Re: Memes are Interactors

Aaron Lynch (
Sat, 11 Apr 1998 15:58:36 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sat, 11 Apr 1998 15:58:36 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Memes are Interactors
In-Reply-To: <>

>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.

This is a different point from the one you asserted before, so thank you
for clarifying. It is best to specify the storage substrate and the
information you intend to read. A vacuum tube flip flop, for instance, will
show more errors if it has too little thermal agitation, and more errors if
it has too much. The same for typical transistor flip flops, neurons, etc.
A diskette, however, should retain its data better at nearly 0 Kelvin,
unless of course materials with mismatched thermal expansion coefficients
destroy it during chilling. So I agree that the reading of information from
a storage substrate will involve a non-zero error rate, but the rate of
error depends upon what information you want to read and how it is stored.

>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.

You are clearly one who prefers a rewriting the definition of "meme" in a
way directly contradictory to Dawkins and others. To my thinking, the way
you have done this is akin to rewriting the definition of "gene" to refer
to information stored and transcribed in all sorts of physical systems
other than nucleic acid, (or, more generally, whatever an organism's
"genetic material" may be.) This being the case, it is worth noting that a
great enough reduction in the thermodynamic entropy of your computer will
also wipe out all of the information that makes the device useful to you.

While you discuss degradation of physical systems as a function of
themodynamic entropy, it is well worth noting that the entropy of any
closed system increases even if it contains an improving (e.g., gestating
or learning) human brain. It is also worth noting, of course, that humans,
computers, the earth, and numerous other interesting systems are far from
being thermodynamically closed. And on average, the thermodynamic entropy
of the human brain decreases with age, for the simple reason that average
brain temperatures decline slightly with age.

I am not going to argue with the statement that endogenous change is a
property of physical storage systems. But I am glad that the attempt to
describe this simply as a function of thermodynamic entropy was

The main pseudoscientists and charlatans I allude to, of course, are the
ones who attempt to invoke the second law of thermodynamics as an argument
against biological evolution. Naturally, I would rather not see erroneous
"second law" arguments emerging in memetics.

>Elsewhere in this thread you wrote

[posted under the thread "Re: List of meme definitions"]

>>The least unit of sociocultural information relative to a selection process
>>that has favourable or unfavourable selection bias that exceeds its
>>endogenous tendency to change." Wilkins ("What's in a Meme")

>| 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.

Section 12 of my paper does mention that full ordering systems are easily
constructed for texts and nucleic acids. But in to ever consider
brain-stored information (memory items) as memes, you would need a full
ordering system for them before incorporating a "least units" phrase in the

As for finding competitors, contrary beliefs are often good examples of
memes that compete in a population. Beliefs that "abortion is murder" and
"abortion is a right," for instance, propagate as contrary competitors.

I do not see you offering any method to distinguish a "size" difference
between (for example) the the idea that people represent with the phrase
"abortion is murder" and the idea that people represent with the phrase
"abortion is mortal sin" even within a single brain, let alone between
brains. Nothing you say below solves this problem either. You need to
develop the ordering system not just for textual information, but also for
brain information before treating information unit sizes as knowable within
a definition of "meme." It would also help if you could choose a
non-arbitrary ordering system, which for text would include such
possibilities as letter counting or binary magnitudes of concatenated ASCII
byte values. Other reasons for not going with "size" restrictions appear in
my paper.

>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.

--Aaron Lynch

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