Re: Memes are Interactors

John Wilkins (wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU)
Sat, 11 Apr 1998 20:52:44 +1000

Date: Sat, 11 Apr 1998 20:52:44 +1000
From: John Wilkins <wilkins@wehi.EDU.AU>
Subject: Re: Memes are Interactors

I wrote with uncharacteristic temerity:

| >Endogenous change is a property of information storage
| >systems. The physical systems in which information is stored degrades
| >a function of thermodynamic entropy. Each transmission of a degraded
| >message is the replication of a changed meme.
Aaron Lynch <>on Fri, 10 Apr 1998 16:29:25 -0500 replied:

| John,
| Physical information storage systems do degrade, but entropy is not
| physics parameter to invoke. If I lowered your entropy by 10%, you
| forget everything and die. :-(
| A lot of charlatans and pseudoscientists talk about "entropy,"
| without having ever calculated it for any system. Hence, it is very
| to attempt to learn about this subject from anyone but a trained
| or a book found in the physics section of a university bookstore.
Those few
| of us who have actually completed thermodynamics courses in a
| physics department generally do not mention entropy in connection with
| degradation--except, perhaps, for a few dishonest physicists looking
| make money by pandering to the masses. You cannot, for instance,
| the direction of mutation of memes by using the second law of
| thermodynamics. Best to just mention physical brain limitations and
| deteriorations as an important contributor to degraded messages, and
| it at that.

Well, I wouldn't want to be thought a charlatan, even if I am a
pseudoscientist. There are far too many in memetics already. I meant, of
course, to say that physical systems (both storage and transcription)
are subject to thermal agitation (a term I take from Leon Brillouin's
_Science and Information Theory_, Academic Press 1956) and therefore the
reading of information from a storage substrate will result in errors.
Since each instance of a meme is some form of physical information
storage system, this means that the replication of a meme will, on
occasions and no matter what the error correction process, inevitably be
subject to change. If this isn't endogenous change, then I would
appreciate your better informed definition of what would be. By the way,
the book by Brillouin is found in my university library, if that's of
any moment, and I understand Brillouin himself was a physicist of some

The reason I stated it the way I did was to make it clear that
informational entropy isn't thermodynamic entropy. Thermodynamic
fluctuations introduce noise into any information propagation channel
and hence memes are inevitably and measurably going to change since
copies will vary from the urmeme. Any selection coefficient equal to
several or many times that rate will define memes, according to my

I explicitly *do not* think that we could predict the direction (or
exact time) of a memetic mutation. I am sorry if I gave that opinion in
anything I wrote (did I?). However, as memes can be stored in and
transcribed from all manner of physical systems other than just brains,
I do not understand why one must leave it at that at all.

Elsewhere in this thread you wrote

| In addition to the points Paul raises, this definition [my defn - JSW]
| runs into another
| problem: It requires development of a full ordering system (set
| whereby given any two units of sociocultural information, you can
| unambiguously decide that one is larger, smaller, or the same size as
| other. Only then are you entitled to use the term "least" in the
| definition. See section 12 of my new paper.

One is surely entitled at least to measure the length of a message in
bits. The least bit length message that is subjected to selection is, at
that level of complexity, a meme, and can be compared to alleles in the
meme-pool of some cultural population. What I find hard to conceive how
one could resolve on most other definitions is how to even identify a
competitor meme. My definition is supposed to flag (though it doesn't
identify or clearly spell out) that issue.

A set theoretic approach requires a full understanding of
classification. One must be able to determine the set membership
criteria. But that is entirely distinct from determining whether one
message is commensurate with another. Moreover, there is a sense of
logical exclusion of statements in which if message A is exclusive of P,
then S = (A or B or C) is exclusive of P. If we always transmit (A or B
or C) as a unity then S is commensurate with P, even if P is just a
simple atomic proposition like A, B and C. Size doesn't matter as such,
rumours to the contrary notwithstanding. What does matter is that S and
P share a metric and are exclusive coordinates in that metric. The
*metric* is what selection defines, in terms of what is an allele in
that population.

When Williams made his evolutionary gene definition, genes were well
understood by his readers as the hereditary substrates of characters in
Mendelian, populational, terms (the molecular understanding hadn't then
been finalised). So, he didn't have to spell that out. I cannot, except
to handwave to information theory and minimum message length theory in
order to observe that, before we can identify competitors/alleles, we
must first be able to specify the commensurable entities. This must be
resolved before we can apply any algebra of memes, or else it is just
subjective convention. And as we all know, subjectivity is the hallmark
of pseudoscience.

Fortunately, my essay was only intended to be a focal article to
stimulate just this kind of debate, and not to provide final answers, so
thus far it is successful. Whether my definition is in principle in
contradiction to other definitions or not - and it is not yet clear to
me which do and which don't, yours included - it has two major
advantages beyond satisfaction of my ego, and that is, I believe, that
it is neither circular nor unsupportably reductionist.

John Wilkins from home
Not at all. I delight in all manifestations of the terpsichorean Muse.

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