Re: Mutant swarms and copying fidelity

From: Kate Distin (
Date: Thu 05 May 2005 - 11:23:21 GMT

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    Derek Gatherer wrote:

    >> Well, lack of precision does not preclude comparison, it just makes it
    >> coarse grained. For example, take this quote from Chaucer:
    >> I warne yow wel, it is no childes pley.
    >> Eight memes (lexemes), counting 'childes pley' as one, six mutations
    >> (including short to long 'i' in 'childes') in over more than 600
    >> years. Millions of replications, at least. That's gotta be slower than
    >> the flu, no?
    > 600 years is a mere 20 human generations.

    But meme generations aren't often the same as gene generations. 600 years could be thousands of meme generations.

    > 20 flu generations is
    > probably less than 60 days. How much does a flu virus mutate in 60
    > days? In any case, to what extent are orthographical changes cultural
    > mutations?

    They're more changes in the way that culture is represented than in the culture itself. The meaning of the phrase doesn't change when you move it into modern English; the information it carries remains the same.

    > Does that not assume that culture is somehow coded in
    > language? Couldn't it be coded in something else (eg a mentalese?) or
    > not coded at all?

    Coded in lots of different ways, yes.

    I'd also question the assumption that the phrase consists of 8 memes just because it has 8 lexemes. I'm not saying that each word could not be a meme, in certain contexts, but that functionally this particular phrase actually carries only one or at the most two bits of information
    (a self-referential statement that the phrase is a warning, and the warning itself).

    Dawkins has an example in The Blind Watchmaker about the evolution of language, plotted in terms of word divergence, which I think falls prey to the same problems. Obviously there's a lot more to language than its constituent words (e.g. grammatical rules, etc.).


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