Re: Memes are Interactors

Aaron Lynch (
Sun, 12 Apr 1998 17:37:43 -0500

Message-Id: <>
Date: Sun, 12 Apr 1998 17:37:43 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Memes are Interactors
In-Reply-To: <>

>| From: Aaron Lynch <>
>| Date: Sat, 11 Apr 1998 15:58:36 -0500
>| Subject: Re: Memes are Interactors
>| >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,
>| >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
>| >reading of information from a storage substrate will result in
>| This is a different point from the one you asserted before, so thank
>| for clarifying. It is best to specify the storage substrate and the
>| information you intend to read. A vacuum tube flip flop, for instance,
>| 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,
>| A diskette, however, should retain its data better at nearly 0 Kelvin,
>| unless of course materials with mismatched thermal expansion
>| destroy it during chilling. So I agree that the reading of information
>| a storage substrate will involve a non-zero error rate, but the rate
>| error depends upon what information you want to read and how it is
>So, you agree with me that (as I first said, correcting for a typo) "the
>physical systems in which information is stored degrade as a function of
>thermodynamic entropy", that is, the systems degrade due to a
>thermodynamic effect. This is not a different point but a restating of
>the same point. Note that I do not specify what sort of entropic change.

If you are going to use the quantity entropy (S), and refer to "a function
of entropy," then you should define that function, which you cannot do
without specifying the system under study. (You should also specify how
entropy is added or removed from a system.) The comments you make do not
even characterize whether error rates or "degradations" increase or
decrease with entropy at the entropy level of 100 Joules/Kelvin for some
particular system. Bear in mind that separating all the elements in your
microprocessor into pure crystals of elements at nearly absolute zero
temperature is a vast reduction in entropy in the processor's matter, but
most people would consider this to be a functional "degradation." If you
cannot use the quantity S properly, I suggest dropping the term "entropy"
from your discussion instead of using it in a vague, almost meaningless
manner. (I already disregarded the typo.) If we start accepting vague
misuses of the term "entropy," then we are unwittingly supporting similar
fallacies by the "scientific creationists," and others.

>| >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
>| >subject to change. If this isn't endogenous change, then I would
>| >appreciate your better informed definition of what would be. By the
>| >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
>| >note.
>| >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
>| >definition.
>| >
>| >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
>| >anything I wrote (did I?). However, as memes can be stored in and
>| >transcribed from all manner of physical systems other than just
>| >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
>| you have done this is akin to rewriting the definition of "gene" to
>| 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
>| also wipe out all of the information that makes the device useful to
>Is this a rewriting of Dawkins? In his "Replicators and Vehicles" (1982)
>he states, in response to Gould's criticism of the selfish gene
>metaphor, that
> A replicator may be defined as any entity of which copies are made. ...
> germ-line replicator, ... is the potential ancestor of an indefinitely
> line of descendant replicators. Thus DNA in a zygote is a germ-line
> replicator... There is a problem over how large or how small a fragment
> genome we choose to regard as a replicator. ... The answer I have given
> before, and still stick by, is that we do not need to give a straight
> to the question. Nobody is going to be hanged as a result of our
> Williams recognized this when he defined a gene as "that which
>segregates and
> recombines with appreciable frequency (p. 24), and as "any hereditary
> information for which there is a favorable or unfavorable selection
> equal to many or several times its rate of endogenous change" (p. 25).
>It is
> clear that we are never going to sell this kind of definition to a
> brought up on the "one gene-one protein" doctrine, which is one reason
>why I
> ... have advocated using the word "replicator" itself, instead of
>"gene" in
> the sense of the Williams definition. Another reason is that
>"replicator" is
> general enough to accommodate the theoretical possibility, which one
>day may
> become observed reality, of nongenetic natural selection. For example,
>it is
> at least worth discussing the possibility of evolution by differential
> survival of cultural replicators or "memes" (Dawkins, 1976; Bonner,
> brain structures whose "phenotypic" manifestation as behavior or
>artifact is
> the basis of their selection. [1984 version: 163, 164]
>Now here we have all the elements of my own definition implicitly or
>explicitly stated back in 1982. Dawkins says that replicator size is
>arbitrary, replicators are information not nucleotides, the Williams
>definition is the basis for memes, behaviour/artifact (note: not just
>brain structures store memes, a point made by Brillouin 25 years
>earlier) is the phenotype.

