Crawford College of Art & Design
The Role of Memetic Theory in the Artistic Creative Process
Submitted in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the MA: Art & Process
Department of Fine Art
List of contents
Chapter 1 The Origins of the Meme
Chapter 2 The Meme Machine
Chapter 3 The Evolution of the Meme
List of Illustrations
I first became aware of the concept of the meme a couple of months after beginning my fine art M.A. program. Before beginning the course one of the topics I wanted to explore was a questioning of the nature of artistic authorship, both with respect to myself and the work of other practitioners. Specifically, I was interested in examining why visual artists and creatives in other disciplines are motivated to do what they do, while more often than not ensuring that their work remains identifiable as uniquely theirs. Also, while engaged in the act of the formulation and creation of an artwork, I wondered how artists arrive at the multitude of decisions that they need to make to complete a work. Clearly, from its conception to when a work is deemed finished by an artist, it will have gone through a lengthy and complex process of refinement and adjustment. Certain materials are considered while others may be explored and rejected. Depending on the disciplines involved decisions are made about many aspects such as scale, form, colour, subject matter and duration. Outside of notions of ‘taste’ and ‘intuition’, which to me seem quite intangible concepts, I wondered what causes those decisions to be made.
This seemed to me to be quite an overwhelming set of questions to contemplate, but in order to get some sort of insight into what drives my own creative processes, and hopefully form a theoretical basis on which I could further develop my work, an important one. I soon became aware of psychologist and writer Susan Blackmore and her interest in memes, which she referred to as cultural replicators. Having no idea what a meme was, but being intrigued by the idea of cultural replication, I decided to investigate her theories further. In a brief description on her official website Blackmore describes memes as ‘habits, skills, songs, stories, or any other kind of information that is copied from person to person’ (Blackmore, S., 2013). She later notes that ‘Memes are copied by imitation, teaching and other methods, and they compete for space in our memories and for the chance to be copied again.’ Further research revealed that Blackmore had in fact devoted an entire book to the meme; The Meme Machine (1999) in which she developed a model which she claims can explain the development of human culture, and our own evolution into creatures with larger, more complex brains than any other species. These brains have given us the ability to communicate with each other in complex ways, and crucially, appreciate and create art. I therefore wanted to investigate these claims coming from memetic theory, to see if they could shed some light on my concerns regarding artistic practice and authorship.
The word ‘meme’ originates from evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who invented the word in his book The Selfish Gene (1976). He did this in the context of the book’s main theme; an explanation of the evolution of all life on our planet by the process of natural selection acting on genes. He argues that just as genes are replicators, or entities which are capable of making copies of themselves, memes should be looked at in the same way; a type of cultural equivalent to the gene, though not necessarily subservient to it. This concept was proposed in order to support his theory of ‘Universal Darwinism’, the idea that biological evolution is only one instance in which design can result from natural selection. He proposes that the same process, acting on memes, may account for the evolution of human culture. I will expand on this in chapter one.
Chapter two will deal specifically with The Meme Machine, and I will attempt to provide an explanation of Susan Blackmore’s model of memetic theory, and how it explains the way our minds and cultures have been designed by natural selection acting on memes. Blackmore characterises memes as ‘selfish’ replicators which have parasitised our brains, and in contrast to Dawkins, doesn’t believe that we ultimately have control over them. This leads to some interesting implications for artistic creativity and decision-making, which I will explore.
Chapter three will deal with the consequences of the continuing evolution of the meme, and the claim that memes have effectively created all the technologies through which they are spread such as books and the internet, and have forced the invention of computers. I will explore some issues which I see as being relevant to this, including mathematician Stephen Wolfram’s development of computer programming tools with which he has developed his theory of the computational universe, which he claims can explain the generation of all matter in the universe.
