definition of meme (was Re: virus: Re : Complexity was TT)

David McFadzean (
Tue, 26 Nov 1996 17:14:28 -0700

At 04:30 PM 26/11/96 -0500, Alexander Williams wrote:

>The usage we're putting things to here is about as far from `common
>usage' as one can get and still be using terms understandably to the
>audience with different backgrounds in the subjects dealt with. I've
>always been educated with the memes that code != program, though the
>term `program' oft gets attached to code as a sort of linguistic
>shorthand. You can have two different pieces of code that create the
>same program in operation.

Well, yes. But the linguistic shorthand is exactly the point of contention.
When I claim that this message encodes memes, I'm claiming that the
memes that cause me to write this message will be transmitted to anyone
that knows how to read this message. Of course the message can be
misinterpreted or misunderstood (generating different memes than the
intended ones). Of course this message can be complete gibberish to
someone or something that can't read ascii English. I'm not claiming
that an interpreter isn't necessary or assumed. To encode something is
to create a pattern that contains enough information to retrieve the
original (or something close enough to the original). That is the sense
in which I claim this message contains encoded memes.

>The fact that algorithms /are/ abstract bolsters my arguments; memes
>have a lot more in common with abstracted algorithms than manifest code.

True, but I don't see how that bolsters your argument. Why don't
you go all the way and claim that no two people share a meme?

>Exactly my point; rhetorical conceit. As far as Perl4 goes, the code
>you sent isn't a program at all. It fails to execute.

For any program you care to show me, I can come up with an
interpreter that doesn't recognize it. So what? Does that
mean there are no programs? Of course not. All perl5 programs
are programs, therefore the one I inserted in my message is
also a program.

>> Theoretically you could teach a child to interpret English as a
>> different language. I don't see how that is relevant.
>Its relevant in that it shows that there is no inherent meaning in the
>language itself, it is /ascribed/ meaning in the ear/interpreter of the
>listener. Every time we teach someone a non-native tongue we're
>creating a new interpreter from the old, since the instruction is
>usually started by drawing analogies and structure from the first.

Agreed, but I never said otherwise.

>> Actually I think the terminology for CS is the best there is for
>> discussing memetics (along with evolutionary biology of course).
>When using CS terms to discuss memes its very easy, especially in a
>tech-heavy group like this, to lose track of what's being explicitly
>said and what is merely implied when some term is bandied about, like
>`program.' See `hack' in the Jargon Dictionary.

The terms are useful precisely because of their connotations.

>> 1. Memes aren't encoded in writing.
>> 2. Memes aren't encoded in a recording of a spoken narrative of writing.
>> 3. Memes aren't encoded in a live spoken narrative of writing.
>> 4. Memes aren't encoded in speech.
>> 5. Memes cannot be transmitted by speech.
>> 6. Memes cannot be transmitted.
>> Obviously (I think) 6 is wrong. Each step follows logically
>> from the previous (to the extent that if X is true, it is
>> reasonable to say that X+1 is true), so where does the argument
>> go wrong? I say the first premise is flawed.
>The problem with the argument is that you /believe/ it to be wrong. You
>have no proof that its wrong, in fact, you just followed a perfectly
>plausible logical chain to its very clear conclusion, and then merely
>turned about and said `but its wrong.' You haven't demonstrated why.

This type of argument is called reductio ad absurdum and is
standard practice in logic:

RAA: Take any proposition as a reductio premise (P/RAA),
deduce an absurd consequence leading to a contradiction,
and conclude that the negation of the initial proposition
must be true.

I didn't imagine anyone would think #6 is true.

>I contend that memes /cannot be transmitted/. Memes may arise
>spontaneously as a result of pre-wired genetic propensities in the human
>brain (the Baby Bootstrap, if you will) or they may arise due to another
>meme-complex's action to reproduce (with some degree of mutation), but
>you will not see a naked meme running about.

You are the first person I've come across to claim that memes cannot be
transmitted. May I suggest you check out the alt.memetics FAQ
( The whole point of memetics
is to understand how ideas are transmitted culturally.

David McFadzean       
Memetic Engineer      
Church of Virus