Re: Doing the neural walk

John Wilkins (
Tue, 15 Sep 1998 19:07:13 +1000

Date: Tue, 15 Sep 1998 19:07:13 +1000
From: John Wilkins <>
Subject: Re: Doing the neural walk

Mark Mills wrote:

Of the four options, most people start in the common hybrid. No one=20
assumes the 'unknown hybrid.' Those uncomfortable with the 'common=20
hybrid' work toward establishing the 'substance model.' This includes=20
Gatherer and Benzon. The other logical option is the cybernetic model. =20
John Wilkins seems to be the furthest along in this domain.

It seems to me that the debate between the environmentalist camp (Benzon=20
and Gatherer) and the mentalist camp (Lynch and Vaneechoutte) ignores the=
similarity of their positions. Benzon will admit that brain tissue is an=
artifact of the environment. Vaneechoutte will admit cultural=20
expressions can be stored outside the brain.

The more important question is that raised by Wilkins. Is process model=20
more useful than the substance model? Should the construct gene be=20
redefined to mean process?

I'm interested in where people place themselves in my matrix of 4=20
possible gene/meme models. Comments would be appreciated.

Am I a cyberneticist? I guess, since I follow the Williams definition which=
based on evolutionary genes as "cybernetic abstractions" that to some exten=
t I
am, but I would rather say that I am attempting to understand memes as
semantic information - that is, meaningful messages that are transmitted.
Cybernetics assumes a control system, and I do not think that it is useful =
conceive of memes (or genes, for that matter) as "programs", which invites =
to see bodies or "hosts" as "lumbering robots" so controlled.

However, Mark has made some good points about this debate, and the issue is
indeed one of substance versus process, or rather (in the terms used in the
taxonomic debates), one of pattern versus process. And I do think that gene=
along with memes, are processes, or more exactly, patterns that are the res=
of and input to processes of selection.

Unfortunately he also said of me:

Additionally, some like Wilkins, will say the entire=20
interactor/replicator logic falls apart under scrutiny. Logically, =20
Wilkins claims, it is an over simplification. Experimentally, problems=20
occur since genes are clearly interactors as well as replicators. =20
Discussing this difference of opinion will be very difficult without an=20
understanding of fundamental definitions.

While I have some real difficulties with the replicator/interactor distinct=
when one is dealing with protobiology (or protocultural output in culture),=
certainly have no problems with it in the normal course of biology. There's
very little trouble finding a replicator and an interactor in the case of m=
and my kind. It gets messy, certainly, in the case of clonal lineages and s=
forth, but the process of Darwinian evolution does not depend on a strict
differentiation between replicators and interactors.

In Origin of Life research - my term for it is etiobiology - the RI
distinction does collapse, because "replicator", or protogene, fidelity is =
relative to other molecules involved in the hypercycle, and there is no str=
compartmentalisation or sequestration of the process (as conceived by Eigen=
Schuster, Szathm=E1ry and the like) from the reactor flow from which it get=
s its
source molecules. So, I propose (or rather will, in a paper in progress) to
speak of protogenes as reaction rate governors and catalytic substrates, an=
leave the exact stage at which we are happy to call them genes/replicators =
to the teachers of molecular biology and philosophy of biology students.

In parallel, putative memes are sometimes clearly replicators, and other ti=
less clearly so. Perhaps they are just rate governors of mental reactions.
Perhaps they are information structures that "catalyse" concept formation -
mental furniture (such as the Ars Memoria traditional structures). Whatever=
the problem is homologous to Davidson's "neutral monism" in philosophy of
mind, where thoughts are instantiated in neural structures but not identica=
to them, and that is where I am coming from. The key phrase is "Kolmogorov

Incidentally, keep an eye out for Sterelny and Griffiths' _Sex and Death_ b=
on philosophy of biology, due to be published early next year. It covers al=
these topics in detail, with an excellent bibliography, and for good measur=
Sterelny has written at length on phil mind, while Griffiths has a book _Wh=
emotions really are_ that I strongly recommend to you all. Both take an
informed evolutionary perspective on these matters. They note that memetics=
most congenial to those who take a "multiple levels of selection" view of

John Wilkins, Head, Graphic Production
The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
Melbourne, Australia
Homo homini aut deus aut lupus - Erasmus of Rotterdam

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