Chapter 1 The Origins of the Meme
Richard Dawkins’s 1976 book The Selfish Gene is where the term ‘meme’ is first used. Chapter 11 is called Memes: the new replicators and was originally the last chapter of the first edition of the book. The Selfish Gene, however, is not a book principally concerned with the meme, but with furthering our understanding of the theory of evolution. In On the Origin of the Species (1859), Biologist Charles Darwin had first outlined his theory of natural selection, in which he explained his theory of how all forms of life on earth had evolved from common ancestors. Through a great deal of observation of many species he realised that creatures vary, and they have to compete in their environments for a finite amount of resources. Not all of the variations survive, but Darwin reasoned that if the ones that do could somehow pass on the qualities which helped their survival to their offspring, subsequent generations would be better equipped to survive in that environment. As this cycle of copying, varying and selecting continues over large periods of time, design must appear, there is no choice. A simple, three step algorithm is therefore responsible for the wonders of nature, with no need for a designer or creator.
Darwin’s theory has gained universal acceptance among the scientific community, and now we have a good understanding of the actual mechanism through which these characteristics are passed on. They are stored as information in genes, which are molecular units of heredity stored inside our cells, which govern our biological traits. Traditional ways of understanding evolution had focused attention on the behaviour of the individual creature or the group. Dawkins discusses the example of a small bird who calls out a warning cry to his family to alert them to the danger of a nearby hawk (Dawkins, R.,1976, p.6). The bird doing this puts himself in immediate danger of being predated, but helps prevent harm to his neighbours in an act of apparent altruism. There is a difficulty with explaining this idea in evolutionary terms though, in that if this bird was selfish and kept quiet, he would likely live longer, gaining the chance to mate more and propagate his genes further. His selfishness-promoting genes would surely spread like wildfire in the population and obliterate those for altruism, yet the tendency toward altruism remains strong in many species. In an effort to explain this problem, Dawkins’s important contribution was to consider evolution from the point of view of the benefit to the individual gene trying to get itself copied, not the creature which carries it or the group. Now, considering the situation from the genes’ perspective, when the bird sacrifices itself so that its offspring may live, all the copies of its genes in its kin have many more opportunities to spread. This then, is the ‘selfish’ gene referred to in the book’s title. Dawkins is keen to point out that a gene is in no way capable of actually being selfish, as it is simply a form of information and isn’t capable of intentionality. It merely serves as a good metaphor if we understand their effects as if they were selfish.
Later in his book however, Dawkins expresses dissatisfaction with the idea that the gene alone can explain the origins of human behaviour. The concept of Darwinian natural selection, he argues, is far too all-encompassing and significant a theory to concern itself with the gene alone. He suggests if there turns out to be one characteristic that may be truly universal in the development of life (universal in the literal sense, as there may be life elsewhere in the universe) it will turn out to be that ‘all life evolves by the differential survival of replicating entities’ (Dawkins, R., 1976, p.192). The gene is simply the dominant replicator that we have for biological evolution here on Earth. There’s no reason to assume it’s the only one though. Dawkins wonders if there may be another way to see an alternative replicator at work, here on our own planet. He suggests that we can find the answer in the ‘soup of human culture’ (Dawkins, R., 1976, p.192) and decides to give it the name ‘meme’, coming from the Greek root ‘mimeme’, and resembling the word ‘memory’. Among examples of memes are tunes, catch-phrases, ideas, and ways of making pots or building arches. The meme is capable of being spread in the ‘meme pool’, from one person to another, and may be thought of as a type of parasite inhabiting a carrier. It is propagated from one brain to another where it resides as a particular pattern of interconnected neurons. Dawkins supposes that an analogy can be drawn between cultural and genetic evolution, and returns to birds for an example. As a song, for example, makes its way from one bird to another, variations occur and differences develop, the more popular variants gaining traction and sometimes remaining stable for long periods, giving rise over time to entirely new songs. He suggests that these ‘cultural mutations’ (Dawkins, R., 1976, p.190) may also have a significant role in the evolution of human culture. Interestingly, in the endnotes of later editions of The Selfish Gene, Dawkins would play down the notion that he was trying to construct a grand theory of human cultural development, though he acknowledges that the word ‘meme’ did turn out to be a pretty successful meme.
