Cosmos and Culture

Dangerous Memes, or What the Pandorans Let Loose – Susan Blackmore (chapter 7 p297)

The Science of Memes
Memetics is rooted in Universal Darwinism—the idea that natural selection is a general process of which Earthly biology is just one example. Working from his detailed observations of living things, Darwin saw what very few people had ever seen before even though the process is always staring us right in the face. That is, if creatures vary, and if they have to compete for resources so that most of the variants die, and if the successful variants pass on to their offspring whatever it is that helped them survive, then the offspring must be better adapted to the environment in which all this happened than their parents were. Repeat that cycle of copying, varying, and selecting, and design must appear out of nowhere.(p298)

My favorite word in that description is “must.” This “must” is what makes Darwin’s insight the most beautiful in all of science. You take a simple three step algorithm and find that the emergence of design for function is inevitable. Dan Dennett calls it “a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos without the aid of Mind” (Dennett 1995, 50). This is “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea” that the algorithmic level is the level that best accounts for the wonders of nature; that all the fantastic and beautiful creatures in the world are produced by lots and lots of tiny steps in a mindless and mechanical algorithm.
The whole process can look like magic—like getting something for nothing—but it isn’t. It is not possible to get matter out of nowhere, but it is possible to get information, or new patterns of matter, apparently out of nowhere by making copies. If the copies vary slightly and not all the copies survive, then the survivors must have something that helped them win the competition—using Darwin’s term, they are more “fit”; they make a better fit to their environment. Then they pass on this advantage to the next generation of copies. And so it goes on.(p299)

Is memetics really so scary? Possibly it is. Among the ideas that upset people are that all “our” ideas are recombinations and adaptations of other people’s, that all creativity comes from the evolutionary algorithm and not from the magic of human consciousness (Blackmore 2007a; Chater 2005), that our inner conscious selves may be memeplexes created by and for the memes (Blackmore 1999), that free will is an illusion, that modern computing technology is creating itself using us, and that the process of memetic evolution is not under our control (Blackmore 1999; Dennett 1995). (p301)

Some survive predominantly because they are useful to their hosts (e.g., effective financial institutions, scientific theories, or useful technologies); others depend on fulfilling human desires and preferences (e.g., the arts, music, and literature); and still others are positively harmful, tricking their hosts into propagating them.(P302)

 A good example here is the evolution of language—long a highly contentious issue with many competing theories (Dunbar 1996; Pinker 1994, 2007). On this memetic view language, like art and all of culture, is not seen as an adaptation of benefit to humans and their genes, but as a parasite turned symbiont. Indeed, all of cultural evolution is seen as happening for the benefit of the memes and in spite of posing a threat to humans and their genes. The human genes did, however, survive but the creature that was once their vehicle (i.e., the human body) gradually turned into a better and better copying machine for the new replicator—the memes. That is how we humans became such effective meme machines.(P304)

..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.”

The justification is this: replicators do not evolve on their own but coevolve with the machinery that replicates them. In the case of Earth’s first-level replicator, DNA, we have only a sketchy understanding of its origins (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1995) but we now see an exquisitely coadapted system of DNA and cellular copying machinery on which most living things on Earth depend. These living things can be thought of as the “vehicles,” or gene machines, that carry the genes around and protect them (Dawkins 1976), or as the “interactors” that interact with the environment to produce differential effects on gene replication (Hull 1988). In the case of human evolution, those vehicles eventually became the copying machinery for a new replicator, memes. Could it then be that the memes will do the same—building themselves meme-vehicles that in turn become the copying machinery for a new kind of replicator, temes? I suggest that this is what is happening all around us now. (P305)

The Evolution of Culture – Daniel C. Dennett (chapter 4 p125)


This traditional perspective can obviously explain many features of cul-tural and biological evolution, but it is not uniformly illuminating, nor is it obligatory. I want to show how theorists of culture—historians, anthropolo-gists, economists, psychologists, and others—can benefit from adopting a dif-ferent vantage point on these phenomena. It is a different application of the intentional stance, one which still quite properly gives pride of place to the cui bono question, but which can provide alternative answers that are often overlooked. The perspective I am talking about is Richard Dawkins’s meme’s-eye point of view, which recognizes—and takes seriously—the possibility that cultural entities may evolve according to selectional regimes that make sense only when the answer to the cui bono question is that it is the cultural items themselves that benefit from the adaptations they exhibit.(p128)

How did music start? What was or is the answer to its cui bono question? Steven Pinker is one Darwinian who has recently declared himself baffled about the possible evolutionary origins and survival of music, but that is because he has been looking at music in the old-fashioned way, looking for music to have some contribution to make to the genetic fitness of those who make and partici-pate in the proliferation of music.16 There may well be some such effect that is important, but I want to make the case that there might also be a purely memetic explanation of the origin of music. (p135)

 Habits—good, bad, and indifferent—could persist and replicate, unappreciated and unrecognized, for an indefinite period of time, provided only that the replicative and dispersal machinery is provided for them. The drumming virus is born.Let me pause to ask the question: what is such a habit made of? What gets passed from individual to individual when a habit is copied? Not stuff, not packets of material, but pure information, the information that generates the pattern of behavior that replicates. A cultural virus, unlike a biological virus, is not tethered to any particular physical medium of transmission. (p136)

Finally, one of the most persistent sources of discomfort about memes is the dreaded suspicion that an account of human minds in terms of brains being parasitized by memes will undermine the precious traditions of human creativity. On the contrary, I think it is clear that only an account of creativity in terms of memes has much of a chance of giving us any way to identify with the products of our own minds. 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. How could we justify viewing the secretions of our poor infected brains with any more pride? Because we identify with some subset of the memes we harbor. Why? Because among the memes we harbor are those that put a premium on identifying with just such a subset of memes! Lacking that meme-borne attitude, we would be mere loci of interaction, but we have such memes—that is who we are. (p140)



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