virus: Underlying Cause (JoM-EMIT fwd)

Tim Rhodes (
Fri, 3 Oct 1997 09:43:59 -0700 (PDT)

This was from the Journal of Memetics mailing list and seems like a good
cross-over with what we've been discussing:

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 01 Oct 1997 14:45:51 -0500
From: Aaron Lynch <>
Subject: Re: Non Homuncular Memetics

Aaron Lynch responding to Mario Vaneechoutte:


>If you read past discussions, I think you will notice that homuncular
>reasoning is lurking around the corner (I hope you understand my English
>here) all of the time, when you speak of memes as replicators. Intention
>or not, memes are treated as active agents, while all they are is
>information which is being replicated.


In my own usage, treatment of something as an "active agent" merely means
that it plays a strong role in causation. You can, if you wish, replace all
of my uses of the word "replicator," with the cumbersome phrase
"instantiation of an abstraction that causes a new instantiation of the
same abstraction."

Abstraction? Yes. "Water molecule," for instance, is an abstraction which
scientists have found useful for discussing phenomena. What they really
mean by "water molecule" is a particular PATTERN of matter and energy. It
is a way of calling two or more patterns of matter and energy "the same,"
ignoring such differences as location, velocity, rotational states,
vibrational states, oxygen 18, Hydrogen 2, nuclear spin states, electron
spin states, electron excitation states, quark states, etc. Is it ever
legitimate to identify PATTERNS amid all this seething matter and energy? A
philosophy of science question.

Causation? Yes again. Chemists have, for instance, decided that certain
"molecules" are "catalysts." They play some role in causing the formation
of new "molecules." Moreover, they have even decided to call some molecules
"autocatalysts," because the new "molecules" they help "cause" are "of the
same kind" as the "catalyst molecule" itself. How can you say this happens
when all that's really there are agglomerations of matter and energy? Maybe
science is, among other things, a project to develop and test ever stronger
abstractions for with which to describe and comprehend reality.

Now perhaps it was a pedagogic device, but biologists have started calling
a certain class of autocatalytic molecules "replicators" even as they
recognize that the molecules are "autocatalytic" by indirect and complex
routes involving such other molecules as "enzymes." This alone does not
require homunculi. Yet a further misguided pedagogic device (along with
political agendas in some cases) brings the assertion that these
"replicator molecules" have "interests," a "point of view," and are perhaps
even "moral agents." You may have noticed me arguing against such
homuncular genetics with Nick--even as he may have been playing devil's
advocate. Still, I do not insist on also throwing out the idea of "genes"
or "molecular replicators" even though these "entities" are in fact patters
of patterns of patterns compared to fundamental particles.

Moving to still higher levels of abstraction, we find people talking about
"ideas," again asserting that two "people" can have *the same* "idea." We
also hear about "communication," in which one person can "cause" (by
complex means) the occurrence of an "idea" in an other person. Sometimes we
even hear about "causation" of "the same" idea in another person. This
would seem to include the "information which is being replicated" that you
mention above. Yet we also hear about "ideas" causing "behaviors,"
including "communication behaviors." When an "idea" causes "communication
behaviors" that result in a new instantiation of "the same" idea in a
different person, we have what you might call autocatalysis. Or
"replication," in the stronger sense of the term. My own work certainly
allows for stronger and weaker uses of the term "replication," reflecting
the differing degrees to which ideas can cause new instances of "the same"
idea by way of causing specific communication behaviors that convey that
idea. No need to get alarmed with a notion that I am calling ALL memes
strongly autocatalytic or self-replicating, even though I have chosen to
specialize on the small but important fraction of memes with strongly
autocatalytic effects. (My specialization resembles the specialization of
"geneticists," who focus on a class of autocatalytic molecules rather than
molecules in general.) And there is certainly no need to suggest that I am
invoking a homunculus!


--Aaron Lynch

THOUGHT CONTAGION: How Belief Spreads Through Society The New Science of Memes Basic Books. Info and free sample:

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