Re: Ontology (was Meme Conference)

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Mon, 17 May 1999 15:48:16 +0200

From: <>
Date: Mon, 17 May 1999 15:48:16 +0200
Subject: Re: Ontology (was Meme Conference)

Robin Faichney wrote:

> In message <2CDFE2C8F598D21197C800C04F911B20224C0A@DELTA.newhouse.akzono
>>, Gatherer, D. (Derek) <>
> writes
> >Forward of Bob Aunger's post of 2nd March
> >
> [snip]
> >Nevertheless, the unit of culture, which presumably is subject to those
> >as-yet obscure laws, was defined over twenty years ago by the biologist
> >Richard Dawkins (1976) as a "meme." He described the meme as a cultural
> >replicator, or unit of information with the ability to reproduce itself
> >using resources from some material substrate.
> [snip]
> This is an interesting angle, which I haven't seen made explicit before.
> (Is it in The Selfish Gene?)
> I'd like to suggest that, though the meme does of course ultimately use
> material resources, its immediate environment is information processing
> capacity. Genetic information can be considered to manipulate material
> processes so as to ensure its survival beyond the demise of its
> substrate. Analogously, memetic information, originally encoded only
> within nervous systems but eventually also in artefacts, manipulates
> organisms' information processing so as to ensure its survival beyond
> the demise of its substrate.
> Unfortunately, if the ontological proof of genes is DNA, then there
> cannot be a parallel for memes,

Oh no? How about printed and electronic texts?

Take Bateson's definition of information: 'A difference which makes a

Texts are differences, they can make differences (e.g. when they influence
someone's behaviour) and at that instance they are information.

Like nucleotide strands they are physical, quasi-permanent, have unlimited
informational and because - like nucleotide strands - they are independant
of ongoing metabolism, they can be recombined, copied, cut, pasted, etc.

Look for memes in a different place than Dawkins suggested and the
equivalence with genes pops out. Of course their role at present is not the
role genes acquired, but if you ask me this is a developmental difference
between biology and culture, whereby prebiotic chemistry inadvertently - but
probably inevitably - has resulted in an autonomous duplicator, the cell,
something which has not yet happened in culture. However, the construction
of such an autonomously replicating machine might as well be the inadvertent
outcome of some of our scientific actitivities. At that time, those 'texts'
which contain all the information on how to construct such a machine, which
can duplicate the texts, which contain the information to construct such a
machine, which can duplicate the texts, which contain ... (cfr. the cell
(semantic closure)), will be perfectly comparable to present day chromosomal
genes. All the other texts and our activities will soon be overshadowed by
the possibilities of such a self replicator, just like the first cell
overgrew prebiotic protometabolism and filled every corner of Earth as an
exponentially growing cancer.

> because they are only indirectly
> dependent on a material substrate -- any group of information processors
> with the tendency to copy each other's behaviour will do. The
> ontological proof being thus ruled out, we are left with the criterion
> of explanatory power, where is much less easily judged.

I know the above sounds crazy, but if you take a broad look at the evolution
of information and try to find analogies between biology and culture, these
are some of the conclusions I reach. I think that most of us are comparing
the wrong stuff with the wrong stuff.

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


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