Re: The real meme

Joe E. Dees (
Tue, 20 Jul 1999 20:30:09 -0500

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From: "Joe E. Dees" <>
Date: Tue, 20 Jul 1999 20:30:09 -0500
Subject: Re: The real meme

Date sent: Tue, 20 Jul 1999 18:14:18 +0100
From: Robin Faichney <>
Subject: The real meme
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> 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.
> --
This makes eminent sense to me, but also presents us with a
conundrum: memes and memesets may be observable, isolable,
and categorizable out-of-brain (in the forms of behaviors, tools,
discourses, texts, cinema, etc.), but not in-brain. Even if we
develop PET or fMRI realtime to the degree that we are able to
distinguish and separate all the individual strands constituting the
dynamic, recursing flux of human cognition (and remembering that
both genetics and experiential history decrees that each brain's
pattern evolution will be unique to it), we could very well run up
against the Heisenbergian problem of our very observation both
affecting the observed and limiting the scope of that which it would
be possible to observe. Within-brain (evolution and storage
phases) study of particular memes or memeplexes may be, for
reasons of uniqueness and complexity, forever beyond us; given
this consideration, I believe that our most fruitful present point of
attack is almost certain to be between-brain (transmission phase).
> 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:

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)