Re: virus: Virtual Memes

Alex Williams (
Sat, 21 Dec 1996 22:10:34 -0500 (EST)

> I'm at a loss to understand how memes, as virtual entities, can "wear our
> flesh." Perhaps you'll say it's axiomatic, but I think that's where memetics
> fails as a social science, proving itself to be a quasi-religion (and
> potentially as dangerous as social Darwinism). It's easy to understand the
> conduit' idea, equating telecom with speech and writing, but where you say
> it facilitates the transmission of the meme spoor' as it seeks hosts, I
> would say that communication serves to coordinate and reproduce social
> practices over time and space.

Ideas/memes `wear our flesh' in just the same context as you realize
if I were to, say, reach in your mind in some fantasy-literature sort
of way and replace your mind with my own. The difference is that
there is really no `your mind' for them to replace, they make up the
entirety of that literary fiction.

(Social Darwinism and Memetics are both dangerous ideas? I must
relish this, my only dangerousness, then. Women adore dangerous men.
`Hey, baby, I'm a memetic social darwinist.' Think it'll work on the

What /compose/ social practices? A memeticist says that those
structures are only memes and complexes of memes. Your statement is
not disharmonious with memetics at all.

> I want to show you that replication occurs through the performance of
> language, an instantiated practice--not a virtual one. I'm going to do this
> by showing that virtual concepts embodied in self-reflexive sentences require
> human agency to "exist." They have no "will" independent of our animate
> cognition because their existence is solely a manifestation of our behaviors
> and speech acts over time and space. The virtual image is what we make of it.

You're preaching to the converted here. I made that point weeks ago,
in seeming opposition to most of the list members before Eva, like a
Joan of Arc of the memetic set, rose to my support wielding the
`conduit theory' and literary references thereto like sword and
shield, giving rise to the Zanderian Heresy.

I've already stated that there is no meme trapped in a sentence,
struggling to get out; the only memes which are exist within the
ecologies that support them: minds. Language is `memetic spoor,' the
markings made by the /passage/ of memes within an ecological niche,
leaving patterns so that other memes can see their trail and follow,
giving rise to more memes, hopefully like the originals or according
to blueprints from the originals.

> First, I want to be sure I'm clear on the difference between virtual and
> instantiated (or real). Virtual reality might be the arrangement of pixels
> instantiated on a screen. We see them, and our mind arranges the patterns
> into some idea of a place. Virtual, but seemingly "real" enough to let us "go
> on" so that we can describe it and perhaps interact with it. Our descriptions
> and interactions transform the instantiation across and within media. I don't
> think you would object to this, so far.

We've discussed this on the ML before, but it bears repeating here:
How /do/ you tell the difference between virtual and instantiated?
All you have is the content of your perception to judge with; those
perceptions are /always/ `real' to the only thing you have to judge
them with: your mind. Those perceptions may not mesh with one another
(you see something you cannot touch, hear something you cannot see) or
with objective reality (you see an oasis in the desert, a ghost where
there is only air), but those perceptions are what you perceive,

What I object to in this paragraph is the implication of a
`priviliged frame,' as it were, in which some things are `real' and
some things are not, and by implication, less important.

> Now you will. We are the ones who spread ideas; they spread themselves only
> to the extent we say they do when we speak metaphorically. By
> anthropomorphizing or otherwise reifying virtual concepts, we often
> mistakenly imagine them as real external forces, allegedly capable of
> governing social behavior. Thus, the descriptive becomes prescriptive,
> justifying all sorts of superstitions and theories which claim that
> metaphysical forces can control us.

On the other hand, metaphor can be a powerful tool for studying
abstractions and moving them around so we can make other analysis
based on them. In a strictly `real' sense, genes do not exist. Oh,
there's a coiled mass of deoxyribonuclaic acids in the middle of every
cell in your body, but even if you could get inside and stretch it
out, you'd just see a long strand of bumpy white goop. Even looking
at it on the mollecular level, all you'd see is some strange
variations in the patterns of bumpiness along its length. Genes,
sections that `code' for traits, only `exist' once you look at the
strand statistically, with a goodly amount of slop and with an eye for
patterns overall rather than on an individual strand. Likewise, memes
don't have a `real' existance outside of metaphor, statistical pattern
and wishful thinking. However, genetic engineering is creating new
forms of life daily; who can say what the more plastic results of
memetic engineering might engender?

And all this from studying the `unreal.'

> We need grammar, of course, but life is complex enough without having to
> worry about what some independently-minded ghosts, goblins and zeitgeists
> "out there" might have in store for us. Our behavior is simultaneously
> constrained and enabled by empirical physical reality and what we can get
> away with saying about it. Sometimes we can get away with believing in
> superstition or incorrect notions of reality. The virtue of natural science
> is its commitment to a method of investigating and *explaining* physical
> reality. Explaining is a major challenge, because we need to create words and
> other tools in order to make the explanations clear, verifiable, and
> agreeable.

