Sunday, 7 April 2013

George Williams on memes

George C. Williams was a meme enthusiast - though he didn't write a lot on the topic.

Here he is explaining one of his ideas:

The gene is a package of information, not an object. The pattern of base pairs in a DNA molecule specifies the gene. But the DNA molecule is the medium, it's not the message. Maintaining this distinction between the medium and the message is absolutely indispensable to clarity of thought about evolution.

Just the fact that fifteen years ago I started using a computer may have had something to do with my ideas here. The constant process of transferring information from one physical medium to another and then being able to recover that same information in the original medium brings home the separability of information and matter. In biology, when you're talking about things like genes and genotypes and gene pools, you're talking about information, not physical objective reality. They're patterns.

I was also influenced by Dawkins' "meme" concept, which refers to cultural information that influences people's behavior. Memes, unlike genes, don't have a single, archival kind of medium. Consider the book Don Quixote: a stack of paper with ink marks on the pages, but you could put it on a CD or a tape and turn it into sound waves for blind people. No matter what medium it's in, it's always the same book, the same information. This is true of everything else in the cultural realm. It can be recorded in many different media, but it's the same meme no matter what medium it's recorded in.

In cultural evolution, obviously, the idea of a coffee cup or a table is something that persists. The coffee cups and tables don't persist, they recur as a result of the persistence of the information that tells people how to make coffee cups and tables. It's the same way in biology: hands and feet and noses and so on don't persist, they recur as a result of genetic instructions for making hands and feet and noses. It's the information that lasts and evolves. Obviously, it's because of the physical manifestations of the information that we know about the information. Dawkins has had trouble in convincing people, and this stems from his thinking of the gene as an object — of emphasizing the importance of replication rather than of proliferation of information.

George C. Williams pioneered information-theoretic notions of genes - that eventually went on to influence Richard Dawkins and the other memetics pioneers.

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