Friday, January 02, 2009

Those darn replicators

When not penning depressing materialist diatribes, Dr Susan Blackmore has been engaged in a heroic but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to bring the ‘meme concept’ into credible scientific discourse; as opposed to the badlands of fringe pseudoscience where it currently lingers. The meme was first proposed by Richard Dawkins as a kind of cultural replicator ‘a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation’. This would provide a physical basis for ideas, thus banishing Cartesian dualism and unifying biology, psychology and cognitive science. As Dawkins suggests:

‘Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperm or eggs, so memes propagate themselves by leaping from brain to brain by…imitation’

In this view of human nature, minds do not simply produce original thoughts, they get infected by them, directly from other people and indirectly from viruses of the mind. People are not completely in control of their own thoughts; rather they find themselves taken over by parasitic ‘cultural transmission units’, which once unleashed take on a life of their own. So for example, I wouldn’t say that I became a communist from reading and being persuaded by the writings of Karl Marx; rather, I would say I picked up a book in my library and upon reading it became infected by a parasitic meme which took over parts of my brain and manipulated me into referring to my friends as comrades and wearing a Che Guevara t shirt.

The meme concept has floundered in recent years, mainly because it is extremely silly, adds nothing to an understanding of the history of ideas and has no evidence supporting it whatsoever As the paleontologist Simon Conway Morris points out:

‘Memes are trivial, to be banished by simple mental exercises. In any wider context, they are hopelessly, if not hilariously simplistic. To conjure up memes not only reveals a strange impression of thought but, as Anthony O’Hear has remarked, if memes really existed they would ultimately deny the reality of reflective thought’.

Undeterred, Blackmore has written a piece for the ‘Edge’ discussion site in which she unveils her view of the human condition and its future fate. It starts badly and goes downhill from there.

All around us the techno-memes are proliferating, and gearing up to take control; not that they realise it; they are just selfish replicators doing what selfish replicators do—getting copied whenever and wherever they can, regardless of the consequences. In this case they are using us human meme machines as their first stage copying machinery, until something better comes along. Artificial meme machines are improving all the time, and the step that will change everything is when these machines become self-replicating. Then they will no longer need us. Whether we live or die, or whether the planet is habitable for us or not, will be of no consequence for their further evolution.

In case you can’t be bothered to wade through it here is a summery. First there were the genes ,the selfish replicators, which found a way to mercilessly copy themselves. In the fullness of time they produced blindly programmed sex robots called humans as copying machinery. But this had an unintended consequence. The gene copiers accidentally made themselves into meme machines which could copy and transmit mind viruses. What next I ask?. Apparently , with the advent of technology we are going to unwittingly unleash a frightening new entrant into the mix.

‘As we old-fashioned, squishy, living meme machines have become overwhelmed with memes we are happily allowing search engines and other software to take over the final process of selection as well. Have we inadvertently let loose a third replicator that is piggy-backing on human memes? I think we have. The information these machines copy is not human speech or actions; it is digital information competing for space in giant servers and electronic networks, copied by extremely high fidelity electronic processes. I think that once all three processes of copying, varying and selecting are done by these machines then a new replicator has truly arrived.’

A new replicator?!?

We might call these level-three replicators “temes” (technological-memes) or “tremes” (tertiary memes). Whatever we call them, they and their copying machinery are here now. We thought we were creating clever tools for our own benefit, but in fact we were being used by blind and inevitable evolutionary processes as a stepping stone to the next level of evolution….When memes coevolved with genes they turned gene machines into meme machines. Temes are now turning us into teme machines.

Brilliant. As I read this my ‘sense of the ridiculous’ meme is causing me to erupt into involuntary giggles and is bringing forth tears of laughter from my face. And yet, unbeknownst to myself, this article I am writing is a ‘teme’ which, when posted, will become part of a mighty ‘temeplex’ which will one day enslave my gene and meme copying descendants.

At the moment temes still need us to build their machines, and to run the power stations, just as genes needed human bodies to copy them and provide their energy. But we humans are fragile, dim, low quality copying machines, and we need a healthy planet with the right climate and the right food to survive. The next step is when the machines we thought we created become self-replicating. This may happen first with nano-technology, or it may evolve from servers and large teme machines being given their own power supplies and the capacity to repair themselves. Then we would become dispensable. That really would change everything.

Thus the genes have produced the gene replicators, which produced the memes which defied the genes, but in a cruel twist of fate the memes are producing the temes which will enslave the genes and the memes. I imagine this state of affairs will continue until the temes produce, and are enslaved by ‘even more technological-memes’ (emtemes), and so on and so forth. Bit of a bum note on which to start 2009.

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Click here to read the first chapter of God's Philosophers: How the Medieval World Laid the Foundations of Modern Science absolutely free.


Brennan said...


Anyways, I do think there is some truth to what Dr. Blackmore is saying, but obviously with a rather rock-sized grain of salt. The main problems I see are:

i) It's a conspiracy theory.
ii) She uses inflammatory language, which makes me wonder if her memes are trying to get her to speak out about the evil of memes...maybe she has 'angel' memes? I don't know, this is starting to sound like something that came out of a sci-fi space opera/anime.
iii) It's a conspiracy theory.

I do think she probably has some valid point about imitation, and how human forms of imitating might be reflected in our machines, and of course it's a dream to build other objects with 'brains' but perhaps we can live in Asimov's world and not Blackmore's, preferably.

I was led here by Jim, BTW, and I like the blog.

Humphrey said...

In history I'm used to using familiar terms such as worldviews, ideas and ideology. I don't think the viral-evolutionary concept of memes adds anything additional as a metaphor and I think it is highly questionable as a scientific theory. Worst of all the idea of 'curing' people of their memes, rather than trying to persuade them of the validity of your arguments is sinister. Plus if someone disagrees with memetics, they can always put it down to the power of memetics to infect hosts.

Jim S. said...

Where did Conway Morris write that? Was it Life's Solution? And do you know what work of O'Hear he references?

Humphrey said...

Hi Jim.

I don't have the book to hand at the moment but I'm sure it came from the penultimate chapter of 'Life's Solution'. I'd have to check the footnote to see which work he got it from.