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What makes what? Help, please.

Is it an egg or a hen?
Samuel Butler said (1877),

A hen is only an egg’s way of making another egg.

I have quite a bit to say about this in The Information. The subject, as you might guess, is genes. And then memes. There have been some witty variations on this theme. One of my personal favorites is Daniel Dennett’s (1995):

A scholar is a library’s way of making another library.

Dear reader, can you offer more along these lines? (Use Google if you want, but you’ll have to skip past the sites with instructions on boiling, scrambling, and poaching.)

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  1. Nataly Dawber says

    I love this one, from a book by James Gunn.

    A pilgrim is a witch-doctor’s way of making another witch-doctor.

    (You had to be there.)

  2. damjan says

    We sail tonight for Singapore, don’t fall asleep while you’re ashore
    Cross your heart and hope to die when you hear the children cry
    Let marrow bone and cleaver choose while making feet for children shoes
    Through the alley, back from hell, when you hear that steeple bell
    You must say goodbye to me
    – Tom Waits, Singapore

  3. Jody Pereira says

    Hilton Ratcliffe, a “dissident astronomer,” says, “A galaxy is a quasar’s way of making another quasar!” (His exclamation mark!)

    I’m not sure I get it, though.

  4. Ebenezer says

    I heard a song the other day on the radio. “Suzy Snowflake”. It was laughably derivative: the metrical scheme was right from “Frosty the Snowman”, and even half the melody was cribbed from “Frosty”. I thought, “Who was responsible for this godawful mess?” I looked it up and it was sung by Rosemary Clooney in 1951.
    It turns out that Gene Autry had had a hit with ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” in 1949, and he had followed it with “Frosty the Snowman” in 1950. So I imagine everybody was falling over themselves in 1951 to produce the next holiday classic. “Suzy” was Rosemary Clooney’s entry. Other than a few Youtube posters who write that they listened to it thousands of times and it changed their lives, I think it’s safe to say it didn’t leave a big dent in the popular culture (contrary to the old saw that ‘There’s no accounting for taste’, actually you can account for popular taste merely by tallying up the sales).
    So it got me thinking — maybe memes are units of culture (i.e. messages) which add to the informational content of that culture. Messages which are derivative and have low informational (i.e. novelty-producing) content are quickly discarded like yesterday’s newspaper.
    I wish I could throw in a quip here. Maybe “Novelty is culture’s way of looking at itself every day without getting bored”.

  5. Martine says

    A bank is just money’s way of making money. i felt like making one up. couldn’t find anything on the internet

  6. gleick says

    OK, I’ll play. The BEAM Robotics Wiki, discussing the “problem” that we don’t yet have any self-reproducing robots, suggests:

    A solution, however, is to view a human being as a robot’s way of making another robot … In other words, robogenetics through robobiologics.

  7. Ebenezer says

    A guy’s boss yells at him at work. The guy goes home and yells at his wife. She smacks the kid. The kid kicks the dog. The dog goes out and bites the mailman. The mailman goes home and yells at his wife, etc.

    Are memes just fronting other forces? What energy is being transferred in the scenario above, I wonder? Are memes merely appended labels, crude approximations, temporary “attractor points”, for energy dispersal of some type?

    Lest one despair, I posit that perhaps other memetic forces like hope and love and forgiveness can be transferred as well, from one “agent” to another.

    My website is called ‘adaptingsystems’ (‘chaos’ and ‘complexity’ being probably freudian slips from the pocket protector set) and I would love to hear from others on how we use memes and other devices to crystallize and transfer energy, information, and work.

    Perhaps we rearrange energy to form ‘fields’ which we use to gain more energy. Words are just tools (i.e. folded information) to do that. And memes are just folded words, as it were. If I say ‘Santa’, or ‘God’, or ‘We hold these truths to be self-evident’, for example, I am just re-folding a known commodity.

    Still, Dawkins and Gleick have valid questions. At what point are we using memes to continue and replicate ourselves, and at what point do they use us to replicate themselves? That’s why I was wondering what forces the memes are really fronting.

  8. Carl says

    This is easy and can apply to almost anything that creates something else, just fill in the blanks. Try programmer/computer or teacher/student

  9. gleick says

    There’s a bit more to it. Without giving everything away, let me offer a further comment of Samuel Butler’s:

    Why the fowl should be considered more alive than the egg, and why it should be said that the hen lays the egg, and not that the egg lays the hen, these are questions which lie beyond the power of philosophic explanation, but are perhaps most answerable by considering the conceit of man, and his habit, persisted in during many ages, of ignoring all that does not remind him of himself.

  10. Ebenezer says

    In light of the subject, Butler’s remarks seem to beg the question: isn’t information just an incoming signal that someone deems important because it reminds them of something of themselves? Is there anything such as “value-free” information?

    Everytime “X” makes “Y”, whether “Y” is a thing or a message(i.e. yet more information), it is doing so because it thinks it is making more “X”, no? Else why would it bother?

  11. kafley says

    iPhones are just Apples way of making more idiots…oh wait, that’s not right

  12. Stephan says

    I believe I read in someone’s biography of Richard Feynman (the author’s name escapes me, but I’m pretty sure the title was “Genius”…) that Feynman switched from mathematics to physics after one of his professors told him that “the goal of higher mathematics is to create more higher mathematics”.

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