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The Grand AnalogyWhile writing another essay, I got started on the analogy between genes, memes, and software, but soon realized that there were things I wanted to say about it that didn't belong in that essay.
So, first of all, let me sum up what I said in that other essay and make a table out of it, with an extra row for good measure. (The question marks represent concepts I don't have good names for.)
It would be nice to have generalized names for the different components of the analogy, but so far I only have one, “replicator”, which, like “meme”, is one Dawkins picked in The Selfish Gene.
The question mark in the lower right represents the set of all known software. It is interesting to compare this to the internet. There are two main differences I can pick out: first, some code lives offline or behind firewalls or just in people's heads; second, the internet contains more than just software. It's also interesting to think about how the idea of free software fits into this picture.
All that, however, is just a distraction. What I really want to do here is look not at replication within any one system but at how the different systems interact. Here are some basic points.
Thus, for example, the hardware of the memetic system—that is, the human minds in which memes replicate—are a product of the genetic system.
The genetic system is special because it creates its own hardware. As another way of looking at it, we may say that each system refers back to the system that creates its hardware. In this sense, the special property of the genetic system is that it is self-referential.
Another interesting point comes from comparison to Dawkins' idea of the extended phenotype, which is that genes may code for things that are not actually part of the body in which the genes are contained. Spider webs are a good example. Is it correct, then, to say that there are human genes that code for, say, CPU type in a computer? It might be possible to argue this, but it seems to me the correct explanation is that the presence of a new system, the memetic system, acts as a cutoff on these kinds of phenotypic effects. In other words, there are genes that code for (biological) hardware capable of running a memetic system, but once that system is up and running, the genes have little or no control over its content.
Yet another interesting point comes from comparison to the theory of genetic takeover. According to this theory, there was a self-referential system of minerals that existed prior to the genetic system. Unfortunately for this mineral system, it wound up coding for another, more efficient, self-referential system—the genetic system—by which it was eventually superseded. Could the same thing happen with either the memetic or computational systems? At present it's hard to imagine, because both lack the low-level physical capabilities needed to be properly self-referential.
Footnote on Artificial Intelligence
@ April (2000)