Re: Darwinian/Neo-Darwinian, and codes (was Memes and Things)

t (
Tue, 09 Feb 1999 09:29:28 +0100

From: <>
Date: Tue, 09 Feb 1999 09:29:28 +0100
Subject: Re: Darwinian/Neo-Darwinian, and codes (was Memes and Things)

John Wilkins wrote:

> This is sort of my point: the distinction (the Hull-Dawkins Distinction
> between replicator and interactor), which is the lineal descendant of
> the Weismann Germ Sequestration Dogma, is more or less an arbitrary one.
> I say more or less, because there clearly *are* some real differences,
> but appropriately characterised they are differences of degree.
> The notion of a replicator is useful in many contexts, but if we push it
> too far (as Dawkins sometimes does - see
> <>) it becomes a
> case of misplaced concretism. Plotkin and Ghiselin both worry about the
> notion of replicators as "things", and so do I. They are entities
> alright, but not replicators in virtue of the kind of entity they are,
> rather in virtue of the *role* they play in a certain characterisation
> of a process. Recharacterise that process of reproduction and evolution,
> and replicators evaporate. Just so long as the notion has heuristic
> value, so long should we make use of it.
> Ghiselin, Michael T. 1997. Metaphysics and the origin of species.
> Albany: State University of New York Press.
> Plotkin, Henry J. 1994. The nature of knowledge: concerning adaptations,
> instinct and the evolution of intelligence. Harmondsworth UK: Allen
> Lane/The Penguin Press.

For a full quote of Ghiselin and for some of my heretic proposals (which
need updating), see:


> I may be importing a dispute I'm having in another context. "Information
> content" in Shannon-Weaver terms implies some value of uncertainty in
> the sequence of symbols. To be sure what the sequence is, as opposed to
> noise, you need to have an encoding protocol. There is an obvious and
> almost universal protocol in the Watson-Crick pairing and the so-called
> xNA coding, but in the case of memes, there is no "objective" encoding
> protocol, and we must build it up as we research our domain.
> Of course, we have prior access to the semantic world of our subjects,
> but my point is that what counts as a replicator is relative to the
> encoding procedure. How, for example, can one tell if something written
> in Japanese textbooks is really an instance of Einsteinian relativity
> theory, which was first written in German? Through the use of a
> translation lexicon. Anyone who has read Quine knows there are some, to
> put it mildly, issues about translation (although not as many as Quine's
> radical indeterminacy thesis implies).

> John Wilkins, Head, Graphic Production
> The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research
> Melbourne, Australia
> <mailto:wilkins@WEHI.EDU.AU><>

I think Bateson's definition of information is very convenient (and more
appropriate in the context of memetics than Shannon's - which deals
basically with the 'form' of the message): "Information is a difference
which makes a difference". A nucleotide strand in a test tube is not
information, like an unread book is not information, both have the potential
for making a difference, though.

There are two ways of studying memes. One is asking sociological and
psychological questions: why is an idea successful, why do humans preferably
believe one idea over another. Actually the kind of questions which interest
me most because of the possibly ethical and social impact (we could become
'better' beings by better understanding what is going on in our minds and
around us).

The second approach is trying to find analogies between biology and culture.
My conclusion is that written, electronic, printed, ... TEXTS are best
comparable to genes, and thus are the real memes (when thinking in
informational terms).
(To make sure: this has nothing to do with Gatherer's conclusions concerning
Windsor knots and pottery.)

Texts have unlimited informational content (cfr. Maynard Smith & Eos
Szathmary: The major transitions in evolution), texts are recombinable,
texts are copyable (replicable), texts have high copy fidelity, texts exist
independent of ongoing metabolic activities, texts are material stuff like
genes are, texts are differences which have the potential of making a
difference, like genes have, etc.... This is of course a completely
different story of memetics/genetics and maybe only of secondary importance
in the social context.

Mario Vaneechoutte
Department Clinical Chemistry, Microbiology & Immunology
University Hospital
De Pintelaan 185
9000 GENT
Phone: +32 9 240 36 92
Fax: +32 9 240 36 59


The memetic origin of language: humans as musical primates J. Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission

"Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out." Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (1471-1530)

=============================================================== This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission For information about the journal and the list (e.g. unsubscribing) see: