Learning about genes from Richard Dawkins and James Gleick is fun:
"What I am doing is emphasizing the potential near-immortality of a gene, in the form of copies, as its defining property." This is where life breaks free from its material moorings. The gene is not an information-carrying macromolecule. The gene is the information. The physicist Max Delbrück wrote in 1949, "Today the tendency is to say 'genes are just molecules, and hereditary particles,' and thus to do away with the abstractions." Now the abstractions returned.
"Where, then, is any particular gene—say, the gene for long legs in humans? This is a little like asking where is Beethoven's Piano Sonata in E minor? Is it in the original handwritten score? The printed sheet music? Any one performance—or perhaps the sum of all performances, historical and potential, real and imagined?"
"The quavers and crotchets inked on paper are not the music. Music is not a series of pressure waves sounding through the air; nor grooves etched in vinyl or pits burned in CDs; nor even the neuronal symphonies stirred up in the brain of the listener. The music is the information. Like-wise, the base pairs of DNA are not genes. They encode genes. Genes themselves are made of bits."
In Isaac Newton's lifetime, no more than a few thousand people had any idea what he looked like, though he was one of England's most famous men, yet now millions of people have quite a clear idea—based on replicas of copies of rather poorly painted portraits. Even more pervasive and indelible are the smile of Mona Lisa, The Scream of Edvard Munch, and the silhouettes of various fiction extraterrestrials. These are memes, living a life of their own, independent of any physical reality. "This may not be what George Washington looked like then," a tour guide was overheard saying of the Gilbert Stuart painting at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, "but this is what he looks like now." Exactly.
For this bodiless replicator itself, Dawkins proposed a name. He called it the meme, and it became his most memorable invention, far more influential than his selfish genes or his later proselytizing against religiosity. "Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation," he wrote. They compete with one another for limited resources: brink time or bandwidth. They comet most of all for attention.