Re: memetics-digest V1 #1319 - are memes alive?

From: Bill Hall (
Date: Mon 31 Mar 2003 - 10:54:51 GMT

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    I'll amplify a comment I made last week about whether memes can be considered to be living.

    To me the closest thing there is to a living meme is the self-producing
    (i.e., autopoietic)organization, which could be interpreted as a self-producing assembly of mutually catalytic memes.

    The theory of autopoiesis as a definition for the property of life was first introduced to the English language in 1980 by Humbeto Maturana and Francisco Varela in their book Autopoiesis and Cognition. A more recent work is The Tree of Knowledge, 1988. Personally, I think their structure is quite good because I was using a very similar definition as an heuristic when I was teaching a variety of basic biology courses in the 1970's.

    Georg von Krogh and Johan Roos 1995 applied the theory to organizations, in their book Organizational Epistemology. Here they give a neat checklist for determining whether an entity should be considered to be autopoietic:

    o Identifiably bounded (membranes, tags). In other words,
       if it can't be clearly distinguished from its environment
       it isn't a discrete entity.

    o Identifiable components within the boundary (complex)

    o Mechanistic (i.e., metabolism/cybernetic processes)

    o System boundaries internally determined (self reference)

    o System intrinsically produces own components (self production)

    o Self-produced components are necessary and sufficient to produce the system (autonomy).

    Only where all these properties exist together can the entity be considered to be living.

    Memes can certainly participate in forming a complex self productive system, but as I understand the term, one meme on its own is like a virus (a small number of genes wrapped in an bomb casing) - it has no life on its own, but in the right circumstances it can explode and subvert an existing autopoietic system to make more of its own kind. (An analogue to a suicide bomber?)


    Bill Hall
    ------------------------------------------ Information is not knowledge Knowledge is not wisdom Wisdom is not truth Truth is not beauty Beauty is not love Love is not music Music is THE BEST
    (Zappa - Packard Goose)
    ----- Original Message ----- From: "Dace" <> To: <> Sent: Monday, March 31, 2003 8:28 AM Subject: Re: memetics-digest V1 #1319

    > > From: "Scott Chase" <>
    > >
    > > > > > > Memes alive? Have we resurrected animism?
    > > > > >
    > > > > >If I attributed life to animals would you accuse me of animism?
    > > > > >
    > > > > >
    > > > > >
    > > > > No. Butam I wrong in thinking you are attributing life to memes in
    > > > > literal sense (not the marginally less absurd metaphoric sense)? I'd
    > say
    > > > > that a palm tree or a porpoise are alive. An idea is not alive. A
    > virus
    > > > > strains ones views on what life is, and I'd probably lean towards no
    > hee
    > > > > too. A viral idea ("meme") if this exists, doesn't seem to be a good
    > > > > candidate for being alive.
    > > >
    > > >At the very least, viruses participate in life processes. The same
    > > >be said of memes. After all, the mind/brain is as alive as any other
    > organ.
    > > >A meme, i.e. a "selfish" idea, lives and evolves in relation to the
    > cultural
    > > >environment in the same sense that an animal lives and evolves in
    > relation
    > > >to the natural environment.
    > > >
    > > >
    > > But I thought a meme was akin to a gene, not an animal.
    > >
    > > An animal is alive. Is a gene alive?
    > This is really opening up a can of worms.
    > As "systems" theorist Paul Weiss argued many years ago, there's no clear
    > definition between life and nonlife. Any self-organized, dynamic system
    > that perpetuates the conditions of its existence can be considered alive.
    > In recent times biology has tended to arbitrarily divide things off
    > those systems that utilize genes and those that do not. For
    > biology, it's not simply that genes are alive but that they are life
    > It's the gene that makes you alive, and the point of your existence is to
    > spread your genes. As Susan Blackmore reasons, if an animal is a gene
    > machine, then a human is a meme machine. It's the particles, whether of
    > bodies or cultures, that determine the higher levels of structure.
    > I'm perfectly willing to grant agency to genes and memes. Not simply
    > aspects of larger systems, they help shape those systems and are thus
    > "alive." What's most intriguing about memetics is its vindication of the
    > founding principles of modern psychology. We are driven by unconscious
    > "forces" carrying their own momentum. But that doesn't mean we don't have
    > our own agency as conscious beings. It's a complex interaction of
    > levels of determinacy, from meme to group.
    > Memes in the domain of human consciousness are akin to animals in the
    > This is essentially what Dawkins was saying, except that, as a
    > he thinks what evolves (and truly lives) is not the whole organism but
    > merely its genes. For him the genome stands in for the whole animal. But
    > we need not be bound by this predilection. Memes could just as easily be
    > regarded as species of beliefs competing in the jungles of the mind with
    > other such species.
    > Ted
    > ===============================================================
    > This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
    > Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
    > For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing)
    > see:

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