Dawkins treats genes as information whose instantiation locus is (on this
planet) nucleic acids. They are information, not nucleotides, but they are
defined not as just any information, but information whose physical
substrate (instantiation locus) is nucleic acids. Thus, a videocassette of
"Titanic" does not contain "genes." Dawkins (1982) is also explicit that
the instantiation locus of the information called "memes" is the brain. He
uses the term "replicator" as a more general term than either "genes" or

>Apart from my insistence in a forthcoming Biology and Philosophy paper
>that some memes at any rate are particulately inherited, Dawkins and I
>are saying exactly the same thing. That is not revisionism but

Disagreed, with respect to the instantiation locus (by definition) of
memes. See The Extended Phenotype, p. 109.

>| 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
>| describe this simply as a function of thermodynamic entropy was
>| uncharacteristic.
>I cannot see that you have actually shown my initial statement was
>wrong, but leave that aside for now - we could argue that ad infinitum.
>At least you accept that endogenous change is how I characterise it.
>| The main pseudoscientists and charlatans I allude to, of course, are
>| ones who attempt to invoke the second law of thermodynamics as an
>| against biological evolution. Naturally, I would rather not see
>| "second law" arguments emerging in memetics.
>I entirely agree with this. I'm a denizen, and can testify
>to the ubiquity of thermodynamic mumbo-jumbo by anti-evolutionists.
>However, that's entirely different from stating the truism that
>thermodynamics introduces noise. I never made any claim about novelty
>being the result of either an increase or decrease in entropy. Novelty
>is the result of changes in entropy relative to the prior state.

Unless you define a quantity "novelty" for some system and explain its
relationship to the to the entropy of that system, I recommend leaving the
term out of your discussion. The term "entropy" may sound sophisticated,
and may even cause "physics envy" in social scientists, but I do not yet
see any scientific advantage to the above usage. We need to set the best
possible examples for the crowd.

>| >Elsewhere in this thread you wrote
>| [posted under the thread "Re: List of meme definitions"]
>Sorry, my mistake. I get this in digest form.
>| reinserted:
>| >>"meme
>| >>The least unit of sociocultural information relative to a selection
>| >>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 -
>| >| runs into another
>| >| problem: It requires development of a full ordering system (set
>| >theory)
>| >| whereby given any two units of sociocultural information, you can
>| >| unambiguously decide that one is larger, smaller, or the same size
>| >the
>| >| 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,
>| >that level of complexity, a meme, and can be compared to alleles in
>| >meme-pool of some cultural population. What I find hard to conceive
>| >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
>| constructed for texts and nucleic acids. But in [order] to ever
>| brain-stored information (memory items) as memes, you would need a
>| ordering system for them before incorporating a "least units" phrase
>in the
>| definition.

>Why "for them", that is, for brain states?

The full ordering system is, of course, needed for any medium for which you
wish to identify "least units" of sociocultural information. My above
sentence is intended to call attention specifically to brain-stored

> ...How information is stored is
>not relevant - how information is expressed and transmitted is. That's
>what makes a replicator. There is a category error in identifying brain
>states with concepts that is well known in the philosophy of mind. Apart
>from anything else, how a brain state is located in a context determines
>its meaning.

