RE: Silent memes

From: Richard Brodie (
Date: Wed 09 Jul 2003 - 22:46:32 GMT

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    Keith wrote:

    <<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.>>

    I thought I understood your point of view, but now I'm more confused than ever. Influencing its own replication is the definition of a replicator, of which the meme is one. If you're not concerned with that I don't know how you think a meme is different from any piece of information.

    <<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).>>

    Got it. Yes, we are in severe disagreement about this point. I don't see any reason to call artifacts memes, although I have said repeatedly that some can be fruitfully viewed as replicators (the Eiffel Tower is the standard example).

    <<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.>>

    I would call that an artifact, not a meme. In this case I think it is the entire religion Islam that is the obvious candidate for replicator, although the book itself has self-replicating qualities.

    <<On the second point, it's true that memes in some way influence their replication.>>

    That is pretty much the entire definition of meme, once you specify that minds are involved.

    << 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 t).>>

    Yes, it's very, very complicated. Sometimes its better to look for artifacts or cultural organisms as replicators than to look for individual memes.

    <<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.>>

    In my view the word is meaningless without the constraint of self-replication.

    <<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.>>

    I'd really like to know what you think a meme is if it doesn't require self-replication.

    Richard Brodie

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