When we conceived our children, my wife and I had to give them genetic instructions on how to build their bodies, including such developmental issues as nose placement and skin color. Egg and sperm split the instructional task. My March 2003 column celebrated the 50th anniversary of the discovery of DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) located in the nucleus of each body cell. DNA is the genetic recipe book on body organization, development, and maintenance that parents give to their children.
But providing such genetic information is only part of the human parenting charge. We also have to teach our children how to become decent, productive, reproductive human beings. Our upright stance and consequent narrow female birth canal results in a child whose birth brain can only be one-third its adult size. Most human cognitive development thus occurs after birth (as compared to other mammals whose female birth canal is slightly larger than the almost fully developed brain that passes through it).
We begin life as a wet noisy pet and require 20 years at best to move into an autonomous adulthood. Our long juvenile dependency has of necessity turned us into a highly interdependent social species that must master complex cultural information and communication systems. Further, our upright stance frees our forelimbs from mere body movement and so creates grasping, handling, throwing, and signaling capabilities that materially expand the complexity of learned human culture.
In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins proposed the concept of memes to explain the analogous transmission of cultural information. Susan Blackmore wrote an extended non-technical exploration of the concept in The Meme Machine (1999). Robert Aunger has now written a more technical analysis of the concept in The Electric Meme: A New Theory of How We Think (2002).
To put it simply, A gene is a biological replicator that transmits hereditary characteristics —such as the location of the nose on human faces, the shape of a dopamine molecule, and the repairing of skin cuts. A meme is the cultural equivalent of a gene — a bit of useful imitative information that passes from one person to another, but that can evolve in the process— such as the directions for tying shoelaces, the multiplication tables, and a joke that spreads through the population. Genes thus transmit biological information between generations, and memes transmit cultural information within a generation (but also potentially into subsequent generations via permanent records).
As suggested above, genetics is about how to assemble a complex information system (an organism) out of a relatively few production elements (amino acids). Only 20 different amino acids are needed to create the myriad of proteins that build and maintain our body because the genetic information in a protein is coded into the assembled sequence of amino acids and the length of the amino acid chain (a gene). Every cell’s nucleus contains the organism’s twisted ladder-like DNA strand—and each sequence of three rungs on the strand codes for a specific amino acid. Each gene provides the coded amino acid sequence for one specific protein. Human DNA contains some 30,000 genes that construct and maintain our 10-trillion-cell body.
Plant/animal species that combine male and female genetic information in their offspring must develop a mating procedure. The birth and rearing of a human is a very expensive long-term task, so to encourage conception, it was useful for us to surround it with pleasure and romance (rape, child sexual molestation, and fear of pregnancy being exceptions). Recent developments in in-vitro fertilization and cloning pose human mating alternatives.
It’s obvious that genes can’t provide children with all the information they’ll need to survive in a complex, interdependent, constantly shifting environment. Humans thus developed a learned meme system to replicate and transmit useful imitative cultural information. My August 2002 BrainConnection column (Mirror Neurons) describes a very important discovery about how key cultural imitation capabilities emerge in a child.
Mating thus provides the vehicle for combining and transmitting genetic information, and language provides an excellent analogous vehicle for transmitting mimetic information. Intriguingly, language functions very much like coded genetic transmission. Hundreds of thousands of English words can be developed from 26 alphabetic letters because the meaning of a word is coded into the sequence of its letters, and not into the letters themselves (e.g., do, dog, god, good). Further, words can be strung into more complex sentences, paragraphs, and stories. A multitude of melodies can similarly be composed from different sequences of the 12 tones of the musical scale.
Articulate language and song thus use a coding system with striking parallels to genetics — but compressed speech and expanded song differ in important ways in what they seek to do.
Content is central to spoken expression, so when we speak to others, we compress a lot of information into a relatively short time frame by speaking rapidly and by not varying the tone of our voice. Feelings are central to song, so song stretches out the expression of what’s typically a simple message focused on danger/opportunity, or on likes/dislikes in order to enhance the feelings implicit in the message.
If all George Handel wanted to say was Hallelujah, for the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth, why did it take him so long to say it? Song drags out the vowels and repeats words/phrases, and this allows the singer to use melody, harmony, timbre, volume, and other musical elements to insert a range of feelings into the simple message. The result is that hearing an orchestra and chorus perform Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus is a much more profound experience than merely hearing or reading the words.
Much of the first decade of our life is devoted to mastering oral (first five years) and written language (second five years). Music seems to dominate our adolescent years, which are focused on the development of personal/social identity and the various bonding allegiances that will characterize adult life—the elements of life that music communicates so well.
Mastering articulate and musical languages are thus important developmental tasks, and schools that eliminate music to save money seemingly don’t understand the underlying purpose and complexity of human communication.
Next month’s column will move the discussion from the transmission of mimetic information to new insights into the fundamental nature of memes themselves. Is a meme a real or merely a hypothetical entity?