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Embodiment versus memetics

Abstract

The term embodiment identifies a theory that meaning and semantics cannot be captured by abstract, logical systems, but are dependent on an agent’s experience derived from being situated in an environment. This theory has recently received a great deal of support in the cognitive science literature and is having significant impact in artificial intelligence. Memetics refers to the theory that knowledge and ideas can evolve more or less independently of their human-agent substrates. While humans provide the medium for this evolution, memetics holds that ideas can be developed without human comprehension or deliberate interference. Both theories have profound implications for the study of language—its potential use by machines, its acquisition by children and of particular relevance to this special issue, its evolution. This article links the theory of memetics to the established literature on semantic space, then examines the extent to which these memetic mechanisms might account for language independently of embodiment. It then seeks to explain the evolution of language through uniquely human cognitive capacities which facilitate memetic evolution.

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Notes

  1. Though note that the grounded e/m behavioural lexicon is almost certainly also modular, so there are probably more than two sets of representations becoming linked.

  2. “It is not easy, indeed it may not even be meaningful, to decide where one gene ends and the next one begins. Fortunately...this does not matter...” (Dawkins 1976, p. 22). See also Dennett (2002).

  3. See also Davidson (2005) for an interesting though somewhat orthogonal discussion of the implications of language as perception.

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Acknowledgments

This article would not exist if not for many long discussions and a little text from Will Lowe. Not that he necessarily agrees with me. Thanks also for extensive comments on earlier drafts to Gert Westermann, and Mark Johnson (who most definitely does not agree with me), and for the comments of the anonymous reviewers. Earlier versions of this article have been presented to the Evolution of Language conference (Leipzig 2004), to Post-Modular Psychology (Glasgow 2005) and to the AI groups at the universities of Plymouth and Utrecht. Thanks to these institutions also for comments and contributions.

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Correspondence to Joanna J. Bryson.

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Bryson, J.J. Embodiment versus memetics. Mind & Society 7, 77–94 (2008). https://doi.org/10.1007/s11299-007-0044-4

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Keywords

  • Embodiment
  • Memetics
  • Semantic space
  • Language evolution
  • Cultural evolution