In terms of popular culture, Richard Dawkins has become less known in recent years for his pioneering work in evolutionary biology than for his devotion to scolding people who believe in God. The most popular of all his books, The God Delusion (2006) has sold more than two million copies, and could be considered to be a very potent meme. Indeed, in The Selfish Gene Dawkins uses the example of belief in God as his main case study of how the meme behaves in human hosts (Dawkins, R., 1976, p.192). The God meme is clearly a very successful one and has a very long history. It is replicated by spoken and written word, and is propped up by many works of music and art. Dawkins argues it has great survival value as a meme because it has a strong psychological significance in the cultural environment. It provides superficial answers to troubling questions of existence and destiny, and comforts people by having them believe that traumas in this life may be rectified in the next. Dawkins is all too aware of colleagues who insist that there must be a survival advantage giving rise to this particular idea inhabiting our genetically evolved brains. To counter this Dawkins points out that the mistake that is commonly being made is failing to see the meme as a replicator in its own right, which, like the selfish gene, has no purpose other than to get itself copied. Once evolution had provided us with our complex brains, a suitable vehicle was available and the meme, as a replicator, simply took off of its own accord. It need not be subservient to the gene at all. This particular characteristic of the meme would be greatly expanded on by Susan Blackmore in The Meme Machine, and provides great insight in forming certain models of about artistic creativity.
He considers further the similarities between memes and genes in the context of how they may group together. Co-adapted gene complexes have developed in animals, which are stable groupings of individual genes which get passed on together and can be effectively thought of as single entities. Making the comparison to memes, Dawkins says the God meme is associated with the meme for hell and eternal damnation, as one reinforces the propagation of the other, strengthening both their positions in the meme pool. The meme for faith comes into play here too, as a meme which discourages rational enquiry and a desire for evidence will naturally tend to survive as its viability won’t be questioned. Also, a gene for celibacy would surely quickly reach a genetic dead end, but a meme for celibacy would fare much better. In the priesthood, the celibacy meme would stand the best chance of being passed on if the carrier were able to devote as much time as possible to spreading it. Therefore it would have greater survival value than the meme for marriage, which would compete far too much for the priest’s time and resources. These co-adapted meme complexes, which Blackmore would come to call memeplexes, are therefore very significant, as they take into account the cultural environment (other memes, and the people who spread them) in which the memes find themselves, and where they must battle for supremacy. Also, whereas the genetic information of an individual gets heavily diluted after a few generations, ideas, academic achievements and works of art can last for a very long time indeed.
It’s clear that Richard Dawkins has himself become a remarkably successful meme. A search for his name on YouTube, possibly the most potent breeding-ground for memes we now have, returns over a million results. The most popular of these is a taping of his interview on American television; Bill O’Reilly SCARED by Richard Dawkins (2007), in which he argues the non-existence of God with his host who is a committed Catholic. The pair seem to have unintentionally formed a very potent co-adapted meme complex, as to date the video has been viewed over six million times and has prompted 111,773 comments from attentive viewers. Ultimately, Dawkins’ chapter on memes ends on an optimistic note, as he expresses the hope that despite the evolutionary evidence to the contrary, we as a species have developed to the point where we are capable of foresight and true altruism. He supposes that even if we are fundamentally selfish beings, we have the power to resist the selfish genes (and memes) that created us. ‘We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators’(Dawkins, R., 1976, p. 201).While Susan Blackmore would later expand greatly on Dawkins’ hypothesis of the meme, her disagreement with this key point would be significant.
Chapter 2 The Meme Machine
Richard Dawkins had used the idea of the meme to support his concept of Universal Darwinism. This is the idea that Darwinian thinking; the fact that life evolves by the copying, varying and selecting of replicating entities, need not only apply to biological evolution. Susan Blackmore, in The Meme Machine (1999) argues that the moment human beings developed the ability to copy behaviour from each other the meme was born. ‘When we copy each other, something, however intangible, is passed on. That something is the meme’ (Blackmore, S., 1999, p. 52). This made copying with variation and selection possible, and from that moment the evolution of culture was inevitable.
