascades in others, facilitating survival.

This is instinctive knowledge, grafted onto emotional (chemical) and physical internal networks.  For a fascinating encounter with this alien intelligence, check out My Life As A Turkey, the story of Joe Hutto's study of the wild turkey in its natural habitat.

Continue to Dinosaurs

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Waggle Dance of Bees

Individual bee brains network through chemical signals, but that's not the only communication they use. The waggle dance, first documented by Karl von Frisch in 1973, helps individuals tell others where sources of nectar and pollen are.  Though the waggle dance does not have grammar or a set of symbols and may not be considered true language, it is the expression and reception of data important to the survival of the bee colony.  These memes, like chemical memes, are strictly tied to genetic interests.  So, like chemical memes, these are not the type of meme that play the key role in shaping human cultures.  Nevertheless, they are memes, transmitting information and encouraging copies of that information (in behavior, data storage, etc). 

[We can call this waggle dance a "posture meme" for now, if we must name it, though let's not get distracted with labels...I'm thinking out loud here. ]

Continue to  An Alien Intelligence: Turkeys

Friday, September 19, 2014


Ants are evolutionarily elegant.  They are social insects with small brains (read: minimal calorie expense) and have therefore successfully colonized the planet. 

They leave reproduction to specialized individuals (which is more calorie efficient than widespread fertility). 

They create extensive shelters and alter their environments.  Some even cultivate mycelium and milk aphids (meaning: some ants have evolved a symbiotic relationship with some mycelium and aphids). 

Their brains are in total service to the genes.  Though each brain is small, networked with chemical memes (derived solely from the genes and environmental factors) from other ants, their brains are able to join together in a way alien to humans, creating collective choices.

This is advantageous.  Big brains are a liability, not an asset to survival.  They require development, maintenance and experience decline.     They demand calories.  Only those species which have been pushed and pulled by prolonged evolutionary pressures evolve big brains and their long term survival is tenuous.  In the history of the Earth, the best long-term survival strategy has been to keep brains small, if they must exist at all. 

Continue to The Waggle Dance of Bees

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Fungal Networks

1.3 billion years ago fungi were the first organisms to colonize the land.  Able to digest rocks and create soils, mycelium began the ecological chain which formed a recognizable, modern Earth. 

Fungal networks are able to transport water and nutrients over great distances, recognize and alert the network to invasive organisms, as well as mount coordinated attacks on intruders and potential prey. 
When cells in the network encounter novel food sources or threats, the chemical strategy of addressing the new item is shared to other cells in the mycelium.  Additionally, fungi has the ability to preserve spatial data and re-apply the information.  This is learning and data storage...memory. 

Fungal networks can signal other species, interacting with organisms in their environments and other colonies of fungi.  Therefore this networking is not simply internal chemical signaling, it is chemical memetics.

In the words of Paul Stamets,  "Mycelium has a neurological archetype which we share as well.  Looking at the mushroom mycelium and how it is organized, it has cross-hatchings.  Computer Engineers call these 'hot points'.  For every branch length going one direction there's another branching in another direction.  This creates an alternative way of transferring information and nutrients in case of a break in the mycelial mat.  The mycelium is Earth's natural internet.  The invention of the computer internet is the inevitable consequence of a previously proven evolutionary successful model."

Continue to Ants

Monday, September 15, 2014

Comparison with Bacteria

One objection to comparing memeplexes to biological organisms is that memeplexes do not simply mutate and evolve over successive generations.  A memeplex can copy parts of other memeplexes, even a competitive memeplex, to gain a survival advantage, taking a practice or concept and reworking it into its own memetic blueprints.  Some would argue, this is not evolution as we understand it in sexual and asexual vertical gene transfer, but rather chaos.

Enter horizontal (lateral) gene transfer.  A tree of life that includes horizontal transmission looks somewhat different than the traditional vertical tree of life.  As species diverge and complexity increases, the mechanisms of gene transfer become more complicated and vertical transmission becomes more pronounced.  With less complicated organisms, lateral transfer is more common. 

The comparison to biological evolution holds.  It was our understanding of biology and genetics that had to advance before we could accept observations about memes, not a flaw in memetic theory.   

Continue to Fungal Networks

Saturday, September 13, 2014

How Bacteria Relate to Memes

The last post suggested chemical signals used in quorum sensing by microbes could be labeled "chemical memes".  For some (maybe for you) this is stepping onto questionable ground.  These chemicals are derivatives of the genes--there is no line between genes and memes. And there should be a definite line...right?

There are many similar transitions in biology created by our need to catalogue and classify.  Where is the first human; how do we distinguish "first human" from "closely related hominid"?  The pursuit of that question is not as productive as "how did modern humans emerge from hominids?" or "how did modern humans survive while other hominids did not?".  Yet the pursuit of that first question is deeply engrained in our collective Western tradition.  Something seems incomplete without an answer, but this is a misleading sentiment.  Questions of origin are not evolutionary questions: Questions of development are.

