Re: Machiavellian Memes

Mario Vaneechoutte (
Wed, 08 Oct 1997 09:34:19 -0700

Message-Id: <>
Date: Wed, 08 Oct 1997 09:34:19 -0700
From: Mario Vaneechoutte <>
Subject: Re: Machiavellian Memes

N Rose wrote:
> I misunderstood your issue with me. First let me try and be
> clear about my position on this. By calling memes 'replicators'
> all that I am implying is that memes play a causal role in the
> generation of their copies. A brain is the 'replicating
> engine/machine' (perhaps one day computers).
> My original point (arising from comments by Brodie) was that
> human beings cannot actively (in an existential sense) choose
> which memes to replicate and which memes to avoid. That these
> issues are determined (by the characteristics of the meme and the
> brain) doesn't (IMHO) allow room for free will to exist.

I have no problems agreeing with your analysis, with the caution that
will and choice (which exist in animals and humans) should not be
confused with nondeterministic free choice and free will. But I don't
need to use the replicator terminology to come to the same conclusions.

> Your argument, I think, has become a grammatical issue. It is
> awkward and often regarded as poor English to express every
> sentance in the passive voice. The fact that I use active
> sentances is really just a convention of grammar which I (along
> with most of the English speaking world) has bought in to. An
> active gammatical sentance need not necessarily imply an
> existential agency; "Molecules of salt in high concentration seek
> to move towards areas of low concentration".

First, I should say that anthropomorphic terminology as in the example
you give is usually avoided in scientific discussions. Scientists seek
to avoid it.

Second, when I interpret you correctly, from now onwards - when I see
someone copying a book - I should no longer say in the old fashioned
English I use: 'A book is copied.' (cfr. 'A meme is being replicated.'),
but I should say - as most modern English speakers do: 'A book copies.'
(cfr. 'A meme replicates.')
I truly fail to see how verbs like 'to replicate' and 'to copy' can be
used in the active voice without suggesting that there is a processor at
work which is doing things. I'll blame my poor English for my lack of

> >2. [snipped for space]
> >... why do you have problems in using the passive voice? The
> >reason that it is more handy (as also given by Aaron) seems
> >rather odd to me, because I can say it in the correct manner
> >rather short. Below is the proof. Active: Why are some
> >replicators better at replicating than other replicators?
> >Passive: Why is some information better replicated than other
> >information?
> Active (equivalent to your passive): Why is some information
> better at replicating than other information?

The point here is not that my passive sentence is 2 letters or so
shorter than the first active sentence or that your second example of an
active sentence is again 2 letters shorter than my example. The point is
that Aaron claimed that one needs very long descriptive sentences to
express things the way I try to do, which I tried to show not to be the

> The use of the word information, rather than replicator, doesn't
> really help, and the phrase ' replicating ...' or '...
> replicated ...' simply moves the emphasis from the element (in
> this case the meme) to the processor.

To the opposite: I argued in the previous mail that the passive voice
better reflected the interaction between processor and information. The
arguments can be found there.

> Historically the emphasis
> (e.g. The Selfish Gene) has been given to the element (meme or
> gene) in order to contrast with the organism or species ('self'?)
> as the important unit for evolution. You can interpret this as
> style and emphasis - not a belief in either genetic or memetic
> agency.

This is why and how I started this discussion: I stated that putting the
concept of the gene as the unit of evolution synonymous to the concept
of the gene as a replicator (whereof the concept of the meme as
replicator) is a fundamental conceptual confusion (and not merely a
grammatical issue). Both hypotheses have nothing to do with each other.
The former has been shown to be very useful in understanding evolution,
the latter is based on the debated assumption that genes originally were
true self replicators (the RNA-world hypothesis).

> I don't see a problem with using active sentance
> structures - so long as one is not also implying agency.

Historically and at present 'a genetic replicator' implies that we speak
of a molecule with activity of some kind. That is why RNA molecules are
favourites of origin-of-life molecular biologists and chemists: they are
not merely information molecules, but they also do something, they have
some enzymatic activity. They might do some replication.

> >3.[snipped for space]
> >while your terminology indicates that it are the memes that are
> >doing things to us, while we are passive (your own confusions
> >indicate to me that it is not just me who is a little slow in
> >understanding what you really mean).
> You appear to think that when I use an active grammatical
> sentance I necessarily imply a belief that the object of that
> sentance has agency. It may not just be you who makes this
> confusion, but I'd guess you're in a minority.
> Your definitions were interesting, but by calling a human or a
> photocopier a 'replicator', you are only changing the emphasis
> from the element to the machinery. Traditionally (as far as I
> know) the element has been called the replicator (by convention
> if you like). This use of emphasis was to move people away from
> thinking in terms of the individual or the species as the unit of
> the evolutionary process. "We are just the vehicles for our
> genes, we live and die, but our genes have potential immortality
> through their copies." - to paraphrase Dawkins.

This illustrates again what I mean. Dawkins claims this indeed. I would
say that we are just temporary vehicles for our germ line cells, and not
for our genes. It is impossible to think of chromosomal genes loose from
the cell just as it is impossible to think of the cell without its
genes. Our germ line cells have potential immortality, genes are simply
dead matter when not seen in the context of a cell. Chromosomal genes
can't hustle around like plasmid genes and memes, they are locked within
a chromosome within a cell. This is another good reason why giving both
genes (whereby people usually think about chromosomal genes) and memes
the same name (i.e. replicator) leads to wrong comparisons.

Well, Nick, we have had our arguments pro and con. I enjoyed the
discussion and I think that there is little more I can add at the
moment. Maybe I should first work out the more general framework I am
thinking off, before it becomes fully clear why 'replicator' is a pet
hate of mine.

Until the next disagreement


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