RE: Silent memes

From: Keith Henson (
Date: Sat 12 Jul 2003 - 20:54:23 GMT

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    At 03:46 PM 09/07/03 -0700, Richard wrote:
    >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
    >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

    Memes differ from other kinds of replicating information in their active locus, which is (mostly) human minds/brains. Exceptions being those memes active in other animals. When we get human like AI, the difference between memes and computer viruses might get a bit hard to sort out. It is the active location rather than influencing its own replication that defined an information pattern as a meme. (Otherwise, computer viruses become memes, since they are much more obvious in influencing their own replication.)


    >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,

    I kind of miss why you think we are in disagreement. I don't see any reason to call artifacts memes either. Now as I have pointed out, the meme
    (information) can sometimes be extracted from the artifact, but an artifact is not per se a meme. (Memes-on-paper are supposed to be easy to extract.)

    I can see why the confusion occurs. Take the King James Bible. (If you know much about gay history, a better name would be the Queen James Bible.) We are forever using the informational content to refer to a particular lump of paper. But we think about it, we really know that's a shortened way of saying this lump of paper encodes a *copy of the information we call the KJ Bible.* We sort out the different meanings from context. "Do you have a (copy of the) KJ Bible?" (artifact) "Have you read the KJ Bible?" (informational)

    >although I have said repeatedly that
    >some can be fruitfully viewed as replicators (the Eiffel Tower is the
    >standard example).

    That's on a par with saying people replicate. It does not really reflect what replicates.

    People possess or are possessed by the artistic meme of the Eiffel tower. For reasons not entirely clear, but rooted in our attraction to visual items like Bonsai trees and lawns, they desire to have one of them. This leads to a construction project. The welded (instead of riveted) result is not a "replication" of the original much more than children are replicas of parents. It is the underlying memes or genes that are the replicators and the towers or humans are expressed artifacts and phenotypes.

    ><<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.

    A copy of a book is definitely an artifact. The information, the memes, contained in the artifacts is what has the effect on human behavior--including making more copies of the book in question.

    ><<On the second point, it's true that memes in some way influence their
    >That is pretty much the entire definition of meme, once you specify that
    >minds are involved.

    Minds are the locus of action for memes. But consider this as a thought experiment. A computer generates memes, perhaps memorable slogans to be used as pass phrases. They are distributed to humans and have influence over human behavior, particularly these memes are used every day to gain access to a computer account. Rarely if ever are they communicated beyond the person they are assigned too. Here we have memes that do not influence their host to spread them, since that would defeat the reason for the pass phrase.

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

    I think it is more useful to look at the information itself as the meme, and artifacts as "phenotypes" of the meme.

    ><<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
    >In my view the word is meaningless without the constraint of
    ><<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

    I have a difficult time with "self-replication."

    Mainly because I can't think of an example.

    Take DNA replication. In cells or in glass it takes a witches brew of enzymes to make copies of DNA. Now in cells, there usually *is* a casual loop, where the copying enzymes get constructed from the DNA's information. But lots of DNA strings that don't contribute even indirectly to making the brew of enzymes get a free ride. (As do biological viruses.)

    Memes, at least the abstract information model I prefer, don't
    "self-replicate" either. Takes a copy machine at least, even if you don't count the humans in the loop (which you should since they made the copy machines).

    Point being that the *only* common thing I can see in any "replication" is making copies of the *information*. The media in brains, on paper, or mag tape, in which a meme is encoded is never exactly the same. Even DNA replication seldom makes an "exact" material copy since the copies could be distinguished by different isotopes of the elements in the base pairs. But unless there has been a mutation, the genetic *information* is exact between copies. Same way the information of 3 balls and 4 strikes is exact in millions of books and brains.

    Keith Henson

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