Friday, June 14, 2013

Culture Memes Information WTF!

I’ve been thinking a lot about information recently, mostly as a consequence of reading Dan Dennett on memetics. I’m uncomfortable with his usage, and similar ones, and I can’t quite figure out why. Let me offer two passages, and then some comments by way of thinking out loud.

The first passage is from George Williams, a biologist. It’s in a chapter from a book edited by John Brockman, The Third Culture: Beyond the Scientific Revolution:
Evolutionary biologists have failed to realize that they work with two more or less incommensurable domains: that of information and that of matter. I address this problem in my 1992 book, Natural Selection: Domains, Levels, and Challenges. These two domains will never be brought together in any kind of the sense usually implied by the term "reductionism." You can speak of galaxies and particles of dust in the same terms, because they both have mass and charge and length and width. You can't do that with information and matter. Information doesn't have mass or charge or length in millimeters. Likewise, matter doesn't have bytes. You can't measure so much gold in so many bytes. It doesn't have redundancy, or fidelity, or any of the other descriptors we apply to information. This dearth of shared descriptors makes matter and information two separate domains of existence, which have to be discussed separately, in their own terms.

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.
It seems to me that that is more or less how the concept of information is used in many discussions. It’s certainly how Dennett tends to use it. Here’s a typical passage (it’s the fifth and last footnote in From Typo to Thinko: When Evolution Graduated to Semantic Norms):
There is considerable debate among memeticists about whether memes should be defined as brain-structures, or as behaviors, or some other presumably well-anchored concreta, but I think the case is still overwhelming for defining memes abstractly, in terms of information worth copying (however embodied) since it is the information that determines how much design work or R and D doesn’t have to be re-done. That is why a wagon with spoked wheels carries the idea of a wagon with spoked wheels as well as any mind or brain could carry it.
Here I can’t help but think that Dennett’s pulling a fast one. Information has somehow become reified in a way that has the happy effect of relieving Dennett of the task of thinking about the actual mechanisms of cultural evolution. That in turn has the unhappy effect of draining his assertion of meaning. In what way does a wagon with spoked wheels carry any idea whatsoever, much less the idea of itself?

* * * * *

It seems to me that we can talk of a signal as carrying information only with respect to something that can read that signal (and act on what it reads), write it, or both. Information is thus a relationship between signals and mechanisms that use those signals. Both Dennett and Williams, however, seem to talk about information as though it were itty bitty particles that one can, for example, transfer “from one physical medium to another.”

But that’s not what’s going on. In the case of Don Quixote, to use Williams’s example, it takes a fairly sophisticated system to “transfer” the “information” from one medium to another. If you want to transfer the paper text to, say, microfilm, then you have to photograph each page of the text. But it’s not at all clear to me that any information has been “transferred.” Rather, a certain pattern has been copied from medium to another well enough so that a person can read the same “information” in either version. That is, the informatic relationships between the person and the image remain the same for both versions of the image.

Things get a lot trickier when we talk of “transferring” information between a written text and a spoken text. Until relatively recently, the only way to make such transfers has been to have a person read the text, in one direction (text to speech), or transcribe it in the other direction (speech to text). One could argue that, in any event, the spoken version “contains” more “information” than the written version (vocal inflections of various sorts). In recent years we’ve developed computer programs that can perform translations on both directions, but text to speech doesn’t sound natural, and speech to text makes more errors that humans do.

* * * * *

I don’t know what to do about Dennett’s example. It’s too open-ended for analysis. It’s easy enough to take it as is, where it’s an informal statement. But I don’t see how any sophisticated argument can be built on that statement nor, for that matter, do I have any reason to believe that it’s an informal statement of an argument that’s been made in a detailed and sophisticated way somewhere else.

In the first place, we need to distinguish between using a wagon to move things from one place to another, and constructing a wagon. I can imagine, for example, that people who have never seen a spoke-wheeled wagon could use one easily enough, especially if they already have experience using wagons with solid wheels. Constructing wagons is another matter. Would people with no experience of wagons (and comparable artifacts) be able to reverse engineer a spoke-wheeled wagon given nothing more that an example of one? More plausibly, would people with considerable experience in constructing wagons with solid wheels be able to reverse engineer spoked-wheels from examples alone?

It’s not at all obvious that they would, as the construction of spoked wheels is rather sophisticated (for an analysis see F. T. Cloak, Jr., Cultural Darwinism: Natural Selection of The Spoked Wood Wheel (PDF).

