Re: Replicators

Mario Vaneechoutte (
Tue, 10 Jun 1997 09:01:36 -0700

Message-Id: <>
Date: Tue, 10 Jun 1997 09:01:36 -0700
From: Mario Vaneechoutte <>
Subject: Re: Replicators

Mark_M_Mills wrote:
> Mario,
> >It might be better to speak of encoded information (as in physical
> >genes) and of processors and/or processed information. Of course
> >this is not as fancy as 'replicator' which seems to be something of
> >its own and which has something threatening.
> I enjoyed reading your thoughtful comments.

I am happy to learn that at least someone did! I had hoped for a
thorough discussion on the "paradigm shift" I propose: memes and genes
are not replicators. The only replicator on Earth today is the cell: the
cell is a system which can reassemble something similar. Genes cannot do
that, neither memes. Genes and memes are replicated.

Although I owe a lot to Dawkins (you can call me a neodawkinist!), he
has definitely put us on the wrong trail when suggesting that genes are

The striking similarities between genetic biology and human culture
which Dawkins pointed to - while recognizing very correctly that the
latter could not be explained by genetics - stem from the fact that both
use encoded information. This is the basic similarity, too often
overlooked. An essential feature of encoded information is that it is
process free (it exists also when no processes are going on) and thus
can be combined, duplicated, mixed, stored, changed, exchanged
horizontally (horizontal gene spread occurs in biology as well of
course, pace to what many people claim: we usually look at the wrong
kind of genetics, we should look at the genetics of mobile elements,
like plasmids (and viruses)).

You can't combine ongoing processes, but the encoded information for
different processes can be combined, recreating very different
processes, which gives us the impression of 'creation' (a creative mind
is actually nothing but a mind which is good in recombining encoded
information). Think of engineering and of genetic engineering and - of
course - of genetic evolution which has been able to combine very
different processes, because they were available in an encoded manner.

When we are thinking of memetic variation, we usually suggest that it is
caused by mutation. The essence however is that a lot more variation can
be created by recombining and mixing, something nature has discovered as
well when it invented sex (forgive me this anthropomorphic way of
writing: it goes much faster). This is what scientists are doing all of
the time, and science itself is only possible because there is something
like written or printed language which provides with a material
instantiation of thoughts and perceptions (neuronal interactions), just
like genes are material instantiations of the information for chemical

> It seems you are suggesting
> something of a 'systems' vocabulary.

Indeed, I think it is possible to construct a single framework for
genetics, cybernetics and memetics when considering things from an
information point of view.

> At one point, you suggest using the terms 'structure' (centroles, membrane,
> etc), 'processors' (enzymes) and 'code' (DNA, RNA). At the conclusion, you
> choose 'code,' 'processors' and 'processed information.' Does this mean
> 'structure' and 'processed information' are related in your scheme? What
> about 'input'?

Well, I have to elaborate this (together with many others I hope!). One
could speak of processors, encoded information for processes or
processors and the material artefacts which are the result of the
interactions between processors or between processors and code (whereby
the physically encoded information, under the form of genes, can be
considered as an artefact as well).

> I like this general direction. It provides a way to leverage the known
> biological and computer 'system' theories. Also, it can potentially handle
> the troubling problem of timing and scale. What is 'processed information'
> at one time and scale turns out to be code at another time and scale.

The problem to explain all of this is not that we need a paradigm shift,
but that we need about a dozen at a time. I'll try to work this out
better in a manuscript I am preparing for the journal. Dawkins shifted
our attention from the individual to the gene. This gene centered
worldview offers many possibilities, but causes many flaws as well. Many
more possibilities and insights arise when we push back the border
further towards an information centered world view. Considering life as
a sinlge giant process and getting rid of the gene replicator, meme
replicator paradigm could already help a lot.

Mario Vaneechoutte
Laboratory Bacteriology & Virology
Blok A, De Pintelaan 185
University Hospital Ghent
Belgium 9000 Ghent
Tel: +32 9 240 36 92
Fax: +32 9 240 36 59
Editor J. Memetics:
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