Last Updated on October 24, 2021
Table of Contents
- Memetics relationship with Genetics
- Meme vs. Gene Environments
- The cell as a Replicator
- Individual and Social Memetics
- What is the environment of a system?
- Mind – the Memetic Environment
- Note to the reader
In this post, I propose an operational framework for Memetics by bringing the focus back on genetics where it all started. This will introduce a new paradigm in Memetics, that of the meme cell, which is defined as the vehicle (system) supporting both the replication of memes as well as their interaction with the environment. Memes (like genes) are seen as passive forms (structures) produced and replicated in different substrates by their respective cell systems that are also interacting with other cell systems in their particular environments. The process of interaction is seen here not necessarily as a competition for resources and survival of the fittest but may include also cooperation, including the ability to give life to more complex (emergent) systems on higher (meta)system operational levels. Furthermore, based on the assumption that interactions can take place not only between these (dynamic) systems but also between (static) structures, we propose that memes are rate-independent structures (code) interacting with resource structures inside their systems’ boundaries to aid the growth and reproduction of the cell.
Memetics relationship with Genetics
A lot of words have been spent in discussions if Memetics and Genetics are so different that they have to be “divorced” for Memetics to become a more useful tool for predicting the evolution of ideas in a society.
Are memes active (self-)replicators, as Dawkins first (vaguely) defined them, as an analogy to genes, or are they Ghiselin’s passive replicanda (see Wilkins 1998), or although they are replicators, may also have interaction capabilities as argued by H. Cees-Speel 1997?
M. Vaneechoutte 1998 attempted to define in his paper titled “The replicator: a misnomer. Conceptual implications for genetics and memetics” memes as passive replicas (replicanda, replicata, replicates) or “bits of cultural information (which) are processed, replicated, and transmitted by human minds, photocopiers, presses, computer networks, etc”. In the same paper he further states that “living cells are the only self-replicators on Earth” and further proposes:
“to adopt a terminology which is also used in information theory (and related fields like cybernetics) and to drop words like genotype, phenotype, replicator, interactor and vehicle, which have the disadvantage of poorly reflecting the dynamics and interactions which occur between biological processors and between biology and culture and which are in many cases strongly misguiding.”
I believe such a sharp change of direction as proposed by M. Vaneechoutte is not necessary. In this brief exposition, I hope to “save” the gene-meme (co)relation not by “divorcing” memetics from genetics but by strengthening the analogy between the two by introducing the concept of “meme-cell”. My only intention is to preserve the results of the work done until now in memetics and make it more operationally friendly (useful), by attempting to produce a firm (usable) framework in which all the good ideas presented so far could find an appropriate solid place to thrive and grow.
Meme vs. Gene Environments
The interactor vs. replicator confusion in memetics (and genetics), as I see it, stems from the fact that in memetics it is supposed (but never, as far as I know, explicitly stated) that memes and genes share the same environment, the material world of substance. As a result of this assumption, most authors believe that memes can be found in material substrates like books, CDs, tapes, etc. But if this is the case, how can they “(self)replicate”, or even participate in interactions while sitting idle somewhere on the bookshelf.
The only environment where memes can be subjected to processes similar to the genetic ones is (for now) the human mind, or better, the world of information (ideas, concepts) it supports. Memetics can not, however, be reduced to explaining the works of the mind’s neural substrate (the brain). Describing memetics processes in biological terms would be rather wrong because the biological activity of the brain is one of the necessary, but not a sufficient condition for the existence of memes.
Dawkins, who coined the term “memetics”, has something to say about this that also places memes squarely on a new twig of the evolutionary tree reserved for artificial intelligence:
“the selfish genes must had have “invented” or engineered memes through the process of the evolution of species only for the reason of preserving the continuity (lineage) of their form in another kind of substrate in the case when organic substance will be extinguished from this part of the Universe”.
Be as it may, let’s look at how memes and genes “work” in their respective (and different) environments, or domains of operation.
The cell as a Replicator
In genetics (or how I as a non-biologist had the chance to understand it), it is not the gene, but the cell (see Mario Vaneechoutte) that is the basic replication system. The genetic form of the cell (genotype) gets replicated by the division of the original cell into another two cell entities, produced by the original cell from resources found in its environment, using the instructions contained in its genetic material. Cells with the same genotype are replicated by such cell division and any evolution of the genotype is primarily the result of copying mistakes during the division.
Cells of the same genotype may also interact with other so produced cells in the construction (co-production) of a complex multicellular organism, which will become the environment for these cells. It can be said that the cell environment is produced (emerges) from the cooperation (co-production) of cells having the same genotype. Note that cells with the same genotype may have very different forms and functions within an organism (e.g. skin, bones, liver, lungs).
The cell is, thus, the basic replicating and interacting system in genetics that will preserve the form of the genotype and by this the whole of the gene pool. The multi-cellular organism, by preserving its form (on the “meta” level) of the phenotype, which, if successful during the interaction processes within the biosphere, will survive and continue its lineage, is a proxy for the cell in preserving the most successful cell genotypes, affecting in this manner also the content of the gene pool.
In the process of sexual reproduction of a multicellular organism, an egg cell from one individual will get fertilized or “infected” by a sperm cell from another individual organism, triggering in such manner the mutation by recombination of the original cells’ genotype and the production process of a new set of cells with a new (recombined) genotype which will mutually interact in the construction and preservation of another unique living organism (phenotype), the complex entity (system) that will interact with other similarly produced entities in the same environment (biosphere) they all share and change with their presence (praxis of living).
The genotype of this entity has a unique form, defined by the recombination of the “genetic material” (genes) of the first two cells. The process of fertilization is happening (outside of genetic labs) by chance. Each one of these two cells brings only one half of the genetic information that will be involved in the production of the new entity. The egg and the sperm cell must be produced by entities of the same (compatible) species to be “associated”. The egg cell must have in its substantial structure also the necessary basic resources to “jump-start” and support the first phases of the production process. After that, the new (viable) entity will start an independent life, interact with other entities in the environment and use any resources found (retrieved, captured) in that environment. A surviving, mature, entity will perhaps find another appropriate entity to assure the continuation of their species. At last, old entities will die, leaving (producing) more space (resources) for their descendants.
What I would like to stress here is that a new interacting entity (system) is produced by another system (entity) of the same kind using the resources found in the environment. The two cells involved in the reproduction before the fertilization are static systems (structures) completely susceptible to environmental states. They have no means to survive in the environment by themselves. Their only purpose is to “find each other” and start the production of a new organism. Only by their interaction (fertilization), a self-organized dynamic living system (cell) is born capable of adequate use of environmental resources for the growth and maintenance of the system in a way that will increase its organization. Note, that such an entity is self-contained because all the necessary instructions for its “production” (growth) and maintenance, are contained within the genetic material of the cell.
Another way of “phenotype reproduction” is that used by plants producing a seed that lays “dormant” until finding an appropriate environment that can support the growth of a new plant. In social memetics the analogy for this method would be akin to an author producing a paper, book, or similar artifact and hoping it will, one day, find an appropriate environment (mind) where it can grow in a new “plant”.
Individual and Social Memetics
In individual memetics (confined to one human mind) a dynamic form (state) of the mind (meme cell) “get fertilized” or “infected” by the form of some observed text, phrase, behavior (artifact) triggering the production process of another meme cell that will interact with other mental states in the same mind giving life in such a manner to a unique meme complex (A. Lynch 1998) or belief. Note that the mind is a “parallel computing machine“, not a sequential (step-by-step) Von Neumann architecture like normal computers. A large number of neural “processors” are working at the same time and can be in different states, involved in the same or different “computational” processes. So it is as legitimate to speak about particular mind states as about one (complex, multidimensional) state of mind existing at the same time, the same way that for a multicellular organism we can say that any cell or organized cell complex as a system can have a state of their own, while the whole of the body as a complex system is at the same time in its own particular (composite) state.
Compatible meme complexes in the same mind (the only environment they can survive, thrive and reproduce) are forming the behavior of the phemotype (Wilkins 1998) as a self-organized dynamic entity (system) interacting on another system level, in the environment of culture as a system. The process of memetic “fertilization” or “infection” (as by a virus) is here also happening by chance. The mind has to be in a state that is susceptible to infection by the form of the artifact observed in that particular moment. That is, the form of the observed artifact (or behavioral process) has to make a difference to that mind state. Neither the form of the observed artifact nor the state of the host’s mind before the “infection” are by themselves enough for the production of a new meme cell.
The new state of mind is “born” only if both portions of information (differences) are present in making a new difference. The state of the mind and the observed form must be of the same “species” (i.e. language, known, similar forms) to be associated or understood, to produce a difference (be fertilized). The mind’s environment must already contain resources such as concepts, memories, mind states (mnemones). They are necessary to start and support the first production phase of the new state of mind. After it is established, the meme cell will start an independent life (in an autopoietic contemplation) competing for resources that it can find (retrieve) in that mind (environment), producing new meme cells and organized meme complexes.
A mature meme complex will perhaps produce a behavior of the biological body for the production of artifacts (speech, text, gesture) which will maybe find another mind to fertilize, and give life to a new meme cell (complex) of the same species. At last, an old meme cell will die (be forgotten) to leave more space (and produce new resources) for other, newborn meme cells.
The analogy between memes and genes is found here in the fact that both need a piece of substantial machinery (organized system) and (which is frequently forgotten) an environment full of resources to interact and get replicated. Genes are much easier to understand because the systems they use and the environment in which they build their systems, are made from “real” physical, tangible, organic substance, while memetic systems and their environment are “imaginary”, made of pure form.
It is true, however, that there is no form without a substance to which it can be applied. Similarly, there is no (memetic) form without a system to which (to paraphrase Bateson) a “difference (in the observed form) could make a difference (change its state)”.
A substance can, however, exist “without form”. That’s a substance that does not make a difference (to a system). A book that is forgotten on some shelf in a library or a seed that didn’t manage to “find” an appropriate (fertile) environment are such (uninformed) substantial structures.
In other words, the difference in some physical structure has no form for itself, it can only inform another structure (in a system) by making a difference to it.
We call this process transmission of information, while it would be enough to use the term information as a verb for the process of bringing something in a particular (wanted) form. In any case, information is not a commodity that can be exchanged or traded like matter or energy (substance). Information, as well as knowledge, are properties of the system and can not be found in external structures such as books, CDs, and other products.
Furthermore, the “same” form can be represented (transduced) in different substances (H.C.Speel, 1997). This, the same, the flow of words you are reading now, instead of on your display, could be in front of you in a printed form (formatted structure) on paper.
Unfortunately (or fortunately), regardless of what substantial form I use, there is no way that the generated dynamics of the differences in this linear structure made up from words you are reading will produce in your mind the “same” form that exists in my mind while I’m writing it. These are two different “in-formations” of two different memetic environments, with different states and resources.
It is the same situation as when two seeds of the “same” form implanted in two different environments, produce plants that may be of the same kind (species) but quite different. One may wither and die while the other will live a full life and produce new offspring. The difference is only because of the environments they were implanted.
I think this may be a good point for a digression to ask a question:
What is the environment of a system?
We could define the environment as the space outside of the system’s boundaries from which the system retrieves the resources needed for its existence, growth, and work, and the preservation (or increase) of its organization. We can also state that the main function of any dynamical system is creating internal order from external disorder.
Structures from the environment must be disintegrated and “digested” by the system for their elements to be incorporated in its structure(s). Consequently, the perceived organizational level of the environment for any dynamical system, as the human mind certainly is, must be lower (more chaotic) than that of the system itself. In other words, the variety of the environment must be higher than that of the system, for the system to be able to retrieve the needed resources from it.
The only environment for memes (meme cells), in the present phase of evolution, is the human mind, instantiated in the organism’s neural substrate, and the informational resources there produced and stored through the lifetime of the organism as a whole. There are no memes without and out of this environment.
Culture or society as a “higher level” self-organized system cannot exist without the interaction of humans (not just their minds) as complex multicellular (memetic) systems. But, the characteristics of culture as a system cannot be reduced to the properties of the minds that are forming it. An organized group of individuals as a system have some properties that can not be reduced to or explained by the set of all its subsystems’ (individuals’) properties because it also largely depends on how those individuals are organized and communicate.
Like genes, which need “biological” organic material, memes need a special kind of this material in a form of self-organized, dynamic, conscious systems to exist and evolve. It is only because we are in this current stage of the evolutionary tree that this material is organic. On some future evolutionary branches, this could well be some hybrid or entirely “artificial” material. The substrate may (and probably will) change but the form, or better, the genetic/memetic informational pool will probably remain similar to what it is today.
First, I must say that I do not agree with Mario Vaneechoutte that the (organic) cell is the only replicating system on Earth, neither do I agree with the widely used term of self-replication. The form can be replicated but the substance doesn’t. So, it may be correct to speak about self-replication only if “self” is here for the form of a structure (as identified by an observing system).
As previously identified in this article, for the replication of some form (in another substance) we need a proper system (the replicator) and some kind of resources providing more substance from its environment. There are no such processes as self-replication of a system or a structure. Neither systems nor structures can replicate themselves. Systems can only produce new (static) structures or systems of the “same” form.
Resource substance is then structured by this production process in a new organized form or system. However, even if some regularities can be identified in these forms, they are not the “same”. When a copy is made on a copy machine (replicating system) the form of the original is copied on another piece of paper (substrate) using other resources from that of the original. It is not self-replication at all. Replication is the process of producing one or more new entities (copies) having the “same” form. As it always happens in any production process, there is no warranty that the form of the copy will be identical to that of the original.
This fact is often forgotten and information is regularly identified as “something different” and “special” when compared with matter and energy, because the “same” information can be found in two different places at the same time, at the source and the destination, on the original and the copy. But there is no information without a supporting matter and/or energy substrate. Information is the difference that the differences in their substantial structures make (produce) in other more or less organized structures (or systems).
As stated before, the term information may be enough to describe “information transmission”, for the process is that of bringing some substance (or substrate) in a particular form. What is transmitted through the information transmission channel are material or energy (signal) structures with the potential of shaping (informing) another structure at the destination in the wanted form.
A cell as a system does not make a copy of itself, it is making a copy of its (genetic) form using the substance (resources) from its environment and splitting the structure of the substance from which it is made in two different structures of the “same” form. Note that the original cell ceases to exist after the division because it is replaced by two new cells. In sexual “replication” two entities of different sex produce and “deliver” an organized (static) portion of their system’s substance in an appropriate environment for the production of a new entity. These two cells may have the major part of the information needed to start the process of production of a new entity, but do not possess all the resources needed for reproduction. They have to be extracted by the new entity from its environment. If a mother is a drug addict the newborn child will most probably be addicted too. The “information” for such an addiction of the newborn organism is not contained in the genetic form of the mother’s egg cell or the father’s sperm cell, but in the resources used in the very first phases of production of the new life.
So, replication is a process performed by replication systems (replicators). The products of replication are structures or systems of a similar form called replicas, replicata, or replicates. Their form might be the “same” (depending on the quality of the replication process) but they are all made from a different substance. Moreover, the substance can even be of a completely different type. A form is transformed if the copy is made of the same kind of substance as the original, or can be transduced if the replicated form is produced (imprinted) in some other type of substance (H.C.Speel, 1997). Sometimes, such copies are called models of the “real” system (structure).
Interaction is a process that happens not only between two or more systems but also between structures, as well as between systems and structures. Interaction between two systems (a game), happens when they compete for the same resources. They can fight to the death (in a zero-sum game), or they can share the resources by cooperating in the making of more efficient (symbiotic) systems. Two structures can interact “spontaneously” when not affected by a system. The “spontaneous” interchange of matter and energy, constrained only by natural (physical and chemical) laws is an example of such interaction processes. Interaction between systems and structures can be pictured as the wheels of an automobile in a cyclic (turning) process, interacting with the linear (static) structure of the road, producing the process of movement of the automobile (see item #6. in section I. Epistemological Fundaments of (Maturana, H. R., Mpodozis J., and Letelier J. C., 1995.).
I don’t want to “overload” this paper with an in-deep analysis of various interaction processes. What I would like to stress here about this issue is, however, that unlike replication, which can be performed only by a system, interaction is a process that can be performed even by “simple” (static) structures. This contrast may be the most fundamental difference between life and non-life.
Mind – the Memetic Environment
How can it be that the human brain substrate contains both the memetic system and all the resources necessary for meme reproduction? The non-substantial nature of the mind is the reason why it is such a hard task to find and locate it in the substance of the brain. It all depends on how we define the system.
Following the above discussion, we could define the meme cell as a (self)organized system that interacts with other systems (meme cells) and produces other meme cells (replicas) using the resources found in the mind’s environment (Bateson’s “ecology of mind”). These resources are other elements and states of the mind that are not yet organized in some meme systems (memories, sensations, unstructured thoughts, intuitions, fears). “Losing one’s mind” does not mean that some portion of its neural substance is lost or gone somewhere. The substance is all there. What gets lost is its organization. So, if meme cells are organized mind states, other less organized mind states might be the resources that these meme cells use for the preservation of their organization. Sensations from observing the “outside” are constantly increasing these resources. Meme cells organized in more “fit” meme complexes use these resources as “food” to maintain and improve (grow) their organization. So, it is perfectly normal that meme cells and whole meme complexes can “die” inside this environment if they can not find the appropriate “food” to preserve their life and growth. Moreover, some meme cells can “fight” for the same resources in a particular mind or “cooperate” with other meme cells to increase their chance of survival. It is also perfectly normal for whole memetic individuals to “die” in a particular (living) organic entity (by rejecting some belief or meme complex), and for new memetic individuals to be “born” in the same body.
It will (may) perhaps be easier now for the interested reader to recognize the similarity between memes and genes. Both genes and memes are forms, informed in different substrates. As structured forms, they can not replicate themselves without the aid of some appropriate system (cell) and the environment from which they can retrieve the resources needed for the production of new replicas. But what they can do, is to interact with the substrate inside their systems’ boundaries, preserving and increasing in this manner their system’s organizational level.
So, here it is, finally, the “heretic” idea: Neither genes nor memes are replicators, only their systems (cells) can perform this role. They are interactors able to interact and bring order (stability) to the chaotic substance retrieved by their systems from the environment. Memes and genes are static, rate-independent code structures (instructions) that will in an appropriate system environment trigger the program of production, replication, or/and higher-level interaction (between systems).
If this is understood, then the question “What was first, the hen or the egg?” has an answer. The interaction was first, replication came later as the consequence of more and more complex interactions.
Note to the reader
This is an updated version of a paper I wrote in ’98 as a proposal for a memetic framework for “knowledge management”. It was never published and I drifted away from the field in the following years, so some of the ideas presented here may not be a reflection of the current state in Memetics*.
Nevertheless, the proposed framework was based on my model for a Dynamical System with Memory and on the basic ideas of what will later become my “Kihbernetic worldview” so I thought it might be interesting to show my line of thoughts at the turning of the century.
While checking the links to the cited documents I found out that the “Journal of Memetics” archive that was still active when I checked a few months ago doesn’t work anymore. Here is the link from “Principia Cybernetica” to the complete list of JoM articles published from 1997 to 2005 with the old links to the site that is not active anymore. Fortunately, I managed to find the articles that I cited here still available on https://web.archive.org, https://www.academia.edu, and https://www.researchgate.net.
*Here is a good overview of the history of memetics by Øyvind Vada
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