Monday, 6 May 2013

Ear Worm Crosses The Species Barrier

Outside near my garden right now is a male Blackbird in a beech tree announcing to the blackbird world, and particularly to any spare females, that this is his territory and he is available. He has been there every day for about two weeks or more singing variations of his repertoire of musical phrases and cadences and competing with the Gold finch's babbling silver trickle of notes and Great tit's piping in the same tree. (A typical Blackbird song on this RSPB site).

European Blackbirds are noted for incorporating musical phrases into their song and extemporising on them. This particular one seems to have a snatch of a song by Robert Burns called Ye Banks and Braes which is ironic really because the phrase it keeps singing is the tune to the lines "Thou'll break my heart, thou warbling bird, That wantons thro' the flowering thorn!"

Ye Banks and Braes

Ye banks and braes o' bonnie Doon,

How can ye bloom sae fresh and fair?
How can ye chant, ye little birds,
And I sae weary, fu' o' care!
Thou'll break my heart, thou warbling bird,
That wantons thro' the flowering thorn!
Thou minds me o' departed joys,
Departed, never to return.
Aft hae I rov'd by bonnie Doon

To see the rose and woodbine twine;
And ilka bird sang o' its luve,
And fondly sae did I o' mine;
Wi' lightsome heart I pu'd a rose,
Fu' sweet upon its thorny tree!
And my fause luver stole my rose -
But, ah! he left the thorn wi' me.

Robert Burns
Maybe it's just a coincidence and that it my brain's ability to recognise patterns which is working, but what we have here is an example of a meme or ear worm. It's something every successful pop tune writer tries to achieve - a phrase you keep playing over and over in your mind.

This Blackbird has pulled off the neat trick of passing a meme across the species barrier so my mind now keeps singing "Thou'll break my heart, though warbling bird...". A meme is of course a unit of cultural inheritance; in this case a musical phrase which interprets in the context of my British cultural background and my personal development as a song by Burns, complete with the Galawegian Scottish dialect words with phrases like "And I sae weary, fu' o' care!" and "And ilka bird sang o' its luve, And fondly sae did I o' mine; Wi' lightsome heart I pu'd a rose, Fu' sweet upon its thorny tree!"

In the context of the Blackbird's culture of course, that same meme has a totally different meaning understood only truly by another Blackbird.

This is the exact analogy of how genes only have meaning in the context of the environment in which they are expressed and by which the information in them is translated into meanings. This is a point which Creationist pseudo-scientists either don't understand or deliberately obscure when they claim that no new information can arise from mutation (which is nonsensical anyway) when what is important is not the information but what that information means in the context of the environment in which it expresses. Even with no change in information, an environmental change can produce a change in the meaning if that information and so an evolutionary change in the species carrying it.

The importance of the cultural context of memes is also illustrated in a blog I wrote a few days ago about cultural bias in which I presented some common 'proofs' of the existence of the locally popular god and the truth of different holy books with 'proofs' which only work on people with a pre-exiting belief in those gods and holy books. To people from other cultures, the fallacy of those 'proofs' is laughably obvious because it is quite simply devoid of an rational meaning.

It is because the interaction between the genotype and the environment produces the phenotype and the environment selects in favour of fitness to survive in that environment, that species look as though they were made for that environment. They were. They were made by the environment itself.

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