Culture in memetic terms is the spreading of copied behaviours and ideas and the competition to mix, match, and make more. Blackmore makes the point that we are the only species on earth with the ability to imitate one another. Many animals appear to learn certain behaviours from each other, but animal researchers now claim that what is really happening is something called social learning. The phenomenon of small garden birds eating cream by learning to peck through the tops of milk bottles in England and Wales from the 1920s onwards is given as an example (Blackmore, S., 1999, p.47). While they initially appear to copy each other directly, it is now believed that the birds, while following their natural instinct to group together, will use their innate tendency to peck at objects of interest in their environment and with time simply arrive at similar ways of pecking through the bottle tops. The reward of cream then enforces the behaviour, making them likely to repeat the action again, but each individual must learn the behaviour anew. There is also individual learning, where an animal works out a solution to a problem for itself by trial and error. The learning of birdsong is an exception to these cases, being a form of true imitation, but is limited to sound only, and then only certain types of sounds.
When humans copy each others’ actions, a far more complex set of events takes place. For example, the printmaking technique of lithography involves a series of complex actions, one step in which is the rolling up of the stone containing the image with ink. The roller must be held in a certain way, charged with ink from a slab and then passed over the stone several times. If I want to demonstrate this action to somebody else to teach it to them, the task for them is complex. First they have to decide which parts of the action to copy, the exact position of every part of my body may not matter. Then, since they are probably viewing me from the side, they have to translate their view of the position of my body and limbs to their own first-person view of their limbs, which looks completely different. Only now can their brain begin to plan out the complex movements required to copy the action. Though we are inclined to take our ability to imitate others completely for granted, it is a far more complicated process than we are inclined to realise. In fact, it’s thought the ability to imitate arose almost three million years ago in early hominids, species significantly different from us but from whom we have evolved.
Blackmore argues that the strength of the meme’s ability to get itself copied was so potent that there was a long period over which the meme and the gene coevolved in early hominid species (Blackmore, S., 1999, p.92). The meme achieved this by altering the environment in which genetic selection took place. If for example, an early female had fashioned a particularly fetching piece of jewellery and sported it in front of her tribe, she would appear distinctive and interesting to others. Others would be able to imitate her design and if it proved popular the meme could catch on quickly. It would also likely have the effect of giving her the edge in attracting a mate, perhaps someone with an equally good eye for fine craft. Also, a person whose brain is suited to copying a cultural idea will likely be equally inclined to copy a new tool, or better weapon for hunting, items which could provide a tangible survival advantage. Between them, the couple would have brains which were genetically well disposed towards the imitation and retention of new ideas, and their resulting offspring would be even better adapted to these characteristics. A slow, cumulative process occurs where the brain gets larger in order to be able to accommodate and process the ever-increasing pool of memes. In effect, through natural selection, the meme alters the brain in order to make it a better container and spreader of memes.
Blackmore argues that in this way, the memetic view of evolution can be used to account for many biological changes to the bodies of our ancestors over hundreds of millions of years. Speech, for example, is only possible because of the unique arrangement of our lungs, larynx and vocal tract. It is an extremely efficient way for the meme to get around, but also has left us unable to swallow and breathe at the same time, leaving us vulnerable to death from choking on food. Also, the size of the heads of large-brained human babies makes childbirth more dangerous. The point is that the meme imposed these changes upon us, and could well have forced us into extinction had the meme and the gene not eventually settled into the symbiotic relationship that seems to exist now.
A model therefore emerges of our modern brains being biologically coevolved organisms, which exist largely to store, process and propagate memes. The memes follow the algorithm of Universal Darwinism, perpetually battling each other for supremacy, and only the ones which are successful get passed on. This explains why we find it very difficult to clear our minds of thoughts, are inclined to talk a great deal, and why we continually seek out new experiences and knowledge. At the same time our genetically evolved bodies compel us to take care of our biological needs, such as seeking nourishment, getting enough sleep and engaging in stress-relieving activities necessary to ensure our species doesn’t die out. Does this mean that all of our behaviour and thoughts are simply the result of the playing out of a universal algorithm? Is there any role for “me” to play in all of this?