I was discussing brain-stored information rather than offering an
identification of brain states with concepts. Nevertheless, how information
is stored is relevant to many things. For those interested in
thermodynamics (for instance), it is worth noting that the thermodynamics
of storage in an "active" system such as vacuum tube or CMOS flip flops, or
a system of neurons, is quite different from the thermodynamics of storage
in a "passive" system like a diskette. You yourself use differing
terminology for information stored in nucleic acids versus socioculture.
Within categories, there are also consequential differences between media
of storage. Storage of information in a cell's RNA has different
consequences from storage in the cell's DNA. Just when a difference of
medium warrants a difference in nouns is perhaps partly a matter of taste,
but Dawkins coined "meme" to refer to information in a specific kind of
medium--namely, brains. Scientists do have a right to name subclasses of
phenomena, including subclasses of cultural information.

The inter-medium transfer of information (e.g., brain to paper, paper to
brain) is of course important in replication. This does not, however, mean
that there needs to be a complete instantiation of a replicator in multiple
media. Even using a medium-neutral definition for a computer virus, for
instance, does not mean that a cable connecting two computers can ever hold
an entire copy of the virus, (unless the cable is very long and/or the data
rate very high). Likewise, a telephone wire generally will not contain an
entire instantation of a spoken word, even taking a medium-neutral sense of
the term "word" into account.

>Nor do you need to make information content absolute. It isn't absolute
>in Shannon Weaver characterisations of DNA or proteins, either. You
>first find the empirical distributions to calculate the informational
>entropy (call it intropy to avoid confusion - Brooks and Wiley do this,
>IIRC). All comparisons can be made according to the number of bits of
>the DNA-RNA code. This code is more or less imposed on us by the natural
>process, but it is neither absolute nor consistent. The difficulty with
>culture is one of finding the appropriate protocol - a metalanguage to
>express allele memes - but although the operational problem is greater,
>it is not insurmountable, and has been more or less intuitively done in
>history, sociology and anthropology for a very long time, Quinean
>translation problems notwithstanding.
>| As for finding competitors, contrary beliefs are often good examples
>| memes that compete in a population. Beliefs that "abortion is murder"
>| "abortion is a right," for instance, propagate as contrary
>It is circular to argue that we can identify alleles in order to find

Fortunately, I do not do this. Unlike the medium of nucleic acids, the
medium of brain storage allows for certain pieces of information to be
"contrary" to other pieces. Definitions of "meme," for instance. The brain
is not isomorphic to the gene-locus scheme of chromosomes, nor to plasmids
for that matter.

That these things propagate in competition is something you can
>only find out if you can first individuate them, and you cannot assume
>that this is unproblematic, as your definition seems to do. This is
>analogous to the same problem in systematics between phenetics and
>cladistics. The choice of phenotypic traits ("phenes") was quite
>subjective in phenetics if it wasn't based on theroretical
>considerations, and that's what sank it in the end, although many of the
>techniques survive.

There are various empirical ways to observe that the belief that "abortion
is a right" propagates in competition to the belief that "abortion is
murder." A very low frequency of simultaneous instantiation (mainly in
those who view murder--not just killing--as a right), coupled with data
showing inversely related fluctuations in adherent populations would
constitute significant evidence.

>| I do not see you offering any method to distinguish a "size"
>| between (for example) the the idea that people represent with the
>| "abortion is murder" and the idea that people represent with the
>| "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
>| brain information before treating information unit sizes as knowable
>| 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
>| byte values. Other reasons for not going with "size" restrictions
>appear in
>| my paper.
>I must read it in detail. I read the draft you had on the web but
>haven't had time to get to the full version. However, you appear to be
>hung up on the word "size". I mean "least" in the sense of
>"nonredundant", which was the point of the S and P example left in

The discussion of S and P looks seriously confused, so I did not comment on
it before--but added just a few comments now. It seems as though you might
be attempting to mix the notations of set theory, prepositional calculus,
and metric spaces, but I am not sure. I have degrees in mathematics and
philosophy, (as well as physics), and have taken courses specifically on
set theory, metric spaces, and symbolic logic. But I do not see a
well-formed argument in the passage about S and P. Reasonable books on
these subjects are "Set Theory and Metric Spaces" by Irving Kaplanski,
University of Chicago Press, 1972; and "Symbolic Logic" by Irving M. Copi,
Macmillan, 1973. (Section 12 of my paper does not require all of this as

If you wish to discuss non-redundancy, you would probably to make yourself
more clear by not attempting to identify it with "least units." There are
already others who write about least or greatest units in a sense not based
on redundancy. The S and P discussion does not seem to explain the
redundancies you have in mind, however.

