Saturday, 1 June 2013

Memetic assimilation

One of the basic ideas of gene-meme coevolution is genetic assimilation. The concept refers to acquired phenotypic traits turning into genetic ones over time. In the context of cultural evolution it usually refers to learned behaviours becoming encoded in DNA genes.

Examples of genetic assimilation in action include walking, speaking and eating cooked food. These all started off as culturally-transmitted practices, but became successful - and went on to be encoded partly in DNA genes.

The best way to intepret the concept of memetic assimilation is probably to consider cases where traits coded in DNA genes get taken over by learned behaviours. To best carve nature at the joints, it seems best to ignore the distinction between individual and social learning in this case, and to lump them together.

Examples of memetic assimilation include:

  • Human fur - largely replaced by bedding and clothing;
  • Human large intestine - partly replaced by practices such as cooking and grinding foods;
  • Locomotion - largely instinctive in many animals - humans learn to walk from their parents;
  • Communication - largely instinctive in many animals - humans learn to speak from other humans.
Humans have large developmental plasticity. Many behaviours that used to be instinctual have been replaced by more flexible traits that are acquired through learning.

Since these are still civilization's early days, many of the more interesting examples of memetic assimilation seem likely to lie in the future:

  • Memory - largely outsourced, reducing the human brain's memory to a local cache;
  • Immune system - partly replaced by hospitals;
  • Repair systems - partly replaced by hospitals;
  • Digestion - partly replaced by food pre-processing;
  • Thermoregulation - partly replaced by air conditioning;
  • Transporation - scheduled to be largely replaced by cars and aircraft.
Since memes seem generally more flexible than DNA, it seems reasonable to expect that memetic assimilation will eventually go all the way - resulting in a memetic takeover. I.e. brains will be replaced by machine intelligence and bodies will be replaced by robotics and nanotechnology.

Terminology note: Memetic assimilation should be distinguished from meme assimilation - the latter being part of the process of meme acquisition - a normal part of enculturation.

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