To tackle this question Blackmore asks us to consider what neuroscientists tell us about the workings of the brain (Blackmore, S., 1999, p.222). The brain’s hundred billion or so neurons or nerve cells are connected together in fantastically complicated arrangements to store and process the information which produces our behaviour. When we perform an action, such as identifying and pointing to a specific word on a page of printed text, many separate systems of the brain work in parallel to produce the action. Also, the brain controls many functions of the body which are not obvious to us at all. As I sit typing, my blood glucose levels, body temperature, oxygen levels and many other bodily parameters are continually being monitored and adjusted, though I have no direct awareness of this. The brain’s focus of activity, depending on what we are doing, shifts to many different regions of the brain at once. There isn’t any one area where a series of inputs come in and processed instructions emerge, and throughout different regions of the brain, one group of neurons looks much like any other.
The difficulty is that there doesn’t seem to be any place for a conscious ‘self’ to be located in the brain, and this is a very disturbing point. There is the theory of the ‘Cartesian Theatre’, popularised by American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett (Blackmore, S., 1999, p.224), in which the mind is likened to a theatre with a spotlight shining on the stage, illuminating those bits of the brain’s vast store of information which are currently being thought about, this focusing is thought of as consciousness. However, since there is no place in the brain where everything ‘comes together’, this spotlight can’t be explained. If we consider the dualist view, that the mind (or soul) is an ethereal entity, and is different from and can survive independently of our bodies, we are left with the problem of how such a mind could control the actions of the body, since they are made of different types of ‘stuff’. It seems ‘I’ am not located anywhere. This sense of consciousness and self, however convincing, must be an illusion.
It gets worse. Blackmore relates the experiments of neurosurgeon Benjamin Libet who, in 1985, performed a series of experiments in which subjects were asked to spontaneously flex their wrists while their brain activity was monitored (Blackmore, S., 1999, p.225). They were asked to observe a revolving spot on a clock face, and to note exactly where the spot was when they decided to act. There is a particular brain wave pattern, called the readiness potential, that is observed when the body is about to perform a complex movement, as it prepares the series of movements to be carried out. In every case where a subject moved their wrist the readiness potential was recorded more than half a second before the decision to act was made, and the action itself occurred a fifth of a second after the decision. It appears our brains don’t need us to make decisions at all.
Yet we all undoubtedly possess a very strong sense of our own persistent identity, a little ‘me’ located somewhere behind our eyes. If we don’t really have consciousness or free will, how does the brain convince us that we do? Blackmore’s theory is that the self is an elaborate story or illusion that the complex workings of our brain makes us perceive. She elaborates on this with her theory of the ‘selfplex’. This occurs when memes change from being information which is simply out there to being something that ‘I’ firmly believe, when they take advantage of and bolster up our strong belief of self. The more beliefs and opinions we have in our brains, the stronger the notion becomes that there is a ‘me’ to do the believing. These memes are in very strong positions, as when they gather into memeplexes they form a self-protecting barrier into which it is difficult for other memes to break. As we live our lives and are exposed to more memes, we individuals who are inhabited by them are compelled to be interested in more subjects, hold different opinions, behave in certain ways, acquire certain possessions and so on. Blackmore ultimately concludes that our sense of self is so strong because the memes that have gotten inside us make it that way to aid their propagation, however, ‘The self is not the initiator of actions, it does not “have” consciousness, and it does not “do” the deliberating’ (Blackmore, S., 1999, p.237).
