virus: testing memetics (fwd from JOM-EMIT)

Tim Rhodes (
Wed, 10 Dec 1997 10:41:50 -0800 (PST)

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Date: Wed, 10 Dec 97 00:54:55 -0600
From: Mark Mills <>
To: memetics list <>
Subject: Re: testing memetics

I recently heard about someone at the Viriginia State Aquarium training octopuses to 'open jars.' The success one has communicating the meme 'open jars' to octopuses is something that can be easily measured, so I thought I'd work with the idea a bit.

The trainer accomplished this in the following stages:

1. Open jars with shrimp or crab were set in the aquarium for the octopuses to find. This stage was complete when octopuses were comfortable locating and eating out of jars.

2. Lids were partially set over the food filled jars. This stage was complete when the octopuses quickly knocked off the lid to get to the food.

3. Lids were partially screwed down. The octopuses learned to translate their Œknock off the lidı skill into unscrew the lid skills. Little by little, increase the Œtightnessı of the jar lid over a period of weeks. By the end of the process, the octopuses can open almost any closed jar placed in the aquarium.

Interestingly, the octopuses display a wide range of Œemotionsı while working on the jars. Octopuses are Œwhiteı when frightened, red when angry and flash between white and dark brown when excited. When they are frustrated, they pump water rapidly through a fluke in the back of the head. Trainers say they can read an Œemotionalı story into the octopus activity as they struggle with the jar, experiencing frustration and then excitement when they get the jar open. One is tempted to say they live out the same emotional stories that humans live.

There was no discussion of how long the octopuses could retain the skill (meme) without practice. As far as I could tell, the skill was not forgotten over nominal time periods like a week or month.

Apparently the experiment was something of a bet between aquarium managers. Some thought octopuses could be trained (communication established, meme transfered), others thought it impossible. As it turned out, the process of communicating the notion (meme) was very slow, but it happened.

Whatıs useful here is the simplicity of systems. The octopuses have a relatively simple neural system, probably several orders of magnitude fewer neural cells then humans. Additionally, they are relatively untainted with human memes which might confuse the measurements. Despite this limitation, octopuses seem full of memetic capability:

a) the ability to memorize behaviors
b) the ability to selectively use learned behaviors
c) expression of emotional states as part of the behavioral choice process

Octopus decision making syntax is probably much simpler than human. I donıt think this makes the behaviors non-memetic. The replication of jar opening behavior from human to octopus is memetic because the neural tissue of octopus records the necessary data and instructions for replicating the human behavior. The fact that the octopus is probably not going to teach other octopuses their jar tricks is a function of their social skills, not the memetic system. At some level, I'm sure you could identify some octopus social skills beyond the obvious sexual activities.

It is interesting to point out the lack of imitation. Memetics is not dependent on imitation in this case. The octopus never Œimitatesı a human. Octopuses are simply acting from their normal range of motivations and options. From this entirely octopus frame of reference, they are including memories of successful food gathering and including the key responses in their Œreadyı behaviors.

The basis for their Œjar openingı behavior is the ability to open clams and mollusks. Coupled with an in born desire to eat clams, they undoubtably inherit an ability to Œlearnı food gathering skills such as target selection and trapping techniques. In this case, all they need to learn is the shape and opening technique for this new kind of food source.

The ability to open a clam is an inherited meme. The clam opening meme is written into the neural system via some embryological development which included leaving Œblankı part of the neural memory system for recording instructions for picking and Œpreparingı desirable clams.

Memes are largely recorded in the neural tissue (substrate). If we knew how to physically read brain tissue, we would identify Œmemesı much as people doing genetics identify Œgenesı within the chromosome. As in genetics, one would have great difficulty drawing one-to-one causal relationships between 'bits' of the code, but one can identify what 'segment' of the substrate 'records' important parts of the organism's activity control system.


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