The real meme

Robin Faichney (
Tue, 20 Jul 1999 18:14:18 +0100

Date: Tue, 20 Jul 1999 18:14:18 +0100
From: Robin Faichney <>
Subject: The real meme

I'm looking for comments on this short essay (526 words):

I attended the public part of the Kings College, Cambridge meeting on
memetics a few weeks ago, at which David Hull posed the question as to
the difference between the types of information (a) printed on a sheet
of paper, and (b) inherent in its microstructure. Daniel Dennett gave
that question a body-swerve, which suited me because at that time I was
not quite ready to give it my best shot, either. However:

The sort of information inherent in the microstructure of a sheet of
paper is that familiar to physicists, particularly in relation to
thermodynamics. It is simply the FORM of physical reality.

The information printed on the paper, or to be accurate that conveyed to
a reader by the ink patterns on the surface, differs from that in the
microstructure in that the former is encoded. Encoding is obviously an
information processing function, but what is information processing?
Just as the physicist's information is the FORM of physical reality, of
matter, so any physical process, if we focus on its form, can be
considered a transformation of information. As in the case of
intentionality, to deal with information as such is "a stance" ("the
formal stance"?). And encoding is any reversible transformation of
information. Compression is any encoding where the intermediate, coded
form has fewer bits than the "clear" form. (I hope this paragraph is
not too compressed to be decoded!)

"Clear" is in quotes there because the distinction is arbitrary.
Consider a repeating cycle of transformations: which is the clear form,
and which the encoded one? Which transformation process is encoding and
which decoding? Either/neither. The "clear" form is simply the one
that we find more convenient. But in cyclic transformation both forms
must be considered to have something in common, however abstract that
thing might be.

It seems to me that the main current contenders for the position of "the
real meme" reveal (a) a failure to appreciate the relevance of encoding,
and (b) where it is considered, an assumption that there is a real
difference between clear and encoded forms. Just as so many insect
species have very distinct larval and adult stages, being able to
reproduce only in the latter, so memes have in-brain and in-behaviour
stages, and can be transmitted only via behaviour (where that obviously
includes speaking, writing, etc.). And just as both larva and adult
insect carry the gene, so both brain and behaviour carry the meme.
Neither brain nor behavioural encoding is the real meme, the clear form.
The real meme is the abstraction that they have in common, that enables
the repeating cycle of transformations. Of course, this degree of
abstraction makes it very difficult to deal with, but is that a good
reason to reject this view?

Life is the systematic survival of encoded information. (I already have
Richard Dawkins' agreement to something quite like that, though he was
willing to credit me only with a neat formulation, saying that the
underlying concept was obvious. But I like neat formulations!)
Cultural information is a subset of living information, and if genes are
alive, then so are memes.

Thanks for taking the time to read this far.

Robin Faichney

=============================================================== 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: