Re: virus: Does a dog have meme-nature?

Reed Konsler (
Mon, 10 Jun 1996 12:40:21 -0400

Forks are not memes. Forks and other human-crafted artifacts are the
phenotypic expressions of memes. They indicate the past influence that
some meme-complex had on the physical world. A crafted object stands in
the same relation to a meme as a phenotype stands in relation to a sequence
of genes. This seems to be the only point at which Peter and I dissagree
in a more substantial sense than just having different interests.

Crafted object is to meme as phenotype is to gene is not a good analogy. While
the genetic model provides a framework for begining to approach the propagation
of ideas one must be very careful not to overextend it.

A phenotype is the physical result of a genetic sequence. The phenotype itself
is not involved in the reproduction of it's genetic plan, except in the sense
that a good phenotype makes it's expressor more fit.

A fork is an object, an expression of an idea, and a sufficient method of
reproducing that idea in another person. What you have described as the
"phenotype" is in fact an information carrier in the same sense that a speech
act or a text is, and thus the analogy is misleading.

Another way of saying this is that ideas can evolve by Lamarkian processes. If
I make something (for instance, a knife) and it breaks (for instance, it splits
down the middle into two tines) then I can look at it and think "hey, this is
pretty cool, I'll call it a fork, like a fork in the road".

Where, exactly has the mutation of this idea (knife--->fork) occured? I think
much of it has occured in the brain, but some (a requisite and significant
part) has occured in the object, the "phenotype". Afterwards I can design a
better fork, a purpose built one. But I won't know it's better until I make it
and try it out. Evaluation is in the environment, initially (with experience
it can be moved into the brain, but you've always got to be wary..."So it's
good in theory, but...")

It is important to recognize that conciousness has an indefinite location in
space and time. We are animals who commonly adapt our perceptual systems to
take advantage of sense-tools like MRI, lenses, radio telescopes, and infra-red
cameras. If you are wearing night-vision goggles and running around in the
dark where does your "perceptual machinery" end and your conciousness begin?
In what way are the goggles different from you own eyes? If your eyes are
just a tool of your brain where is the line between you and your body? There
is no such line.

Dennett, in "Conciousness Explained" argues that such questions are
meaningless. Perception, conciousness, and action fade into one another as a
continuum; there are no easy break points and to imagine a "conciousness"
seperated in some neo-Cartesian way from physicallity is to begin logical
deductions on a spurious foot. Dawkins, in "The Extended Phenotype" outlines
the idea of genetic "action at a distance", my favorite example being the
description of the beaver's dam as a phenotype. Dawkins argues that genes
project a sort of phenotypical force into the environment and while many
expressions of it are defined within the organism some (a requise and
significant portion) are "Extended Phenotypes" expressed (like the beavers dam)
outside the organism.

Since ideas can change in a lamarkian sense (as another example, remember the
old Reese's Peanut Butter Cups commercials [I'm sure that the company is very
happy to see their meme propogating again! ;) ] where a chocolate bar was
always serendipitously falling into someone's peanut butter? "Wow, two great
tastes that taste great together!") and are also extended (as Dawkins uses that
word) into the environment the phenotype and genotype of a meme is ambigious.

There is the obvious fact that a meme must in some way be expressed as a
physical pattern in the brain. What is not known is how. It is unlikely that
we each record the same meme the same way; it is possible that each of us has a
unique meme-encoding system (but don't bet on it). At this time, however, the
"genotype" of a meme is unknown and probably heterogeneous (a categorists

What is not heterogeneous is the expression of ideas. One person reciting a
pledge of allegance is pretty much like anyone else, to the extent that a whole
group can stand and create a homogeneous chorus of loyalty. Do they all
believe it? I don't this context they are acting as if it were true.

"Act as if ye had faith..."

I guess what I think is very significant is that the physical expressions
(forks, speech, etc.) of our conciousness are a vital component (in my opinion
the central component) of our conciousness. In saying this I do not mean to
bar further (non-greedy) reduction of our understanding. On the contrary, in
pursuit of this goal we must be careful not to allow "common sense" to obscure
the obvious.

A fork is an object. But that object is a place where the idea "for" that
object is recorded. To say "yes, but originally there was a thought" is to
ignore our perception of how we create things.

Ask an artist how they paint. What do they say? Mostly it's "I start painting
what I see inside, but as it progresses I see new things, it takes more
definite shape, I finish it" Yes, there was an idea. But the final
expression, the most definitive and final draft of that idea is recorded in the
painting, not in the artist's mind. An artist could start the next day and
paint the same painting. The second might also be very good, but it will not
be the same painting.

Beware the facsimile. We are so good at making copies of things that our minds
naturally start to think in terms of high-fidelity reproduction.

But the mind is not a photocopier.

Writing papers is the same way. The final draft of a paper (or an e-mail
message ;) ) is recorded in the environment, not in the brain.

As I'm sure Stephen will attest to, a dramatic performance is a great example
of this idea: no two are the same, and although one might have scripts and
scores the "definitive" MacBeth is an illusion, like the Platonic Ideal, like
the Cartesian Theater.

What I'm saying is: "Don't belittle the lowly fork!" We have language,
literacy, and computers; they teach us fast. But so does the fork. It is a
vessel for the transmission of memes.

A meme is an expression, not something held internal. It might be recorded in
a brain but it is the expression, not that recording that is transmitted. What
is reproduced is the expression, not the physical wiring from one brain to

There's more, but this has rambled enough? Comments?