Something is redundant if it is expressed in numerous different

I'm not sure how you plan to identify the most non-redundant units of
sociocultural information in general (including in the brain).

Nonarbitrary is nice, but in the end all metrics are arbitrary in
>the sense that an infinite number of alternate metrics are possible,
>parsimony considerations notwithstanding. What does matter is that
>whatever more or less arbitrary metric we do use, the comparisons are
>objective. [Arbitrary is not a synonym for subjective.]

In section 12 of my paper, the full ordering system for the meme set
S' = {A, A*B, A*B*C, A*B*C*D} is not arbitrary, given the definitions of A,
B, C, and D. There are not an ifinite number of orderings in this special
subset of memes, either--just 24 possibilities. The most sensible full
ordering for S' (given the definitions of A, B, C, and D) is A*B*C*D >
A*B*C > A*B > A. Most sets of memes are, as I said in section 12, only
partially ordered, however.

>What does behaviour X and behaviour Y have in common when they are
>expressions of the same meme? In my paper I wrote:
> If, as I have argued, a meme exists in virtue of biased transmission
> then there is no smooth reduction of memetic structures from cultural
> behaviour to atomic memes, just as there is no smooth reduction from
> phenotypic traits to single genes. The researcher seeking to explain a
> singular historical shift of memetic frequencies must iteratively
>refine the
> data until it becomes clear what is being transmitted at a level and
>how it
> is being expressed. The problem of classification lies at two ends of
> scale - identifying cultural traditions as they exist now and over
>time, and
> identifying elements of those traditions as they persist and recombine.
> Although this sounds subjective, it need not be. Behavioural
> indicate that something objective has been spread, and even if the
> memes cannot be formulated in some universal logical language, the
> of memes can still be identified in the same way as Mendelian genes and
> molecular sequences, through the use of consensus maps and by noting
> their absence or presence makes a difference.
>This was rather aphoristic, but the inference is that we must begin in
>the middle (in media res), as it were, and seek to identify parts and
>wholes. We can do this, and indeed we do it every time we evaluate an
>expression in a natural language. We find kinds, types, classes and so
>forth. What they have in common is some structure, which when encoded in
>transmission becomes information, and that *can* be measured in Shannon
>Weaver bits.

Information exists in the brain, not just in the transmissions on their way
from, to, or bypassing brains. Brain-stored information is important, even
if you have not found a full ordering system for it.

>| >A set theoretic approach requires a full understanding of
>| >classification. One must be able to determine the set membership
>| >criteria.

The arguments below do not identify sets. S looks like a disjunctive

>| >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
>| >then S = (A or B or C) is exclusive of P.

The propostion (A or B or C)*(A --> not P) does not imply not 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.

This statement is unsupported, as is the alternative statement that A is
commensurate with B. "Atomic" is not defined.

Size doesn't matter as
>| >rumours to the contrary notwithstanding. What does matter is that S
>| >P share a metric and are exclusive coordinates in that metric.

You have not defined a partial ordering, let alone a metric space, let
alone a coordinate system.

>| >*metric* is what selection defines, in terms of what is an allele in
>| >that population.

The meaning of this eludes me.

>Dawkins R: 1982. Replicators and Vehicles. In King's College
>Sociobiology Group eds, _Current Problems in Sociobiology_, Cambridge
>University Press. I'm citing the version in Brandon R and Burian R eds,
>_Genes, Organisms, Populations: Controversies over the Units of
>Selection_, Bradford/MIT Press, 1984.
>Brooks DR and Wiley EO: 1988. _Evolution as Entropy: Toward a Unified
>Theory of Biology_, second edition, University of Chicago Press.

--Aaron Lynch

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