Now, you may be thinking that this is all rather pedantic and picky. Picky, yes. Pedantic, no. It’s about details, and the patterns they take. Biologists know a great many details about DNA, its replication, and its role in development. Information is about those details; without them the concept is meaningless. Memeticists, I’m afraid, are short on details. What’s worse, they don’t seem to think they’re important.

More later.


  1. “God is in the details...” and someone merely looking at (examining carefully) a wagon with spoked wheels would NOT be able to build a spoked wheel. Nor would this attentive builder be able to craft a wooden barrel. Nor, at a higher level of artisanry, build a Chippendale chair, an example I’ll come back to.

    Concerning spoked wheels first. You can’t just “make one” by copying “the information” it contains because an IMMENSE amount of information is missing in the final wheel. One example concerns bending the rim into a circle – not just sort of a roundish shape, but a real circle that rolls evenly and without bouncing up and down. Another is building the spokes (assume there are 18 of them), and drilling holes into the rim to receive the spokes. Do you possess the tools to drill those holes? What tools do you use to build the portion of the spoke that fits into each hole? Do you have the tools to build the connector between the axle and the 18 spokes?

    Now we see the difference between a description OF the object (which contains, according to your sources, all the information we need to specify the object) and a description of HOW to build the object. For example, you will need steel drills and a drill press to drill the holes in the rim. But I know that not from examining wagons, but knowing about wood-working in its own right – an ancient and very complex profession called “carpentry.” Believe me, you are going to need a drill press – you cannot do it with a steak knife.

    The point is simple. Information may be present in the object, but the object does not contain information about HOW IT WAS MADE.

    Barrels are simple objects, not so? Well, no – NOT so. The curved shape of each barrel stave is very complex, and even if you could copy it exactly using a Handy Copy-the-Object Contraption you bought at Home Depot, those copies won’t work. There is an extra step in making barrel staves that is NOT contained in the final stave. It goes like this: when a barrel is filled, with ale, let’s assume, the wooden stave is ever-so-slightly loose. When the barrel is assembled and the iron rings are put into place (what tools do you use for putting them onto the barrel?) the whole thing is slightly wobbly. Then the barrel is filled with liquid, and the wood swells, closing the tiny gaps between the staves and sealing the barrel. It takes a while (how long?) to season a barrel like this.

    The “philosophical” position adopted by your sources amounts to open contempt and disdain for all the mechanical skills the makers have had – the barrel-makers, the carvers, the men who cut the wood from the tree. In brief, the artisans (and the years of apprenticeship they each served) are dismissed with open contempt by these “gentlemen philosophers.” Now we see the face of what used to be called “class” – meaning social or sociological “class,” in a sense not far removed from the senses Marx and Weber used the word. These philosophers of ours are gentlemen – they do not dirty their hands with manual labor.

    More coming.

  2. Continued.

    Don’t believe me? Open the hood of your car, and peer at the carburetor. A very complex object to be sure. Can you make one? I mean from metal, not buy one, but MAKE one. If you can, not only are you a skilled metalworker, but you have quite a shop at your disposal, because we have now encountered the central, crucial problem: you will need the tools to make the tools.

    You cannot “build” a saw or even a hammer. You most likely do NOT possess the tools needed to cut those tiny teeth into the saw blade. Do you have a precision metal lathe for drilling the holes into the carburetor? Do you know how to operate a lathe? That information is NOT contained in the saw, the barrel staves, the spokes, or the carburetor. Instead, that information is the possession of the craftsmen who did build the saw, staves, spokes, and carburetor – and it took years for them to learn those skills.

    I cannot stress this enough: the information contained in an artifact is profoundly and intrinsically incomplete. You cannot “build” a replacement windshield for your car. You do not have the tools to build the tools that can shape glass into THAT precise shape. You do not even know how to build a lathe – and without a lathe, you cannot shape wood or metal.

    Spokes were cut into round shapes using a gadget called a “spoke-shaver.” Do you have a set of spoke-shavers? Do you know how to sharpen them? Do you know how to MAKE a spoke-shaver if you don’t have any?

    Our gentlemen-philosophers dismiss such things with open disdain.

    Now, a more complex example, the Chippendale chair. It has very graceful and quite characteristic curved legs. But if you are not already an expert carpenter or cabinet-maker you do NOT know how to make such legs. You cannot copy them because you lack the knowledge of HOW to make such curved pieces of wood. Nor do you have the tools to shape those legs, and, not knowing what tools were used, you cannot make THEM either. The tools to make the tools are out of reach.