Taking all of these theories on board then, a model to examine my own creativity in memetic terms might go something like this. My inherited genes have formed a brain which handles visual information well, and gives me good hand-eye co-ordination and motor skills. I was born into a society which has developed and values education, and a family which was supportive of individual growth. Later in life my interests and skills caused me to associate with similarly-minded people, giving me a rich environment in which to exchange and absorb a huge amount of information relevant to an artistic practice. This was further strengthened and refined by attending college, where memes are concentrated and propagated to a huge degree. Therefore, when I complete a new work, it could be said that it is a combination of memes from countless sources derived from my knowledge of historical art practice, and other disciplines in which I’ve become interested over time. The complex processes of my gene and meme-derived brain have given rise to something new. I may well hold a firm conviction that I was directing proceedings by making choices at all stages along the way, but this requires the belief in a ‘self’ which was doing the choosing, which is merely an illusion forming part of a vast memeplex residing in my brain.
Chapter 3 The Evolution of the Meme
After our brains had been parasitised by memes, which had then coevolved with our genes to make us into vehicles to absorb them and propagate them further, there would be no going back. We became ‘meme machines’, or vessels for the creation and propagation of more memes. Our development of speech was a major victory for the meme, and the later development of writing allowed it to survive in a medium outside of direct human contact, greatly increasing the longevity and the accuracy with which memes could be stored. Longevity and accuracy of copying, or fidelity, are two very important qualities which successful replicators need. Now, many centuries after the first books appeared, we have a vast array of devices dedicated to the communication, storage, viewing and copying of information. Phones, DVDs, televisions, digital media players, computers and the internet all fall into the category of inventions which exist to propagate memes with ever increasing levels of longevity and fidelity.
A fascinating aspect of memetics is Blackmore’s theory that memes themselves created all the tools we have which are involved in their storage or consumption, for their own replication. She explains this by pointing out that as soon as memes appeared they began evolving towards better fidelity, longevity and fecundity (the urgency with which they get themselves copied.) In the process they brought about the design of better meme-copying machinery, using us as a medium through which to achieve this goal. As it may seem to any rational person a little far-fetched to expect that bits of information could achieve all of this, she points out that genes, which are bits of information stored in DNA, have created gnats and elephants (Blackmore, S., 1999, p.204). For some context, Blackmore refers back to the early days of natural selection, about three billion years ago. As Dawkins and others have stated, when the first ever replicator arose on earth, it is assumed it wasn’t DNA. This precise cellular machinery for propagating genetic information would come much later. Rather, it would have been something much simpler, and the entities being selected were probably tiny bits of protein or other chemicals. Gradually, over time, some of these got copied more often and accurately than others, and became more prevalent. Natural selection would favour the copying of more these varieties, as well as other proteins that were involved in the copying. At a much later point the system settled down so that there were very high-fidelity copies being made of long-lasting proteins, what we now recognise as DNA. The key point is that we should think of the meme as being at this crucial, early point in its evolution. It is still experimenting with differing forms of getting itself copied, hence the proliferation of various media and devices for storing them. It has not yet settled on a stable, favoured method. In short then, information is a replicator which undergoes selection according to an evolutionary algorithm which runs and this must result in design. ‘The design of computers by memetic selection is, in this sense, no more mysterious than the design of forests by genetic selection. The consciousness of a designer is not the causal factor in either process’ (Blackmore, S., 1999, p.203).
If we are to conclude that memes made us make computers, it is interesting to consider some of the tasks to which they have been put. I find an interesting parallel between Susan Blackmore’s theories and the work of English mathematician and computer expert Stephen Wolfram. While Blackmore’s work deals with the origins of biological life and traces the evolution of humanity and our culture, this assumes that there is a physical world already in existence in which it can happen. Wolfram however, is convinced that his research will lead to an explanation of the very origins of the universe and all matter in it. He is convinced that the entire universe is essentially a computer program, consisting of no more than a few lines of code, which has been running since the beginning of time, or for about 13.7 billion years. Everything from cushions, to the laws of physics, to us, to spiral galaxies have been created by these few lines which are simply run again and again, with ever increasing levels of complexity emerging from very simple origins.
