Re: memetics-digest V1 #1294

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Fri 28 Feb 2003 - 02:26:18 GMT

  • Next message: "Re: memetics-digest V1 #1294"

    At 06:56 PM 27/02/03 -0500, Scott wrote:
    >>Ah. I don't make such distinctions at all. To me memes are pure
    >Whatever that means...
    >>Information has to be in some material form, of course, but I make no
    >>distinction between it being in a brain and being on paper or in an artifact.
    >I think important distinctions could be made between neural states,
    >scribblings on paper, or an artifact (a category which could include paper

    Certainly. But at the gross level of looking at the spread of memes in human culture, the invariant information rather than its physical form is all that is important.

    Let me provide an example of a meme that changed the world in extremely important ways. Consider the meme that made the difference between Newcomen engines and Watt's engines. The behavior of an engineer designing steam engines in those days was forever changed when he heard about "separate condenser" from another engineer, or read about it in a magazine, or examined a Watt type steam engine. It made no difference which route the information took getting to the engineer to have the same effect.

    >I might have a hazy vision (neural state) of what a good painting should
    >look like. I might attempt to commit this vision to canvas. 'm not sure
    >how well my attempt would conincide with the vision I have. By the same
    >token I might have ideas for stories, yet attempting to put them to paper
    >may result in a divergence from the original.
    >OTOH I might look at a painting and come away with a somewhat divrgence
    >impression than you would, so my recollection of said painting could
    >diverge from yours.
    >What I'm getting at is that there may be divergence from brain to paper
    >and vice versa just as there may be divergence between brains. I'm not
    >sure this variation could be shoehorned into a reified abstraction such as
    >the "meme".

    I have intense memories of looking into the Grand Canyon. No doubt the impressions I formed are different in both gross and molecular detail from anyone else who ever looked at the Canyon. Interesting as these areas of study are, I don't see where they have application to memes as they are defined as replicating (transmissible) cultural elements.

    >>This is by close analogy to genes,
    >I'm not sure how close an analogy can be made between the messy relation
    >between neural states or ideas and scribblings as carried over to genes.
    >>where most of the time they are in strings of DNA, but can be on paper or
    >>magnetic tape. You could even memorize a gene. They are all freely
    >>convertible from one form to another.
    >Perhaps using some sense of the phrase "freely convertible". A
    >representation of a gene on paper isn't about to go and get transcribed to
    >make an RNA.

    Neither is a gene sample smeared on an index card or in a bottle. But it is still the gene, active or not. And in these days of gene readers that have read out the entire human genome and that of dozens of other species along with synthesizers that write genes, I think "freely convertible" is just stating the obvious.

    >A paper representation is shorthand at best, just like a pencil sketch is
    >but a facsimile of a real life scene, since you like analogies.

    Does a computer file of "War and Peace" read differently from a paper copy? Is it somehow shorthand or a facsimile? I don't think so.

    A base pair listing of a gene is an *exact* representation of the physical structure of a gene. You could get 4 different kinds of those kid-toy snap together type beads and code a gene that way too. The only thing that is common to these different ways of representing a gene is the information. If you look in a journal article, nobody ever makes a disclaimer that this is a paper representation of the hemoglobin gene, they just label the paper listing as Hemoglobin. The least complicated thing you can do is to take this practice at face value and admit the only invariant element is the information.

    By close analogy, the form, i.e., paper, brains, or steam engines in which the meme "separate condenser" is encoded are utterly divergent. But
    *something* in each of them can get into the brain of an engineer and change the way he designs steam engines in exactly the same way. That something is a meme. The only thing common over these different forms is information. QED, memes are information in the same sense genes are above.

    >The base sequence of a gene might be memorized, but it would take some
    >serious effort to make a gene out of a memory.

    You type what you remember into a gene synthesizer and push the "start" button. There are lots of people who have memorized poems with as many words as are in a typical gene. (Pointless, I agree, just a thought example.)

    >Nonetheless, I don't see how the analogy helps the memetic cause.

    My point is that the root of memetics, the meme, is a *simple* concept. I might add that memetics is simple in the same sense English with 26 letters or chemistry with fewer than 100 elements are simple (before you start combining letters or elements). There are only *4* DNA bases before you start combining *them.* :-)

    Keith Henson

    >>PS A while ago someone demonstrated reconstructing active polio from the
    >>published genome. They did this with a used gene synthesizer that you
    >>can pick up for about $2,000. I have not looked it up myself, but a
    >>while ago someone I know looked up the smallpox genome on a US government
    >>web site.
    >>So the "fact" that there are only two samples of active smallpox in
    >>freezers doesn't mean much in terms of it being used as a terror weapon.

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