27 May 2011

Show me a meme!

This drawing shows the replication cycle of the three main types of replicators identified to date; genes, memes and temes.

The aim is to show these three cycles in parallel to highlight the strong similarities that exist and attempt to argue a little further my vision of the replicator.

I introduced in my previous articles the concept of "reader" and I have also put forward definitions of the concepts of "code" and "copy". I will not go back to those here but only give some illustrated examples of replication.

We will consider the following examples:
  • Biological replicator: a human gene.
  • Cultural replicator: a handshake.
  • Technological replicator: a computer code on CD.
Whatever the replicators, there is a systematic replication process to be followed. First, there needs to be a reader, an entity capable of reading the replicating code and generate a copy. The reader is all or any part of the environment of the replicator which may be necessary to create the copy correctly. One can see how a reader may be very large indeed. Thus, with regard to genes, our sun is part of the reader because if you remove the sun, the chances that a new generation of humans will be born is very low. In some cases, for convenience purposes, one may wish to focus only on the most significant parts of the reader. For example, in terms of genetic replication, we can distinguish different layers of the genetic reader, starting at the smallest scale with the sperm and egg, then zooming out to the mother's womb, then the mother herself, the resources the mother has access to, the population, the close environment, etc. Typically it would be more practical to consider the level of the population, and sub groups as the reader.

Then comes the code. So that it can be identified, the code needs a medium in which it can be transmitted. No information may travel without a medium. However, it is very important to distinguish between the code and its medium. In the case of genes, DNA molecules are the medium of the code and the code is in the particular sequencing of these molecules. It is the sequence that makes the code, not the molecules. For some convincing, one can observe that the molecules can be replaced by other identical molecules without destroying the code but you can not mix up the molecules without destroying the code.
Thus, in the case of the handshake, I place the code in the sequence of photons emitted by the human bodies performing the handshake. The medium of the code being the photons themselves.
In the case of the CD, the code is in the sequence of holes on the CD and the medium is the plastic of which the CD is made.

The replication process can begin when the code is read by the reader. For this to happen, every reader has a particular point of entry.
This is extremely important because it is what defines the communication protocol. It is a kind of filter which will only let through a certain type of information encoded in a certain way. Thus the DNA molecules' shape and composition is highly specific and meet the requirements of the cell nucleus reading them. Regarding the eye, only some wavelengths, within a limited range of intensity, will be admissible. For the CD, the size and arrangement of holes is also very specific to be readable by the laser in the CD player. It will be noted here that the nucleus is the most demanding reader and the eye is a relatively tolerant reader.

Note: However, this tolerance does not mean that the codes can not be very accurate. I approached this topic as well as the quality of the copies in an note on fuzzy logic.
http://knol.google.com/k/the-memetic-code #

The entry point of the reader acts as a bottleneck. It thus forces the code to be in its purest form. Note also that when the code travels, it is in danger of being destroyed, and the most robust codes and media tend to be favoured. We can also see a significant difference between the photons that are very short lived and the CD which is very robust. That said, the use of a drawing, for example, allows a constant and almost endless stream of photons to be beamed out.

Once the reader has read the code, the code doesn't necessarily need not be preserved in its original form and may be discarded or destroyed. In the case of the photons, they are destroyed instantly as they hit the bottom of the eye. The contents of a CD sometimes needs to be read only once and can then be put aside. In the case of DNA, the code is kept unchanged and even copied in nearly every cell of the body. However, I wish to say that it may well have been otherwise. If the molecules used in the cells' nuclei were different in nature, say made of RNA instead of DNA, or if the cells kept only the bits of DNA that they need, it does not change the fact that the DNA is the true medium of the genetic replicator. That's what happens in our brains and our computers. Our brains do not keep exact copies of the photons. They transform the light information into electrical, chemical and biological information, within the neural network. The same applies to computers. Whether Mac or PC, the computers read the CD content and convert it into electrical impulses and other magnetic potentials of which nature has nothing in common with the original code.

All these transformations, consequential of the reading of the code, form the phenotype of this code. Thus, the creation of cells induced by genes, neural connections induced by memes and the magnetic writings induced by temes are all phenotypes. The phenotypes can be regarded as the means through which the replicators will achieve their replication.
Before a new copy of the original code can be achieved, there may be a lot of time passing and a lot of energy spent. It may take two decades for human genes to be copied. Some memes by contrast, can be copied within a few seconds. Better yet, some types of temes are copied in a matter of nanoseconds.
All machines, whether genetic, memetic or temetic, act accordingly to the replicators that programmed them. In fact, the human is a machine both of genetic and memetic nature, a mixed phenotype.
Phenotypes, even if they look similar to one another (eg my hand looks like yours) should not be confused with replicators. This is so because a phenotype is always unique, it is created once and it is never copied. It is not the hands that are copied, not our brains that are copied, not the contents of disk drives that are copied. It is the messengers, the codes travelling between machines, according to specific protocols that can actually be copied. It is the readers which, by defining the protocols, define the potential replicators.

It is interesting to note, in the case of the handshake, for example, how “photon replicators” can be emitted either by humans or by a drawing on paper or by an image on a computer screen, or even a sculpture.

To conclude:
Although there is not a wide variety of biological media, cultural media are already more numerous. Humans can communicate using photons, as we have seen, but also through sounds, textures, temperatures, scents and flavours.
Regarding the technological replicators, new potential media appear every day. The dominant media today are electromagnetic media such as electric cables, optical cables and other Wi-Fi antennas. Who knows, maybe tomorrow we will use quantum mechanics such as entangled particles or quantum tunnelling to expand the possibilities.
Note that the emergence and survival of new replicators is based on the quality of the media and readers. Cultural replicators are already faster than biological replicators, but the technological replicators leave their predecessors far behind, both in terms of robustness and in terms of speed and accuracy.