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Memes and Sexual Selection

In natural selection, there are special sorts of features
Which are sexually dimorphic, and selected for as such—
Like the plumage of a peacock, or the buttocks of a mandrill
Or some other bits, impressive in their sight, or smell, or touch
If some arbitrary feature signals reproductive fitness
Evolution may be focused on that feature for a while
The result? Exaggeration of a reproductive signal
Just a part of evolution, but it really has a style!
Imitation and intelligence are (sometimes) found in humans
In proportions far outstripping our survival needs, it seems
In our search for reproduction, we’ve developed all of culture—
For the species known as humankind, our peacock’s tail is memes

In the New York Times “Opinionator”, Sue Blackmore replicates her TED talk on memes and temes:

All around us information seems to be multiplying at an ever increasing pace. New books are published, new designs for toasters and i-gadgets appear, new music is composed or synthesized and, perhaps above all, new content is uploaded into cyberspace. This is rather strange. We know that matter and energy cannot increase but apparently information can.

It is perhaps rather obvious to attribute this to the evolutionary algorithm or Darwinian process, as I will do, but I wish to emphasize one part of this process — copying. The reason information can increase like this is that, if the necessary raw materials are available, copying creates more information. Of course it is not new information, but if the copies vary (which they will if only by virtue of copying errors), and if not all variants survive to be copied again (which is inevitable given limited resources), then we have the complete three-step process of natural selection (Dennett, 1995). From here novel designs and truly new information emerge. None of this can happen without copying.

The really attentive reader might remember that I posted Blackmore’s TED talk on this topic last year, after seeing Daniel Dennett give a very similar talk on Darwin Day. There is much replication in the world of memes. Some repackagings are, as is to be expected, more successful than others at replicating.

I myself wonder how much of it can be stuffed back into its original box; that is, might it be the case that memetic evolution is not a new type whatsoever, but just one particular result of natural selection? The peacock’s tail is much more than it needs to be–so is the human brain, and human behavior, and imitation and culture. But… Darwin wrote about sexual selection; features that are related to reproduction are, evolutionarily speaking, on the fast track for selection. Even the worst (in my subjective but correct opinion) bands somehow seem to attract groupies; the ability to write an earworm of a song clearly has reproductive consequences. Kissinger (eww…) said that “power is the ultimate aphrodisiac”. You don’t have to be Freud to see that the stuff that advances culture gets you laid.

Which does not, come to think of it, explain the existence of pseudonymous poets. Where is the payoff?

Back to the drawing board.


  1. says

    If you have already reproduced, and choose not to continue to do so, than from an evolutionary standpoint your sex life is meaningless. Therefore you may now blog anonymously.

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