Re: Meme Machine reviewed in Science

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Fri, 16 Jul 1999 18:14:58 EDT

From: <>
Date: Fri, 16 Jul 1999 18:14:58 EDT
Subject: Re: Meme Machine reviewed in Science

In a message dated 7/16/99 12:40:07 PM Central Daylight Time, writes:

>>Philsophically, I think this is much ado about nothing.

OK. I get that you don't see a difference between Lynch-memes and

I believe I do, and after reading you EM describing it, I am still of the
opinion that in a purely philosophical sense - relating to whether memes are
a legitimate if not compelling subject for materialist philosophers to
consider - this is much ado about nothing.

>>A Gatherer-meme is an abstraction that causes neural configurations... and
a variety of other physical changes.<<

What causes the neural configurations? The abstraction in some disembodied
sense? - or an embodied mind thinking about the abstraction?

>>A Gatherer-meme is an abstraction that causes neural
configurations... and a variety of other physical changes. One can say
that a 'belief' is a Gatherer-meme.<<

And of course the above questions apply equally to a "belief". I personally
have never encountered a belief that was not at some point held by a believer
or an abstraction that was not at some point thought out and held by an
abstractor - all of which are thoroughly embodied and therefore material.

>>One would never expect to 'isolate' a Gatherer meme, it has no physical

If you think of beliefs and abstraction as actually existing in some
disembodied sense without the necessity of embodied believers and
abstractors, then perhaps you are right. I personally have encoutered no
such thing ever myself. Just because something may be difficult to isolate,
doesn't mean that it has no material existence.

>>Thus, a Gatherer meme has little to do with genetics. The Lynch-meme can
draw many parallels with genetics.<<

That may well be.

>>I think this is a major difference. When I say 'meme,' I don't mean 'a
belief.' I mean something very specific, a chunk of brain tissue.<<

Things non-specific can be every bit as material as things specific. So what
is the concern here? Physical existence? Or specificity? Let's not switch
focus so quickly.

>>I think this is a major difference. When I say 'meme,' I don't mean 'a
belief.' I mean something very specific, a chunk of brain tissue. By
distinguishing between 'Lynch-meme' and 'Gatherer-meme,' I can help people
understand my intent.<<

If you want to talk about a *cultural* replicator, I would hope that you are
talking about a whole lot more than just a chunk of brain tissue - though I
would be among the first delighted if you could work a chunk of brain tissue
as a part of the explanation. We shouldn't conveniently forget our
embodiment when we talk about memes, or even beliefs and abstractions.

>>>That genes and memes have *some* material manifestation is philosophically
>important. That we can consistently point to some particular piece of
>matter/mechanism and say "that is a gene" or "that is a meme" is not
>philosophically important.

I agree.<<

Ah, good! Then we DO agree that this is *philosophically* much ado about
nothing. Unless you are going to start believing that beliefs and
abstractions can exist without believers and abstractors who are themselves
very material and embodied.

>>>Though genes have a single obvious stable
>mechanism for information retention - DNA - that is not the sum total of
>a gene is.

While I can see how this perspective is built, I chose to follow the lead
of geneticists. Geneticists as a group define the term, and they say a
gene is instantiated in DNA sequences upon a phosphate sugar substrate.
There is probably some disagreement amongst geneticists about genes
existing in mitochondria DNA, but this is tangential.<<

Perhaps it might be a good idea to explore for what purposes geneticists use
the term "gene", and decide then if their purposes fit all purposes for which
the term may be used instead of assuming that their purposes are necessarily
everybody's purposes. I somehow doubt that most practicing geneticists
regularly concern themselves with philosophical generalities like those that
follow (though I do not doubt that some of them occassionally do).

I am thinking more in terms of what sort of thing fits into the evolutionary
algorithm. In terms of biological evolution, assuming that we are using
Dawkin's selfish gene theory - plugging genes into the evolutionary
algorithm instead of individuals, groups, or species, - then a gene would be
any biological replicator that plays a role in biological evolution. In this
way genes have not been defined in terms of strands of DNA, they have been
defined in terms of the evolutionary algorithm.

It just so happens that DNA generally lies at the center of the activity that
drives the evolutionary algorithm in the medium of biology in selfish gene
theory. That certainly would be a practical reason why practicing
geneticists would equate "gene" with DNA, and it may come as some
philosophical relief (in case they wanted any) that they are looking in the
right places. But in terms of the evolutionary algorithm, DNA alone does not
fit that role without a supporting cast. DNA alone is not a replicator --
though it is generally what gets replicated most consistently. Without the
supporting cast, a strand of DNA does nothing but sit inertly.

>>I think it is important that geneticists and memetics work together.
Telling a geneticist that genes are more than 'just DNA' falls on deaf ears.<<

I would rather that than having something philosophically incoherent falling
on listening ears.