When does a bacterial colony become a superorganism--or cease to be an independent organism?
Is the bacteria in our gut part of us, an individual organism or a colony inside us?  With microbial endocrinology we are learning it is not so easy to separate two species which have co-evolved quite so elegantly.  We are entwined.  But still, the distinction between species is useful in certain disciplines and as such, remains a useful tool, even if it is not wholly accurate from all perspectives.

Let's make a distinction then:   When chemical signals happen within an individual organism, it's a chemical signal triggered by genetic and environmental factors and is not a chemical meme.  When chemical signals are exchanged between two or more organisms, it's a chemical signal triggered by genetic and environmental factors and it is a chemical meme.  It is the transmission of information from one organism to another that makes the meme (this will be an important distinction later).

Continue to Comparison With Bacteria

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Not the beginning...Not even close

Before the massive DNA double helix there had to be...something.  DNA didn't appear out of thin air.  Organic chemists and other scientists have theorized about what came before DNA and how it all assembled in the primordial soup of the early earth.  But Evolutionary Biologists stay out of that.  They aren't concerned with origins but with what developed after that first fact.

Evolution isn't interested in first cause, it's focus is rather on development.
How did we get from point c to point d?  b to c?
Evolutionary biology relies on other disciplines to address point a (which is rather fortunate: as far as we can tell, reaching point a is like trying to count to infinity). 

So...where does the realm of memetics (as part of evolutionary theory) begin?
There are no easy lines of demarcation...but let's approach this question from a new angle.

Memes didn't start with the first word or first warble.
They didn't even start with (as Hoyle Leigh might say) the first neurons firing.

They are far older.

Quorum sensing in bacteria is facilitated by the production and recognition of certain signaling molecules.  These molecules allow single celled organisms to aggregate, network and even overpower much more complex, multi-celled organisms. 

This ability to network and collaborate through broadcasted information was foundational to the survival of single celled organisms as well as multi-celled organisms.  Yes, these signals are intricately connected to genes.  Can we be comfortable labeling these as chemical memes or are they simply products of genes? 

(It's a trick question, just like: does light behave like a wave or particle?  The best answer is both OR it depends on the context.)

As we will see later, memes intricately scaffold onto genes.  Leigh can be understood for adapting memetics to a flexible modernization of genetic determinism.  He went as far as his induction into the practice of normal, clinical science would permit & no further.  However, his work did not accomplish a foundation in memetics because he did not question the basic assumptions of his discipline in light of meme theory.  More on this later.

For now, let's be content to say we cannot simply pin-point the branching of memes from genes. Memes originated in service to genes.  Chemical memes have high fidelity (a pheromone has a particular chemical signature, a protein will fold in one particular way--when something goes wrong with this, there is trouble).  This high fidelity in transmission and exclusive service to the genes makes organisms relying on chemical memes highly efficient examples of evolution.

Continue to How Bacteria Relate to Memes

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Memes, not Metaphors

Memes are not metaphors.
Are genes metaphors?
Were genes metaphors before we had concrete evidence of the DNA molecule?
What about before we had other, less conclusive evidence?

Memes are replicators.
Like genes, they follow an algorithmic trajectory of adaptation and replication or destruction. 
They accumulate information (complexity).
They alter their environment.

So, if you can't suspend a conviction that memetics is simply metaphor to express poetic sentiments about human culture, quit reading while you're ahead.  It will only get worse from here. 

To say that memes are exactly like phage or bacteria is wrong. 
Phage and bacteria are products of genes. 
Memeplexes are unique replicators.  Their outcomes, their artifacts, are unique to memes.
As such, they deserve their own examination.

Continue to Not The Beginning...Not Even Close

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Let's crawl before we run...

It's all well and good to claim memetics will create a more humane psychology and social policy, protect the aged and young and address global climate change without resorting to the extermination of our species...but it's all a little...too much.

Too many grand, philosophical dreamscapes, a pinch of magical thinking...out of touch with reality.

Reality is
: the peer reviewed journal(s?) went belly-up a decade ago.
: most regard meme theory as a metaphor with little to offer.
: the inertia of the current paradigm encourages meme theorists to conform memetics to existing disciplines (as any responsible, normal science will do). 

Wake up folkies.  We aren't a normal science yet.  Let's cut the pretense.

We need to be flexible. think outside the biology box and design methodologies to test meme theory.  (A great example of this cutting edge research is Daniel VanArsdale's work on the Evolution of Chain Letters).

Hold onto your hats meme-mourners, philosophers and bespectacled lab-rats...we're about to tour a world where memes aren't just an ancillary concern but where they are given the full consideration that genes have been granted for the last hundred years. 

Continue to Memes, Not Metaphors