Re: Replicators, was Non Homuncular Memetics

Aaron Lynch (
Fri, 03 Oct 1997 13:20:50 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Fri, 03 Oct 1997 13:20:50 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Replicators, was Non Homuncular Memetics
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Aaron Lynch responding to Mario Vaneechoutte:

>> To take a very strict, rigid definition, autocatalysis does not exist. But
>> the same strictness also implies that enzymes, for instance, are not true
>> catalysts: they depend on all sorts of other molecules, including a vast
>> assembly of "water molecules." Setting aside this prohibitively strict
>> definition of catalysis, we see that "water molecules," for instance, are
>> co-catalysts to enzymes.
>Moreover, we see that enzymes can be
>> autocatalytic: Cytochrome C, for example, catalyzes reactions that help
>> bring on new molecules of cytochrome C -- both in the same cell and in
>> daughter cells. In other words, you could very well decide to call
>> Cytochrome C a "replicator." Yet biologists have discovered that the
>> synthesis of new enzyme molecules in a cell always involves nucleic acids
>> at some point. This has led to the "central focus" on nucleic acids as
>> autocatalyists and replicators.
>Indeed biologists have focused on nucleic acids, for many good reasons.
>However, it is often forgotten that to replicate, a cell need not only
>inherit these informational molecules, but also some minimum of
>processors (enzymes) which can interprete and duplicate the DNA, and
>also membranes: DNA does not encode the formation of membranes de novo,
>it only encodes for enzymes which can synthetise new membrane taking
>existing membrane (in some distant way resembling the way DNA is
>replicated). The only independent replicator on Earth is the cell which
>can be regarded as a system of molecules forming a closed semantic
>circle. It is here that the basic dissimilarity with memes can be found:
>memes are merely used for information exchange between different
>processors. In opposition to genetic biology, these processors (I mean
>us) are not encoded by the information contained in memes.

As remarkable as "the cell" is, it is still an abstraction. As I pointed
out months earlier, it "replicates" only with respect to an abstraction.
You do not see "daughter cells" with the same number or placement of
organelles, enzymes, water molecules, etc. Much abstraction is involved in
deciding whether or not two cells are "the same" or "of the same kind." New
humans, in contrast, at least bear a number and placement of organs that
mostly resembles their parents (one parent more than the other, of course!).

I don't recognize the phrase "closed semantic circle," but "the cell" is
certainly not a closed system. It is a material process, and as such is an
essentially open system: it MUST have matter and energy flowing in and out
in order to be "alive." It does not do anything by itself, let alone
"replicate." To continue your project of forcing passive voice onto cases
of "replication," we see that cells do not "replicate," but "are
replicated" by sunlight, geothermal energy, geochemicals, water, etc.

To flatly state that memes are merely used for information exchange ignores
the wide range of causal roles that a meme can play in generating new
copies of "the same" meme in different people. It is as if I had declared
that "plasmids are merely used for information exchange between
processors," ignoring, for instance, the fact that a plasmid can code for a
protein tube that propagates plasmids (including "the same" plasmid itself)
between cells. Much as the causal roles played by plasmids in plasmid
propagation varies between different "kinds" of plasmids, so too do the
causal roles in meme propagation vary between different "kinds" of memes. I
have filled a whole book with examples of memes playing particularly strong
causal roles in their own retransmission, and your remark above fails to
address this.

As for whether you say that humans are "encoded" by "the information
contained in memes," this strikes me as a matter of semantic taste, not
particularly crucial to the theory.

>> Even if you disagree with some of the beliefs that catalyzed Dawkins's
>> overture on memetics, I should add that my own involvement in memetics did
>> not result from prior exposure to Dawkins. I would have introduced the
>> subject using a different neologism if Dawkins had never published.
>Which neologism???

It was and remains unpublished because I later adopted the word "meme"
after writing a few unpublished early papers.

>> Moreover, I do not favor dependence on analogies except as pedagogic
>> devices and sources of initial inspiration. Mature memetic science should
>> not DEPEND on analogies.
>You should explain that. Isn't (scientific) understanding based on
>building analog models. Or do you rather mean that science should not
>depend on metaphor (which usually is meant to be pegagogic)

I say that science is not BASED on building analog models, even though I
admit that analogies often facilitate new insights. What is the analog
model upon which biological evolution now DEPENDS? The inheritance of
wealth--whence the word "heredity"? I doubt very much that many
evolutionary scientists think about the inheritance of wealth in order to
analyze the evolution of enzymes, for instance.


--Aaron Lynch

THOUGHT CONTAGION: How Belief Spreads Through Society The New Science of Memes Basic Books. Info and free sample:

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