RE: Silent memes

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Wed 09 Jul 2003 - 05:34:04 GMT

  • Next message: William Benzon: "just information, NOT"

    At 03:51 PM 08/07/03 -0700, you wrote:
    > >What makes a replicating information pattern a meme (rather than some
    > >kind of replicator) is the fact that it replicates because of the
    > >it has on a human mind when the information is in the mind.
    ><<There is certainly an important class of "convert the heathen" memes
    >fits this definition. But an awful lot of meme replication is done
    >automatic backups of computer files, the computers the duplicate these
    >messages, and people who copied the Mayan glyphs before they were
    >understood. Printing is a marginal case because the people who do the
    >printing often have no idea of what they are replicating even if someone
    >else does. The analogy here might be genes that are put in bacteria (or
    >picked up by bacteria) and duplicated without being transcribed.>>
    >All those automatic processes you describe are copying artifacts (some
    >of which can be fruitfully viewed as replicators in their own right).
    >Some of that copying may aid in meme transmission, but only to the
    >extent the result of the copying is more likely to cause the replication
    >of a meme in a new mind. The simple fact of copying artifacts does not
    >equate to meme transmission. In particular, automatic backup of computer
    >files is a very poor candidate for meme transmission since any
    >information there is attenuated in a sea of bits.

    Depends. Google makes automatic copies and indexes them and I go looking through them because just about every day I get a dead link.

    >Every single meme is a meme because its presence in a mind influences

    [could influence, it might be in a dead end mind but it's still a meme]

    >the behavior of its host such that more copies of it get created in
    >other minds.

    Or on paper, on the net, etc. It is still a meme if it is on paper between hosts, just a lot less active than one in a mind (though most memes in minds are not active at any given time either).

    >"convert the heathen" is an obvious example but so are my
    >phone number and the time World Poker Tour airs Wednesday nights.
    > >If you don't
    > >have this constraint, there is no difference between a meme and some
    > >kind of replicator such as a gene or a computer virus.
    ><<I *fully* agree with you on the need for a constraint to differentiate
    >between replicator classes. But I think the "active locus" or place
    >they have effect is enough to distinguish between memes, genes and
    >viruses. Though one can set up weird corner cases, genes have influence
    >cells, computer viruses only in the proper computer and memes are
    >translated into behavior influences in minds.>>
    >Kick me, but I can't see the difference between what you just wrote and
    >what I wrote above...

    The points where we differ. First I see memes-on-paper as being memes and second I am not much concerned about a meme influencing its own replication.

    Let me tackle the first part by analogy.

    Consider the example of a listing on paper of the base pairs of a gene, say hemoglobin. Would the listing have an apologetic disclaimer on it that this listing was only a *listing* of hemoglobin and not the real gene? No way! The list *is* the gene.


    Because you can type in or scan the list and feed the information to a gene synthesizer, get the DNA out, stick it in a cell and away it goes making the hemoglobin protein. I.e., a gene is a particular sequence of information. Now to get the gene to make protein (or regulate another gene or some other function) it has to be encoded in DNA and inside a cell.

    Same way with memes. A meme on paper just sits there, it has to be in a mind (brain) to have effect--though it can be replicated. (I am reminded of the start of the next article at the end of O'Neill's space colony article in Physics Today in 1974. It was often duplicated when the O"Neill article was copied. There were thousands upon thousands of copies made for no reason at all except nobody bothered to blank off the half page.)

    Same thing with computer viruses. A virus on a disk or a listing of one has no effect. It does when it is in a computer and has control of the OS. But the information is the virus even if it is on paper.

    Part of the point to defining memes this particular way is to regularize the terminology for all three of these replicators. It is being chauvinistic to consider our minds and their (memetic) contents in a way inconsistent with the way we consider computers and cells.

    Genetic information, computer virus information and memetic information can all be replicated outside of the locus in which they have effects. For genes and viruses this is rather uncommon, but for memes, it is the main
    (and explosive) way many of them replicate (i.e., print).

    Consider what a different place the world would be if there had been no copies of the Qur'an printed in the last 500 years.

    On the second point, it's true that memes in some way influence their replication. In the pathological cult cases a *lot.* But for some memes it is a complicated burden to see how a particular meme indirectly influences a host to replicate it. Take the tables of integrals printed in a million copies in the CRC handbook. Each integral can reasonably be called a meme. Hosts that use them seldom pass them on. (In fact, a good fraction of them were just wrong

    Computer viruses are by comparison obvious about how they get computers to replicate them. Cells replicate "junk" DNA probably because cells don't have a good way to get rid of it. Since tracing out the causal links is such a mess with some memes (and some of them may be like junk DNA and not really have links) I don't think it is useful to put this restriction on memes.

    But I don't mind the restriction as long as people understand that they may not be able to show how some memes influencing their replication.

    Keith Henson

    > >What makes a replicating information pattern a meme (rather than some
    > >kind of replicator) is the fact that it replicates because of the
    > >it has on a human mind when the information is in the mind.
    >... and disagreed with. I'm scratching my head! Can you elaborate? Do we
    >have a disagreement at all?
    ><<Note that I don't require *human* minds, though for certain human
    >minds are
    >the active places for the vast majority of memes in our little corner of
    >the galaxy. It is clear that chimps have culture and that their culture
    >varies from place to place. Some groups crack and eat nuts using hammer
    >anvil stones. Others who could eat nuts don't because they lack this
    >cultural element and have not invented it. "Potato washing" is an
    >of a monkey meme where we even know which bright monkey invented the
    >and how it spread. Birds drinking cream out of milk bottles is another
    >example as is the bright parrots that figured out how to eat the kidneys
    >out of sheep in New Zealand and spread *this* behavior to other
    >parrots. (It took killing all the parrots infected with this meme to
    >it out of the parrot population.)>>
    >Agreed, I came to much the same conclusion in my book.
    >Richard Brodie
    >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)

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