>>>While DNA is definitely selfishly replicated - it is in no
>stretch of the imagination a solipsistic replicator

While I'm familiar with the term 'solipsism', I have no idea what a
'solipsistic replicator' is. Can you explain?<<

It refers only to itself - having no intentions beyond itself. Within a
genome, many parts of DNA are "trash" having no active function, but being
replicated along with the rest of the DNA - they refer only to themselves.
But the reason that they get replicated is that other DNA sequences DO refer
to things beyond themselves. They do code for phenotypic characteristics
that have important fitness implications for the entire genome. Of course
that is the short version of the story, but in the big picture accurate

>>>That memes have diverse mechanisms for information retention of varying
>stability/fidelity does not make memes any less "real" or have any lessof a
>material manifestation than genes do. <<

Can you describe any of these? It would help me understand what you mean.<<

Brains, books, computerdisks, videotapes, film, tablets, pictures, diagrams,
audio tapes, cave drawings, and so forth.

>>>Until we start taking a more emergent materialistic approach to memetics,
>will continue to fall for a hopelessly immense array of philosophical
>"problems" based on the fact that memes do not have a consistent, discreet,
>and readily identifiable instantiation or information storage like genes do
>in DNA.

Your confidence that a gene has discrete, identifiable instantiation is
excessive. We can define Open Reading Frames (ORFs), but very few genes
producing anything more than a protein. There are many problems created if
one defines ORFs as genes. We still have no way of pointing to a specific
DNA sequence and saying 'this is the recessive blue-eye gene.'<<

Wasn't it you who earlier in the same message insisted that we *shouldn't* be
saying that genes are more than just DNA? I think the problem here is trying
to greedily fit the DNA itself and alone into evolutionary algorithm, rather
than just saying that DNA is central to the activity of genes which do fit
into the evolutionary algorithm via Dawkin's selfish gene theory.

>> This lack of specificity is exactly the same situation as we have in
neurology. We can locate a few places in the brain that produce phenotypic
expression, just as we can locate a few places on a DNA strand producing
specific proteins. Just as we might search for a protein producing gene on
a chromosome, we might search for a specific place on the brain producing a

Both a gene and a Lynch-meme are best seen in terms of a 'critical path.'
If you get too close to the DNA or neural tissue, the process path widens.
It is impossible to define a specific 'critical path' for macroscopic
phenotypic expression. Content oneself with microscopic process paths, and
nice discrete physical elements emerge to define both gene and Lynch-meme.<<

Yes, but will what emerges be able to satisfy the need for the evolutionary
algorithm to have a complete replicator in its own right? If not, then
"meme" is just a fancy new word to describe things no better and perhaps a
bit worse than the words that we already had to descibe what goes on in
neural tissue and behavior. In otherwords its just the next fad.

>>>We will never be able to point to a neuron and say, "that is a meme"
>and capture any significant sense of what we are talking about.

I disagree. We can already do this with simple behavioral expressions. I
was recently reading about a neural researcher who identified a spot on
rabbit brains that produces involuntary eye blinking. Remove this small
group of neurons and the rabbit cannot blink, the phenotypic expression is
gone. That spot contains a meme.<<

I wouldn't say so. Unless you put this into a larger evolutionary cultural
context that is not strictly dependent upon biological replicators - which I
think this is - then you haven't shown me a meme at all. You've just shown
me a piece of neuro-biology and resultant behavior and chosen to call it a
meme - only succeeding in confusing us with some faddish language where the
good old language would have worked better.

I want to see a piece of neuro-culture. Show me which neurons in the brain
are the male hat-wearing memes, and tell me what happened in our collective
brains and neurons long about the Kennedy administration to cause them to no
longer function so prevalently. Better yet, show me how I can use *this*
knowlege to bring that meme back to its previously robust existence. I am
sure that its decline triggered the moral decay we see today. ;-) That
would be a grand feat of truly memetic engineering, and not just another
marketing scheme or spin-doctoring job.

>>While this is a minor example, it is exactly analogous to what we know of

Perhaps you have a better term than 'Lynch-meme.' I'm not wedded to the
term. I just want to be clear that when I talk about memes, I'm talking
about something analogous to a gene instantiated in brain tissue.


The only thing that I am really wedded to is materialism and the evolutionary
algorithm. Because without those, "memes" is just the next new age fad.

I am actually rather fond of William Benzon's conception of memes, which I
still see to be different from Gatherer or Lynch. I wonder if he does? I
wish his website was still operational, does anyone know if his work is
available elsewhere on the web? Anyways all of these conceptions are inside
baseball as far as memetics is concerned. None of them suggest anything
outside materialism or the evolutionary algorithm.

Thank you for your thoughtful reply.


This was distributed via the memetics list associated with the
Journal of Memetics - Evolutionary Models of Information Transmission
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