Your last sentences, `... The virtue of natural scienceis its
commitment to a method of investigating and *explaining* physical
reality. Explaining is a major challenge, because we need to create
words and other tools in order to make the explanations clear,
verifiable, and agreeable,' are equally applicable to every religion
on the face of the earth since the first; only the methods of
verification differ. Science wins, in the end, over other religions
because its `revalatory,' it allows us to perceive further question,
encourages questioning of its axioms and replacing them with more
useful constructs at need.

The problem and stumbling block I see repeated over and over in your
points is an insistance on an `us.' There is no `us,' no `you,' no
`mere,' save for groups of meme-complexi battling for surpremacy or
conceeding cranial territory. We are hive-minds of memes, as it were,
given the illusion of being a single entity instead of a hive by the
virtue of the ants being invisible.

> Nature is what it is, and does what it does, regardless of our opinions about
> it. Observing and understanding humans is considerably more difficult,
> however, because the processes of communication and reflection change us. To
> communicate, we instantiate elements of language (symbols, indexes and
> icons), and then revirtualize them in our minds by instantiating thought.
> This is what Peirce and Eco call semiosis. Meaning is always being extended.

A memeticist reverses the sense of this; there is no `us' to change,
so its only the inderlying memes, ideas, that are changed as a result
of communication and reflection (basically memes creating
self-referential memes as a means of changing their environment).

The semiotics you mention only strengthen my prior claim that memes
are not encoded in communication but are ``instantiated' upon the
recipt of that `meme spoor;' it in no way attacks an underpinning of
memetics, however.

> This reflexive process is a Big Deal for Hofstadter, because (if I understand
> him) it explains how memes take on a metaphoric "life" of their own,
> extending themselves, traveling between humans, and making us think.

Again, there is no `us.' (There is no Dana, only Zuul. Oops, sorry.)
There is only the birth, life, mutation and death of memes in an
ecological niche that supports their growth.

> Now, consider the self-reflexive sentence, "Dogs, humans and weathervanes can
> point, but symbolic strings like this make a point about pointing." Dogs and
> humans can make conscious decisions about pointing, but weathervanes can not.
> Humans have a concept of pointing, and dogs may (though I doubt it), but only
> humans construct sentences which claim to ponder it.
> But do those sentences /really/ ponder it?

No, the sentences have no action of their own, there are mere markings
lay down by memes in order to perpetuate themselves. The interpretive
memes in a host-reader latch onto the patterns of light on the screen,
pass it to linguistic interpreters, which spawn new memes inspired by
the patterns observed (whether perfect replicas or mutants is not
important at this step) and /those/ memes are either pondered
(birthing /more/ memes) or killed, and the entire thread may be killed
at any point during its birth or after if it fails to fit into the
niches available in the mind-ecology. This is the memetics of

> What is remarkable about us is that we can conceptualize paradoxes which do
> not exist in nature. We who try to think and work scientifically are willing
> to accept the idea that the physical world can ultimately be explained
> without submitting to mysterious paradoxes. Thus, as I understand Popper, we
> are obliged to look for exceptions to a rule. Hypotheses must be falsifiable.
> If we find an exception, the rule falls, and we need to create and
> investigate a new hypothesis. That commitment keeps us honest.

Paradoxes are not incredibly rare things; we entertain paradox
constantly in memetics. Any mind-niche holds, at any given time,
memes which are contradictory. `I believe in God,' and `I am
rational,' are, nominally, paradoxical, but many sport both memes
proudly in their collection, seemingly without conflict.

> Because I need to stress the point' one more time. We can point to genes,
> not memes. Memes are just an abstraction we can make points about. It can be
> nice to contemplate how ideas acquire people, but you can't overcome the
> reality that it's people who acquire ideas.

Note the above, we can't even point to genes. I challenge you to put
your finger on something and say `this, here, codes for brown eyes.'
Like most things in modern science, genes are a convenient metaphor
that we can support with statistics, machines and a little bit of

Memetically, there are no `people' in your last sentence above; all
there are is a field of meme-complexes producing an ecology. There is
no need for a Prime Mover in memetics. Your post is riddled with the
`Prime Mover Assumption,' but it does not bring points which bear on
memetics. IF memes are the building blocks of ideas and, thus,
cultures and IF one accepts no `homonucleotic requirement' (the
requirement that there is a little homonucleus, the bastard uncle of
Maxwell's Demon, in your head, the nominal You, who makes decisions
and picks ideas), then memetics falls out perfectly. Those are two
primary axioms of memetics. If you cannot accept either axiom, for
whatever reason, you simply will not grasp memetic theory and how it
can be useful.