Re: New Memes Book

From: Chris Taylor (
Date: Mon 21 Mar 2005 - 11:28:32 GMT

  • Next message: Kate Distin: "Re: New Memes Book"

    I'd like to thank Scott for his cogent follow ups -- he gets this. It is maybe too subtle for you Keith, as your from-the-hip (in sooo may ways) opening comment betrays.

    > Consider the mechanism you used for this post Chris.

    For propagating _email_ not for replicating, in your head, the firing patterns of groups of neurons in my head!

    Anyway, allow me to unpack this. Point is that there are no memes in the way that there are genes -- genes are (more or less) discrete units that exist independently in the world. I could track particular sequences through generations (even, to a point, in terms of the actual individual physical nucleotides, give or take a few exchanged hydrogens). There is no direct analogue in memetics. Not one idea anyone has stored in their head is _exactly_ the same (in all but the physical stuff) as anyone else's; whereas that is not true of genes -- there is sequence variation
    (within known, measurable limits) but there is also a lot of invariant sequence which is literally, exactly, demonstrably the same.

    The reason I want to zoom in on this issue is to avoid lazy thinking; as I said metaphors are incredibly useful, but only up to a point. When are we going to get to grips with _what is actually happening_ and stop faffing about with black boxism? What sort of brain might evolve to facilitate this 'life of the mind' (cos to be sure even in a world with as many bad as good ideas learning still goes to fixation as a trait, as at least one paper has shown [in phil.trans.roy.soc.B iirc]).

    What I want to see is how we go from a (literal) muscle head, to an automaton, to an automaton with some conditioning, to a learning beast, to a 'thinking' beast. I also want to address (for the umpteenth time) the linked fallacies (1) that 'we' have free will and (2) that there is any true randomness.

    Maybe alt.memetics provide more comfort for a hollow para-paradigm?

    Scott was bang on on the examples anyway so I won't do more than precis that here; I can make a surface copy of a behaviour; I can try to assign intent; that is all. Your meme being created/lost whatever is inappropriate at any but the coarsest level; it may be the case that, given my internal state, I interpret an artefact in an _apparently_ similar way (in terms of observables), but no 'informational soul' existed in that thing to be preserved or lost. What if I only thought I saw something that wasn't really there -- what then? Why should someone else's intent govern the role of an artefact anyway (PC = doorstop)?

    We all learn to use our hands by having hands that are connected in the same sort of generic way, and develop discrete behaviours around our hands (artefact makes 'meme' -- see Karl Sims' sims), but even then they are not going to be _exactly_ the same. Surface similarity is all that matters at the end of the day. It is once we get around the idea that we
    _literally_ share stuff when 'copying', rather than converging on a perceived phenotype, that we can for example very simply explain the vertical transmission of familial abuse, or the difference between flaky free thinkers (including me -- although as a long-time cat owner I may just have toxoplasmosis) and bookish dullards with total recall, or why a 'small' loss of ability in Asperger's seems so often to result in such disproportionate gains in specific areas.

    Show me the money. Boomshanka, Chris.

