Re: i-culture and m-culture. Encoded information

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Wed, 4 Jun 1997 09:55:05 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 4 Jun 1997 09:55:05 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: i-culture and m-culture. Encoded information

>Hans-Cees Speel wrote:
>> In my new paper I wrote this about it:
>> -----------------------------------
>> The distinction between replicators and interactors is connected to the
>> division of code and matter (Pattee, 1977). Code can be replicated, but more
>> importantly, also interpretated. The interpretation takes place by means of
>> an interpretation system, and yields matter. The difference between matter
>> code is that code is in a rate-independend dynamical mode, while matter is in
>> a rate-dependent dynamical mode. When a structural entitie crosses this
>> matter-code barrier it is 'transduced' (Pattee, 1977). In biology the
>> interpretation system is the cell mechanism, that translates (while also
>> tranducing) specific parts of DNA at a certain time to enzymes. This
>> theoretical theme is in the end also related to the genotype-phenotype
>> distinction of course, since genotype is code, and phenotype is matter. Code
>> has no meaning separated from a translation system. Pattee describes for
>> instance that the cell gives DNA its meaning.
>> I thus hold that in memetic theory memes can be phemotype, and also
>> memotype (code and matter, genotype and phenotype)
>> You might also want to read Williamson 1992 (natural selection) for
>> the difference between code and non-code.

Mario Vaneechoutte replied (6/4/97):
>Although I understand what Hans-Cees means with 'code' and 'matter' and
>I think I can agree to a large extent with this approach, I think his
>usage of the words code (for genotype) and matter (for phenotype) is
>rather unfortunate and confusing.
>E.g., genes are matter and encoded information together. Phenotypic
>behaviour is not matter.
>It might be better to speak of (genetic, cultural, ...) information
>which is encoded (be it in genes, neuronal connections, sound waves,
>printed symbols on paper, ...) and which can be interpreted by living
>processes (enzymes, cells and brains). Luc Claeys speaks of the
>instantiation of information
>Indeed, I think this kind of approach, i.e. looking at biology and
>culture from the 'point of view' of information is a highway towards a
>unifying theory which encompasses general processes of evolution of
>information and which may reveal where useful analogies between genetics
>and memetics are to be found.

My tendency is to agree with Mario, and say that the information viewpoint
unifies a broad set of phenomena, including physical, biological, and
cultural systems. We can argue with endless sophistry about the nature of
"matter", for example, whether a specific piece of matter "is" code (is DNA
in a test tube matter or code?), but the argument goes nowhere. However,
we obtain *substantive* knowledge about DNA when we understand that if
placed in a cell-free protein synthesizing system, the sequence of
nucleotides in the DNA is "translated" reproducibly into a a sequence of
amino acids. It was the astronomer-mathematician George Gamow, in 1954,
who first used the terms "information" and "coding" for these biological
process, and biologists have found the concepts extremely valuable ever

When we are discussing DNA, the geneticist's term "expression" captures
some of the sense of "instantiation" of information mentioned above.
Computer programmers do not use the word "expression" for what happens when
a computer runs a program, but in *some* ways it is similar. The output of
a given computer run can readily be seen as an instantiation of the
information in the program and its inputs, so the word "instantiation" is
more general -- which is a good thing.

Furthermore, if we speak of "information," then we can also talk about how
information is *organized*. Thus, we know that chromosomes represent
linear arrays of genes, and that when a given piece of DNA is read by the
cellular machinery it is read from point A down the strand to point B.
Thus, genetic information, as *information*, is organized linearly. By
contrast, computer programs contain loops, so that information is organized
in *topologically* more complex ways in a computer program. (No DNA
transcription enzyme that I know of reads downstream, then moves back
upstream, and then moves downstream again.)

Historians and others have long discussed how *cultural* information is
organized, though they may not use those words. When I posted some ideas
about "memosomes" a few days ago, I was thinking of how the information
carried by memes is organized into larger collectivities -- and it seems
that memetic *information* is organized to allow various forms of crossing
over or recombination. That too is an "information" viewpoint.

In still other systems, information is organized in far more complex ways
than either chromosomes or computer programs. Here I am thinking of
so-called "analog" electronic circuits, in which the system's output is a
*direct* function of how the components are arranged, but those components
do not function in a linear, through-put fashion. Thus, an analog
oscillator contains an obligatory feedback loop, and energy cycles through
the components until it builds up to a threshold level and the system
starts oscillating all by itself. A well-designed oscillator can have a
large number of such feedback loops, whose moment-by-moment activity can be
extremely complex.

So an issue confronts memetics. Are memetic information systems linear or
analog or both, depending on the situation? There is a tendency, I
think, to think of memes as linear (as they are for example in a recipe),
but there are cultural phenomena that seem to resemble analog systems.
Thus, we speak of politics swinging back and forth like a pendulum (first
the liberals, then the conservatives, then the liberals, back and forth
until it sort of settles down) -- a phenomenon called "ringing" in analog
electronics that has no counterpart in linear (= "digital") electronics.

But I suggest that we cannot even begin to *ask* such questions in any
fruitful way unless we take the information viewpoint that Mario has
described. I offer these comments not as criticism of anyone's opinions,
but as something that needs real consideration, and as support for the idea
that information can be a profoundly unifying concept for memetics.

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