Transmission and Replication

From: Reed Konsler (
Date: Mon 03 Mar 2003 - 14:50:37 GMT

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    If I use the analogy meme : gene then you might think of artifacts like books and paintings as viruses (with apologies to Richard, who has already made a claim to that term). A virus is a set of genes that does not have the internal machinery necessary for replication. It is reasonable to say that viruses contain genes. Without a host, however, these genes are inert; they don't do anything.

    Viruses evolve a myriad different molecular tools designed to get their genetic material into a host cell. They mutate and specialize. This mutation occurs within the cellular context as a result of cellular processes. Viruses evolve inside cells. Outside, they are inert.

    If I spread a meme by word of mouth, I'm transmitting it by the medium of conversation. If I use a photocopier, then that device is an extension of my body. All the various methods of communication are extensions of our body. The difference between copying a meme by hand, photocopying it, or yelling it through a megaphone is efficiency and fidelity.

    The significant hurdle in the meme : gene analogy is that genes appear to be encoded in a single material chemical context: polymerized nucleic acids. All gene replication appears to occur using this single context.

    Memes, it appears, must be translated from the material context in one brain
    (whatever that is) into a medium of transmission and then reverse engineered by the interpreting brain so that it can be encoded in the (hopefully similar) material context of the second brain.

    The analogy would be one cell sending a protein to another which that protein would then read backwards into anti-mRNA using a "reverse-ribosome" and then sending that anti-mRNA into the cell nucleus to be spliced into the cells DNA. Cells don't appear to do that.

    Of course, cells have had billions of generations to perfect systems of genetic encoding and transmission. We also don't have any good idea how the first steps of the origin of life developed. It seems likely that in the beginning of chemical auto-replication there were many less efficient processes for doing things that became obsolete and were abandoned. An example would be RNA-enzymes, of which there are some examples but which is either an anomaly or a throw-back to some earlier cellular lifestyle.

    The danger inherent in thinking to hard about the analogy is that we really only have one example of robust auto-replication to compare with memes. We don't really understand more than the outline of how it works. We can't reproduce it. Even when we obtain a full understanding of how it works, that won't result in any significant insight as to how it got to be that way.

    I can tell you one thing. Arguing on this list about what to call the difference between something in a brain and something outside a brain isn't going to work. The first person that creates the internally coherent, accessible and NECESSARY description of memetics will get to use whatever words he or she wants, and everyone else will follow.

    The most important part of that is, NECESSARY. What do we need the idea of memes for that is so inexplicable, so discomforting, that the ideas we already have don't suffice to understand it. I think memetics is interesting, but I haven't yet heard of an idea within it that I couldn't use ideas from psychology, sociology, or marketing to describe. All those fields already have "good memes": efficient methods of transmission and replication. I think displacing them would require the ideas to be really useful...or we would need to figure out how to make memetics a powerful which case, we would have demonstrated that it was really useful.



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