    Keith Henson wrote:
    > At 11:53 AM 18/03/05 +0000, Chris Taylor wrote:
    >> This talk of memes as more than thumbnail metaphors for what is really
    >> going on is limiting discussion. There are no memes in the sense that
    >> there are genes. There is not even an approximately analogous thing.
    > Kate, I almost think you get better discussion on alt.memetics.
    >> Biologists have long employed shorthand, such as 'evolved to do
    >> suchandsuch', to avoid having to always say that the chance occurrence
    >> of a thing in an individual happened to result in the greater
    >> 'fitness' (more shorthand) of that individual (or something along
    >> those lines). But the danger is in trying to treat such shorthand
    >> characterisations as more than they are.
    >> There cannot be memes that are transmitted. There is no mechanism for
    >> their propagation.
    > Consider the mechanism you used for this post Chris.
    > Memes, genes and computer viruses are *information.* A lot of social
    > science people have problems with this, but not engineers, computer
    > scientists or for that matter evolutionary biologists.
    > A meme is information no matter what media it is in. It can be in a
    > person's head, it can be on paper, it can be in an artifact.
    > I once described a three times meme, a piece of paper with written
    > directions as to how to fold the paper into an airplane, pictures
    > showing how to do it, and the paper itself folded into the paper
    > airplane. Any one of which would suffice such that the behavior of a
    > person who read the directions, or looked a the pictures, or unfolded
    > the paper airplane could have made another one. (It would have been a
    > three fold meme for a pun.)
    > Is the meme for making wagon wheels in the object itself? For some
    > people, yes. A person skilled in wood and metal work could build a
    > wagon wheel with only a sample. A person skilled in chipping rocks
    > could chip out an arrow head given a sample to copy. It gets
    > questionable when you have a bucket of paint unless you have esoteric
    > analytical skills.
    > Much of my early engineering career involved "reverse engineering,"
    > taking some gadget apart so we could figure out how to make more of them.
    >> The only 'things' that are even things at all are the little
    >> self-sustaining modules of thought that occur within a mind, but to
    >> try to assert that these (ill-defined at best) informational chunks
    >> can jump minds, or be 'embedded' in artefacts, is at best nonsense.
    >> What meme 'transmission' should be shorthand for is a mix of
    >> phenotypic copying and convergent evolution; e.g. I learn a behaviour
    >> or internalise a thought, but in doing so I try (ahem) to construct an
    >> internal copy that works like the thing I have seen, from my own
    >> internal stuff, i.e. the sum of my experiences and internal
    >> interactions to date. If we both see an artefact it will produce
    >> superficially similar (on testing) representaitons of it in our minds
    >> (not dissimilar to a jelly mould). But to imagine that there is
    >> anything remotely similar in an absolute sense is ridiculous.
    > Then we could never play games with rules and we would never know what a
    > light at an intersection might mean or what side of the road to drive on.
    > Annoyed,
    > Keith Henson
    >> There are no memes, but that does not preclude a memetics.
    >> Sorry this wasn't a direct response to the previous mail, just ranting.
    >> Chers, Chris.
    >> Kate Distin wrote:
    >>> Kenneth Van Oost wrote:
    >>>> ----- Original Message -----
    >>>> From: Kate Distin <>
    >>>> You wrote,
    >>>>> Memes in the mind - yes. Memes in behaviour and/or artefacts - it
    >>>>> depends what you mean by "behaviour" and "artefacts": memes in
    >>>>> artefacts
    >>>>> like books and CDs - definitely; memes in spoked wheels (to use one of
    >>>>> Dennett's examples) - no. Memes, on my view, are fundamentally
    >>>>> representational, so anything that isn't a representation can't be a
    >>>>> meme. This turns out to be a key point on which I disagree with
    >>>>> Dennett
    >>>>> and Blackmore in particular, both of whom use a lot of examples
    >>>>> based on
    >>>>> things that I don't see as memes at all. The other major point at
    >>>>> which
    >>>>> our views diverge is their claim that the mind is a meme-complex. I
    >>>>> think we can have our cake and eat it: that memetics is compatible
    >>>>> with
    >>>>> a conventional view of the conscious human mind.
    >>>> Hi there,
    >>>> Maybe you are better off with the performance- model of Wade T.Smith,
    >>>> although most list members would disagree.
    >>>> Memes in books and CD's ok, but what Smith proposed ain 't stupid
    >>>> either.
    >>>> By reading a ( certain) book in a specific surrounding you express
    >>>> each time
    >>>> a different meme. The meme is in the performance of reading the book.
    >>>> Every different meme would in that case be represented by a / its
    >>>> different
    >>>> performance.
    >>> I'm not familiar with this model, I have to admit, but oddly enough a
    >>> similar discussion has recently taken place on alt.memetics. My view
    >>> is that a book contains representations of certain fixed memes, but
    >>> those memes can have different effects in different contexts - so
    >>> each time the book is read (even if it's re-read by the same person
    >>> at a different time) it will have a different impact. Same memes,
    >>> different phenotypic effects in different memetic/environmental
    >>> contexts.
    >>>> Shooting the arrow is meaningless unless the performance of shooting
    >>>> is set
    >>>> in a specific place/ time and for a purpose. And each time an arrow
    >>>> has been
    >>>> shot for any purpose in any place and time possible a different meme is
    >>>> added in the memepool. Even in the different ways the bow has been
    >>>> stretched (different ) memes sprung to the light.
    >>> Shooting an arrow isn't something I'd normally describe as a meme,
    >>> because it doesn't (usually) represent anything. Of course it could
    >>> if you set it up that way ("When you see me shoot an arrow that's the
    >>> signal to attack."), but normally not. It feels to me as if it's the
    >>> definition of "meme" that's being over-stretched in this example!
    >>>> Memes in spoked wheels, no... but you can ' draw ' memes from it, by
    >>>> talking about them; by taking pictures of it; in trying to figure
    >>>> out how
    >>>> they
    >>>> are fabricated; etc...! Spoked wheels can be representational for a
    >>>> certain
    >>>> sub- cultural group, for a certain social class and in that case
    >>>> they are
    >>>> ' memes '.
    >>> I would say that spoked wheels are the phenotypic effects of the
    >>> memes for spoked wheels. They are not in themselves memetic. Once
    >>> you start talking about them, taking pictures of them, etc. then you
    >>> are representing them (in words, pictures, diagrams, etc.), but that
    >>> doesn't make the wheels representational in themselves. You may even
    >>> be able to work out how they were made, but only by bringing your own
    >>> existing memes to the situation (knowledge of what a wheel is, the
    >>> fact that being spoked is an option, understanding of manufacturing
    >>> methods and materials, etc.). The wheel does not contain any of this
    >>> information.
    >>> A wheel isn't a great example in that it's hard to imagine a person
    >>> who wouldn't recognise it for what it is. More complex artefacts
    >>> like coffee machines or computer keyboards make the point clearer, I
    >>> think.
    >>> If you showed a coffee machine to my five-year-old, or to someone
    >>> from a pre-technological society, then he wouldn't know what it was
    >>> or what its purpose was. He wouldn't be able to work it out either,
    >>> if he'd never seen anything like it before. If you gave him the
    >>> instructions, though, he could read them and get his understanding
    >>> from there. This is because the instructions contain the necessary
    >>> information but the machine doesn't.
    >>> If a rival manufacturer wanted to lift ideas from this particular
    >>> coffee machine, then he'd only be able to do so because he brought
    >>> his existing understanding (memes) of that sort of artefact to the
    >>> situation. In other words I don't think there's a sub-group for whom
    >>> such an artefact is representational - just a sub-group with such a
    >>> good understanding of similar artefacts that they are able to
    >>> represent this one for themselves.
    >>> Of course this all rests on my contention that memes are
    >>> representations, which I accept I've not defended here.
    >>>> Is this clear enough !?
    >>>> Regards,
    >>>> Kenneth
    >>> Yes - hope my replies are!
    >>> Kate
    >> --
    >> ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    >> Chris Taylor (
    >> HUPO PSI: GPS --
    >> ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~
    >> ===============================================================
    >> 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:
    > ===============================================================
    > 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:

      Chris Taylor (
      HUPO PSI: GPS --
    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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