Re: Lamarckism and Category (?) Mistakes

Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog (
Fri, 6 Jun 1997 10:30:12 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 6 Jun 1997 10:30:12 -0500
From: (Timothy Perper/Martha Cornog)
Subject: Re: Lamarckism and Category (?) Mistakes

>I think if memomes are imagined as existing anywhere other than in nervous
>systems, as for example in or out of robots, categorial errors are likely
>to soon follow.

I'm not sure I know what a "memome" is, but if it's a typo for "meme," then
it's a packet of information that circulates through a social system, e.g.,
a human social system. Memes actually do not circulate themselves;
they're quite passive. Instead, active agents (people) circulate them,
e.g., by talking to each other or sending emails.

Let's consider two possibilities, both of which start out boldly but soon
go nowhere.

1a.) If we restrict ourselves to events in the nervous system, then most
of the time we have no idea what is happening at all, because neurology as
a science has NOT reached the point of defining "meme" neurologically.
That's one of those statements that's likely to produce argument, which I'd
like to short-circuit at the outset. If anyone claims that neurology, or
any of the allied neural sciences, CAN define "meme," then let him or her
put forth that definition -- which must be expressed in relation to
specific neurophysiological events, involving specific places in the brain,
and specific electrical and neurotransmitter mechanisms. Doing so will
prove impossible at our present state of knowledge. (I exclude statements
of the sort "a meme is an instantiation of conceptual knowledge in physical
processes of neural processing" -- which is so much mumbo-jumbo. We need
specific anatomical and physiological details, not hand-waving and

1b.) If we consider "meme" as more or less a synonym for "idea" -- which
focuses our attention on events in the mind and in consciousness, and
thereby excludes mechanical robots -- we fare no better, because then
memetics has become a branch of psychology, specifically, those parts of
psychology that deal with cognitions and so forth. Yet the claim is made,
implicitly or explicitly, that memetics is *more* than psychology. And if
we demand that memes be defined in terms of "ideas," then we must climb the
Mt. Everest of philosophy, which is to define or at least characterize what
the word "idea" means. Lotsa luck, and bon voyage!

I would suggest that contrary to Chris's optimistic comment, we need to
consider memes FAR more simply than by referring to what happens in nervous
systems or by lodging memetics in philosophically ill-defined notions like
"idea." Thus, we *can* talk about information and how information is
organized into packets and larger collectivities. The downside of this
view is that it lacks the transcendant visionary quality that unbridled
discussion of memes can have; the upside is that it lets us draw some
reasonably sharp conclusions (for example, that meme transmission is more
efficient if memes are bundled into packages like recipes).

However, once we define or characterize "meme" as a package of circulating
information, then we must understand that information DOES exist outside
the human mind and its neural correlates. Digital computers depend on
non-neural information -- and it is an engineering reality that such
definitions are fruitful. We then speak of the transmission of
information, of information transducers, and so on and so forth.

Thus, someone thinking of a nursery rhyme "Hickory-dickory-dock, the mouse
ran up the clock" is dealing with a meme. When that string of letters (or
sounds, if I say the words) is converted into a bit-stream, does the
bit-stream "instantiate" the meme? From an *information* viewpoint, Yes.
If, however, one demands that only *human* minds and nervous systems
possess or instantiate "memes," then the answer is No. I hope no one
minds my saying so, but *that* pair of conclusions is thunderously obvious
-- and therefore tells us very little. What is subtler and more complex is
to ask if the message received at the downstream end has the same meaning
as in the message input into the system, because then we can ask "meaning
to whom?" and "about what?" Such questions seem to raise important issues
of meaning, value, and expressive communication.

Frankly, I do not care very much if we define "memes" as referring ONLY to
what occurs in human nervous systems or if we expand the definition to
include information transmitted through electromagnetic or print media. If
Chris Cleirigh thinks that I am thereby committing a category mistake,
well, I am willing to debate the issue with him, but I think we need to
avoid trivialities when doing so.

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Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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