    But let’s assume that you go to Home Depot and buy the Handy Copy-the-Object Contraption I mentioned above. Then – wow! – you can build your very own Chippendale chair!

    Well, no, you cannot. You have NOT made a Chippendale chair at all. You can make a copy of a Chippendale chair, but unless you are selling forgeries, you cannot pass it off as the work of Thomas Chippendale (who lived and worked in England in the 1700s). The copy you made lacks history: what is called “provenance” – meaning that its origins are modern, and is not an antique at all. It’s just a mechanical copy of the original – and worth a great deal less money into the bargain.

    So all you have done is imitate the Chippendale style. The answer is not “But all the information in a real Chippendale is right there in my copy!” No, it is not all there. All the knowledge and skill of the craftsmen and artisans is absent.

    So our gentlemen-philosophers dismiss the knowledge and craft of the artisan with open, overt contempt. They speak for a class that buys such things and has no use for the work and tools that were in fact used to make them. Marx said somewhere something to the effect that money reduces everything to the lowest common denominator – and we have an example here. In the hands of these gentlemen-philosophers, nothing is left of the skill, artisanry, and craft of the men and women who actually made these objects, from chairs to quilts. Marx also called them “parasites” – and I will leave it open whether or not that term is accurate for our gentlemen-philosophers.

    Here’s a modern example. It is a fascinating and marvelous example, too, of what is nowadays called “three-dimensional printing.”

  3. A couple of comments, Tim.

    1. Dennett is of the view that it is language that "set us apart from all other animals." Whatever you may think of that, linguists estimate that language as we know it is is between 50K and 200K years old. There is, of course, a succession of somethings before that, but we have no record of it and can only speculate. But the archeological record of stone tools goes back well over a million years before language finally emerged. And those tools are very well crafted. Skill in physical fabrication would thus seem to be older than language.

    2. One characteristic of the memetic literature is that it treats complex phenomena as being all-of-a-piece simple. Dennett's "wagon with spoked wheels" is only one example. "God" is another and rather different example. Saying that, well, some of these things are so complex that we ought to call them memeplexes simply evades the issue.

    3. I think it's wonderful that the making of spokes was so important that it gave its name to a particular wood-working tool. My father had a number of them in his workshop.

  4. language is inherent in all
    in the form of outward expression

    i clap my hands and he doesn't
    so im different than him in that i clap my hands and he doesn't

    what have you with that? and?

    is that the deep science we are talking about?

    is that the deep /philosophy/ ?

    they can call themselves all they want and what ever they want

  5. now enter politics (because that's how all these titles are arranged)

    that's an area that's purely ruled by deception

    pumping up your chest to make it look bigger to make yourself look bigger

    and all the faux sentiment and honesty is there for the faux

    "let's be honest here" what the crap is that?

    i'm repeating ages old here but its good to ground yourself on the being once in a while

    to slap your self in the face so to speak

  6. Dennet is best known for his popularizing books (popularizing the subject or popularizing himself)

    he hasn't got much to offer
    other than the appearance of philosopher

    i am sure i can look like that too

    1. Yes, he's well known. He's also smart and insightful, though perhaps a bit too taken with his own cleverness.

      In the case of cultural evolution, I'm afraid his feel for the phenomena is not very good. No doubt he's a very cultured man (in the old sense of that word), but he doesn't think about cultural stuff in a very sophisticated way. He's not thought about a range of specific examples in some detail.

  7. all the algorithms in computer science (like the disks of hanoi) can be figured out my moving your body around

    the simple man has it in the body in the lower brain

    it has to bubble up to a palatable form for our current stage of distancing from the original source

    but the original source is infinite according to mathematics it's not measurable, well "there you go alligator"

    and the relativity of time?

    the simple man has it in him not in the form of high-end equations but as inctinctive

    only the jerks of science (i'm sorry the geeks) hadn't reached that point yet

    1. all the algorithms in computer science (like the disks of hanoi) can be figured out my moving your body around

      Piaget argued something like that in Biology and Knowledge.

      Towers of Hanoi: 5 disks, 3 posts
      Towers of [city belonging to whatever ethnic group you want to stigmatize]: 3 disks, 5 posts

  8. mathematics doesnt do didactic aitiological moralistic fuzzy-up stories like big-bang etc

    it just states the numbers

    for that it's impersonal

    "oh the prime numbers.. the hackers.. does that mean the thiefs can't robb the bank anymore??"