Wolfram’s theories are very succinctly explained in physicist Marcus Chown’s book The Never-Ending Days of Being Dead (2007), which is essentially an overview of current scientific thinking on matters of the formation and workings of the universe, collecting together and explaining the best of the current ideas from the world’s leading theoretical physicists. Wolfram gets a chapter all to himself, where his pioneering work on cellular automata is explained. These are essentially lines consisting of rows of black or white cells, which update themselves continually and sequentially through the application of simple rules. The current state of the topmost line is acted upon by these rules and used to generate the next. Many permutations were experimented with, and Wolfram developed his own computer language, Mathematica, to help with the experiments. While many of the tests produced little of interest, some of these simple computer programs were shown, if allowed to run long enough, to produce remarkably complex results. The most significant cellular automaton is referred to as rule 110, the first 250 states of which are reproduced in Cellular Automaton Rule 110, 250 steps (fig.1). Starting with a single black cell at the top, this program, when allowed to run continuously, is capable of generating patterns of infinite complexity and surprise. Significantly, it even displays the behaviour of a Universal Turing Machine. This is a machine, first proposed by mathematician Alan Turing in the 1930s, which is capable of imitating the function of any other machine, and is considered to be the forerunner of the modern computer (Chown, M., 2007, p.34). As the diagram of rule 110, and others like it, bear little resemblance to the world we inhabit, Wolfram suggests that space is actually made from a vast network of interconnected nodes. Depending on how these nodes join together, they can mimic the essential properties of any type of space that can be imagined, and this network is continually updated in a similar way to a cellular automaton, creating the universe and everything that is a part of it, including ourselves (Chown, M., 2007, p.39). I find it fascinating to speculate that memes have, over millions of years, led to the development of computers which have, in turn, led us to a possible explanation of the very nature of reality.
Fig 1 Cellular Automaton Rule 110, 250 steps, computer generated image, Wolfram, S.
Wolfram researched quietly for over a decade, and finally in 2002, published his book, the modestly titled A New Kind of Science, using 1200 pages and 1000 black and white pictures to explain his findings to the rest of the scientific community. His theories seem to be as difficult to disprove as they are likely to irritate other scientists using more traditional scientific methodologies, whose work Wolfram largely dismisses, claiming his theories encompass and explain all of theirs anyway. Susan Blackmore, responding to difficulties over defining the exact unit of a meme and other problems, has lamented the fact that memetics has often been dismissed by many in the scientific community as pseudo-science (Blackmore, S., 1999, p.52). Wolfram, on the other hand, takes matters much further and seems to dismiss the rest of science as pseudo-science.
Wolfram’s work with cellular automata has clearly proven very influential and contentious outside of the scientific community as well as within. Postmodern literary critic Katherine Hayles references his research in her book My Mother is a Computer (2005), where she is concerned with his findings as they relate to her analysis of the current proliferation of computer code and digital media and the relationship they create with more traditional forms of communication such as speech and literature. She discusses his proposed model of reality, or ‘computational universe’, in the context of her examination of the ways in which our subjectivity is altered by our ever-increasing interactions with computers and other mobile communication devices, which she collectively refers to as intelligent machines. She also discusses the issue of human agency in this context, arguing that if we are evolved from mechanistic origins, as Wolfram’s computational universe would indicate, then it doesn’t seem possible that our agency could come from our conscious minds (Hayles, K., 2005, p.177). This, I think, forms an interesting parallel with Blackmore’s Universal Darwinian model of human agency, that all our actions are essentially dictated by the perpetual playing out of an evolutionary algorithm, and not the result of conscious decision-making on our parts.
It is clear that in recent years, memes have been propagating themselves with ever increasing speed and fecundity, and have adopted new and more efficient types of media and vehicles in which to get themselves copied. In light of this Blackmore, in more recent writings, has updated her appraisal of the meme in the context of the internet and the relentless digitisation of information. In her essay Dangerous Memes; or, What the Pandorans Let Loose (2010) she expresses dissatisfaction with the term meme, believing it to be suitable only in describing ‘natural’ ideas such as spoken words, music, art and religion. ‘There is indeed an important transition from memes copied by human brains to information copied by technology other than human brains. These “technological memes” are riding on top of both genes and memes to form a new layer of evolution. I’d like to call them “temes”’ (Blackmore, S., 2010, p.305). Blackmore reflects on the memes’ historical relationship with our genes, specifically on how once they were unleashed and became replicators in their own right they were no longer under the control of the genes. Given the developing sophistication of new digital technologies, and the fact that many now increasingly have the ability to make copies of temes and pass them on, she even suggests that the future for humanity at some distant point is far from guaranteed.
