Wednesday, February 14, 2007

"Mind" -> It's A Meme Old World

The Electric Meme is a book by Robert Aunger. I would not say that it is the best of all books, mainly because the subject matter is not all that well understood, but he does bring up a few interesting facts that tickled my fancy.

For the unintiated, your first question is "what is a meme?" Meme is an idea that was generated by Richard Dawkins in his book the Selfish Gene. He wanted something that could transfer informational code like genes transfer genetic code. In one of his best pieces of marketing ever, he came up with the catchy word meme which sounds like gene and memory together. According to the Oxford English Dictionary is "an element of a culture that may be considered to be passed on by non-genetic means."

I like to think of a meme as simply the software that is running on top of the hardware, although Aunger, Susan Blackmore (another memetist), and others would claim there is something more. What exactly a meme can be or is, will probably be debated for quite a while.

As covered before in this blog, there has always been a debate about nature (our genetics) vs nurture (environment) in our development. In the mind of the modern Darwinist, the thought is that the genes is how the hardware of the mind is laid out. It is the meme that is driving the software of the mind. Dawkins has suggested that if we put the brain under the microscope, some day we will be able to see the meme expressed in patterns in the neurons. (He is using this as a gedanken experiment more than suggesting that we could actually do this.) At a larger level, it has been suggested that culture is simply a meme.

How much can genes control the way that we think? How much is gene and how much is meme?

Aunger points out, our DNA has a lot of information in it, but all of this information translates into only 40,000 to 60,000 unique genes. Most of these have no relationship with how the brain is wired. The brain has 100-200 billion neurons. The few genes that could help construct the brain cannot layout how the neurons are pour in.

All that DNA does is sketch out a rough blueprint of the brain. It cannot deliberately hardwire all the ways that our brain is put together. In the construction process of the brain, we can end of wildly divergent results using the same genetic blueprint.

1. Chance (or providence) of how the brain is put together from some rough blueprints

2. The experiences that we have

I know that my wife and I have talked about our children and what intellectual inheritance they will pick up from us. The truth is that this is only a part of the equation. A big part of the results is "the luck of the draw."

1 comment:

tmm said...

You might enjoy this article:

and I hope the link works. It is really interesting, jumps right into the nature vs. nurture thing. The new idea seems to be[paraphrased] "we are negatives determined by genetics, and culture is the development process."