Germs, Genes, and Memes: Functional and Fitness Dynamics on Information Networks

Philosophy of Science 82 (2):219-243 (2015)
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It is widely accepted that the way information transfers across networks depends importantly on the structure of the network. Here, we show that the mechanism of information transfer is crucial: in many respects the effect of the specific transfer mechanism swamps network effects. Results are demonstrated in terms of three different types of transfer mechanism: germs, genes, and memes. With an emphasis on the specific case of transfer between sub-networks, we explore both the dynamics of each of these across networks and a measure of their comparative fitness. Germ and meme transfer exhibit very different dynamics across linked networks. For germs, measured in terms of time to total infection, network type rather than degree of linkage between sub-networks is the primary factor. For memes or belief transfer, measured in terms of time to consensus, it is the opposite: degree of linkage trumps network type in importance. The dynamics of genetic information transfer is unlike either germs or memes. Transfer of genetic information is robust across network differences to which both germs and memes prove sensitive. We also consider function: how well germ, gene, and meme transfer mechanisms can meet their respective objectives of infecting the population, mixing and transferring genetic information, and spreading a message. A shared formal measure of fitness is introduced for purposes of comparison, again with an emphasis on linked sub-networks. Meme transfer proves superior to transfer by genetic reproduction on that measure, with both memes and genes superior to infection dynamics across all networks types. What kinds of network structure optimize fitness also differ among the three. Both germs and genes show fairly stable fitness with added links between sub-networks, but genes show greater sensitivity to the structure of sub-networks at issue. Belief transfer, in contrast to the other two, shows a clear decline in fitness with increasingly connected networks. When it comes to understanding how information moves on networks, our results indicate that questions of information dynamics on networks cannot be answered in terms of networks alone. A primary role is played by the specific mechanism of information transfer at issue. We must first ask about how a particular type of information moves.

Author Profiles

Patrick Grim
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor
Daniel J. Singer
University of Pennsylvania


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