For now, we Earthly Pandorans are still needed for various stages in the copying and selecting of temes, but teme machines are very rapidly evolving and it may not be long before there are self-repairing computer systems, self-maintaining power stations, artificial systems for choosing which new technology to build and which to ignore, and all the processes of replication will be shifted out of the hands of humans and into the world of teme machines (Blackmore, S., 2010, p.308).
I find Susan Blackmore’s use of memetic theory as the basis of the evolution of human culture, and particularly her use of it as a model to explain individual creativity fascinating and completely plausible. It forms a very useful theoretical context for me to reference and build on as part of my ongoing studio practice. As for arguing for or against its scientific authenticity, I don’t possess any specialised knowledge of or training in neuroscience, psychology, evolutionary theory or other related fields, and am in no position to offer a judgement. I have simply done my best to understand the concepts involved and tried to see if they provide any useful context in my consideration of the issues of authorship and decision-making in my own artistic practice.
According to this theory, I am essentially a bundle of inherited, coevolved genes and a vast complex of acquired memes, and every time I create an artwork it is simply the result of these working their way through an evolutionary algorithm which inevitably produces design without any need for a designer. I am certainly required in this process, (for the time-being anyway, until the teme gets its way), but any sense I may have of having authored a given piece is simply an illusion, provided for me by my selfplex, since I didn’t actually make any of the decisions consciously along the way.
How do I feel about all of this then? Fine actually. Even before conducting this research into memes, and despite being a practicing artist for some time, I had never actually felt particularly ‘creative’. I’m not really prone to profound, revelatory moments of concentration, digging deep into some well of creativity and plucking original concepts from thin air. The ideas which I have I can usually trace back to other thoughts and interests, perhaps works I have done in the past, works of other artists or ideas from other disciplines entirely. Also, my studio practice tends to follow a sort of linear evolution from one step to the next. I imagine that most artists’ work develops in this way, I’m just inclined to be very aware of it. Besides, even if my creativity and sense of self are elaborate illusions, they seem perfectly convincing to me, and it doesn’t make the resulting artworks any less real. Also, for those times when I make work which is not well received critically, I can always claim ‘I’ had nothing to do with it.
More fascinating to me is why so many people, when confronted with these theories that question the nature of agency and creative authorship, react so strongly against them. There is certainly an inherent tendency among visual artists and other creative people to value and defend the originality of their work, with a particular aversion towards the slightest suggestion of plagiarism. Daniel C. Dennett deals with this issue in his essay The Evolution of Culture (2010), in which he advances his own account of human minds in terms of brains being parasitised by memes. Dealing with this perceived undermining of our precious ideas of human creativity, he notes
We human beings extrude other products, on a daily basis, but after childhood, we don’t tend to view our feces with the pride of an author or artist. These are mere biological by-products, and although they have their own modest individuality and idiosyncrasy, it is not anything we cherish (Dennett, D., 2010, p.140).
In an effort to explain why we should have such an irrational attachment to these products of our own brains, he adopts a position which I think is much like Blackmore’s theory of the selfplex, that certain collections of memes become inextricably associated with our sense of self. He concludes the very fact that we have evolved meme-infected brains is the reason we identify particularly with the memes which we regard as our own creations. ‘Lacking that meme-borne attitude, we would be mere loci of interaction, but we have such memes—that is who we are’ (Dennett, D., 2010, p.140).
List of Illustrations
Fig 1. Cellular Automaton Rule 110, 250 steps, computer generated image, Wolfram, S.
Sourced from the official website of Stephen Wolfram, www.wolframscience.com
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