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Thread: Animal Memes

  1. #1 Animal Memes 
    Forum Freshman Fatboy Miller's Avatar
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    A meme is defined as:

    a cultural unit (an idea or value or pattern of behavior) that is passed from one person to another by non-genetic means (as by imitation).

    (http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=meme)

    Which seem a pretty standard definition (insidentially I'd recommend 'The meme machine' by Susan Blackmore - a very thought provoking read).

    When memes are talked about it seems that it is always in terms of humans (unsurprisingly, as they do have their greatest effect in mankind). However, slightly in contradiction to the above definition, are memes present in the animal kingdom?

    An example I'd give is Jane Goodall's observation of 'termite fishing' in chimpanzees in Gombe national park. While observing one chimpanzee feeding at a termite mound, she watched him repeatedly place stalks of grass into termite holes, then remove them from the hole covered with clinging termites, effectively “fishing” for termites. Young chimps observe this and experiment to learn this skill. Therefore I'd argue that there is a 'termite fishing' meme in chimpanzees and hence in the animal kingdom.

    Surely the fact that chimps live in social groups (family and colony) allow memes to be a significant factor in their lives (is there any study detailing differences in chimpanzee behaviour (culture?) in different areas?).

    My question (sorry for the flying off at tangents!) is how far in the animal kingdom do memes have an effect?

    Intuitively bacteria are too 'simple' would not be effected by memes. I'm guessing reptiles are generally too solitary to let memes affect them. Fish are quite social - so are there any examples of 'memes for fish(!)'? Is it only mammals that have allowed memes to enter their lives?

    I'm guessing that the key to this question is 'what animals have been effected by the Bladwin effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldwin_effect)?'.

    Any thoughts?[/url]


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  3. #2 Re: Animal Memes 
    Your Mama! GiantEvil's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Fatboy Miller
    A meme is defined as:

    a cultural unit (an idea or value or pattern of behavior) that is passed from one person to another by non-genetic means (as by imitation).

    (http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn?s=meme)

    Which seem a pretty standard definition (insidentially I'd recommend 'The meme machine' by Susan Blackmore - a very thought provoking read).

    When memes are talked about it seems that it is always in terms of humans (unsurprisingly, as they do have their greatest effect in mankind). However, slightly in contradiction to the above definition, are memes present in the animal kingdom?

    An example I'd give is Jane Goodall's observation of 'termite fishing' in chimpanzees in Gombe national park. While observing one chimpanzee feeding at a termite mound, she watched him repeatedly place stalks of grass into termite holes, then remove them from the hole covered with clinging termites, effectively “fishing” for termites. Young chimps observe this and experiment to learn this skill. Therefore I'd argue that there is a 'termite fishing' meme in chimpanzees and hence in the animal kingdom.

    Surely the fact that chimps live in social groups (family and colony) allow memes to be a significant factor in their lives (is there any study detailing differences in chimpanzee behaviour (culture?) in different areas?).

    My question (sorry for the flying off at tangents!) is how far in the animal kingdom do memes have an effect?

    Intuitively bacteria are too 'simple' would not be effected by memes. I'm guessing reptiles are generally too solitary to let memes affect them. Fish are quite social - so are there any examples of 'memes for fish(!)'? Is it only mammals that have allowed memes to enter their lives?

    I'm guessing that the key to this question is 'what animals have been effected by the Bladwin effect (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baldwin_effect)?'.

    Any thoughts?
    After a certain number of posts your BBCODE will be active. It's a measure to discourage spammers. Just thought I would neaten that up for everyone.

    I've often wondered what would happen if researchers in bear suits raised some cubs and taught them to live and hunt in a pack like social group. Would those bears then pass that behavior on to their offspring?


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  4. #3  
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    Imitation is the key requisite for memes, not just learning. I doubt anything but the higher primates have this ability.

    I'm not sure memes have been proved to exist in humans let alone animals. Surely this is an empirical question?
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    Meme is usually used a form of cultural idea or behavior that gets passed on. I think behaviors are pretty common even among animals; for example the Japanese "tribe" of monkeys who take hot baths in natural springs or wash their food at the ocean's shore. Even fish, who learn as a group to school at the banks of a hatchery tank when ever a shadow is cast because they've collectively learned that means feeding time.

    Ideas beyond basic mimicry of action are different though and hard to measure. I'd look among social song birds and whales. Orca that specialize in unique hunting styles for example are probably a combination or vocal and action memes reinforced by a full stomach and might even be considered a low form of culture.
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    Quote Originally Posted by Lynx_Fox
    Even fish, who learn as a group to school at the banks of a hatchery tank when ever a shadow is cast because they've collectively learned that means feeding time.
    Would this not be a form of conditioning learnt by the individual fish, as opposed to learnt by imitating other fish?

    Quote Originally Posted by Lynx_Fox
    Orca that specialize in unique hunting styles for example are probably a combination or vocal and action memes reinforced by a full stomach and might even be considered a low form of culture.
    Could the presence of memes itself be the very definition of culture?

    I like the idea of memes but i've still not seen any robust evidence for their existence - anyone know of any?
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  7. #6  
    Forum Freshman Fatboy Miller's Avatar
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    As I'm sure you're aware there are loads of examples of memes on the internet (for a small set see ).

    However what you asked for is robust evidence of their existence...

    ...I think it is largely undisputed that aspects of culture evolve (interestingly both by Lamarckian and Darwinian styles).

    Using the moon landing conspiracy theory as an example (incidently I'm by no means agreeing with this conspiracy). Person A states that he doesn't believe that they didn't actually go to the moon without stating evidence. It captures the imagination of a number of people including Person B who adds that there is no moisture on the moon, hence their footprints should not have remained prominent, which they did. This updated idea has a stronger influence that spreads amoung a number of people, including Person C who adds...

    Is this strong enough evidence? To some yes (I'm in this category) and other ask what a meme physically is. For example you can shake a stick at a 'bunch of chemicals' and say that is a gene, where is the equivalent for a meme.

    One answer is to pose the question 'does the word "happy" exist'? The intuituve answer is "yes", however where does the word "happy" exist? Sure you can say it and write it down, but you can say and write down the moon landing conspiracy. Not withstanding this Darwin came up with the theory of evolution by natural selection prior to knowing about mendelian genetics. Who knows, when neural science has progressed, someone may be able to say what is meme is physically...
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  8. #7  
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    I'm hoping for hypotheses tested using quantitative measures published in peer reviewed journals.
    The mark of a moderate man is freedom from his own ideas - Tao Te Ching

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  9. #8  
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    I don't know if you would consider this a meme as such, however drosophila are capable of a type of social learning called mate copying. Essentially a female can inform its judgement of male's reproductive fitness if it has observed that male mating with another female. To what extent this social learning is able to be passed down through generations is unknown.


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    Sokolowski, 2009, Social Interactions in “Simple” Model Systems euron, Volume 65, Issue 6, 780-794, 25 March 2010
    DOI 10.1016/j.neuron.2010.03.00
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