Paul P. Mealing

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Saturday, 8 August 2009


Susan Blackmore is a well-known proponent of ‘memes’, and she wrote an article in New Scientist, 1 August 2009, called The Third Replicator, which is about the rise of the machines. No, this has nothing to do with the so-called Singularity Prophecy (see my post of that title in April this year). I haven’t read any of Blackmore’s books, but I’ve read articles by her before. She’s very well respected in her field, which is evolutionary psychology. By the ‘Third Replicator’ she’s talking about the next level of evolution, following genes and memes: the evolution of machine knowledge, if I get the gist of her thesis. I find Blackmore a very erudite scholar and writer, but I have philosophical differences.

I’ve long had a problem with the term meme, partly because I believe it is over-used and over-interpreted, though I admit it is a handy metaphor. When I first heard the term meme, it was used in the context of cultural norms or social norms, so I thought why not use ‘social norms’ as we do in social psychology. Yes, they get passed on from generation to generation and they ‘mutate’, and one could even say that they compete, but the analogy with genes has a limit, and the limit is that there are no analogous phenotypes and genotypes with memes as there are with genes (I made the same point in a post on Human Nature in Nov.07). And Dawkins makes the exact same point, himself, in his discussion on memes in The God Delusion. Dawkins talks about ‘memplexity’ arising from a ‘meme-pool’, and in terms of cultural evolution one can see merit in the meme called meme, but I believe it ignores other relevant factors as I discuss below.

Earlier this year I referenced essays in Hofstadter and Dennett’s The Mind’s I (Subjectivity, Jun.09; and Taoism, May 09). One of the essays included is Dawkins’ Selfish Genes and Selfish Memes. In another New Scientist issue (18 July 2009), Fern Elsdon-Baker, head of the British Council’s Darwin Now project, is critical of what he calls the Dawkins dogma saying: ‘Metaphors that have done wonders for people’s understanding of evolution are now getting in the way’; and ‘Dawkins contribution is indisputable, but his narrow view of evolution is being called into question.’ Effectively, Elsdon-Baker is saying that the ‘selfish gene’ metaphor has limitations as well, which I won’t discuss here, but I certainly think the ‘selfish meme’ metaphor can be taken too literally. People tend to forget that neither genes nor memes have any ‘will’ (Dawkins would be the first to point this out) yet the qualifier, ‘selfish,’ implies just that. However, it’s a metaphor, remember, so there’s no contradiction. Now I know that everyone knows this, but in the case of memes, I think it’s necessary to state it explicitly, especially when Blackmore (and Dawkins) compare memes to biological parasites.

Getting back to Blackmore’s article: the first replicators are biological, being genes; the second replicators are human brains, because we replicate knowledge; and the third replicators will be computers because they will eventually replicate knowledge or information independently of us. This is an intriguing prediction and there’s little doubt that it will come to pass in some form or another. Machines will pass on ‘code’ analogous to the way we do, since DNA is effectively ‘code’, albeit written in molecules made from amino acids rather than binary arithmetic. But I think Blackmore means something else: machines will share knowledge and change it independently of us, which is a subtly different interpretation. In effect, she’s saying that computers will develop their own ‘culture’ independently of ours, in the same way that we have created culture independently of our biological genes. (I will return to this point later.)

And this is where the concept of meme originally came from: the idea that cultural evolution, specifically in the human species, overtook biological evolution. I first came across this idea, long before I’d heard of memes, when I read Arthur Koestler’s The Ghost in the Machine. Koestler gave his own analogy, which I’ve never forgotten. He made the point that the human brain really hasn’t change much since homo sapiens first started walking on the planet, but what we had managed to do with it had changed irrevocably. The analogy he gave was to imagine someone, say a usurer, living in medieval times, who used an abacus to work out their accounts; then one morning they woke up to find it had been replaced with an IBM mainframe computer. That is what the human brain was like when it first evolved – we really had no idea what it was capable of. But culturally we evolved independently of biological evolution, and from this observation Dawkins coined the term, meme, as an analogy to biological genes, and, in his own words, the unit of selection.

But reading Blackmore: ‘In all my previous work in memetics I have used the term “meme” to apply to any information that is copied between people…’. So, by this definition, the word meme covers everything that the human mind has ever invented, including stories, language, musical tunes, mathematics, people’s names, you name it. When you use one idea to encompass everything then the term tends to lose its veracity. I think there’s another way of looking at this, and it’s to do with examining the root cause of our accelerated accumulation of knowledge.

In response to a comment on a recent post (Storytelling, last month) I pointed out how our ability to create script effectively allows us to extend our long term memory, even across generations. Without script, as we observe in many indigenous cultures, dance and music allows the transmission of knowledge across generations orally. But it is this fundamental ability, amplified by the written word, that has really driven the evolution of culture, whether it be in scientific theories, mathematical ideas, stories, music, even history. Are all these things memes? By Blackmore’s definition (above) the answer is yes, but I think that’s stretching the analogy, if, for no other reason than many of these creations are designed, not selected. But leaving that aside, the ability to record knowledge for future generations has arguably been the real accelerant in the evolution of culture, in all its manifestations. We can literally extend our memories across generations – something that no other species can do. So where does this leave memes? As I alluded to above, not everything generated by the human mind is memetic in my opinion, but I’ll address that at the end.

Going back to my original understanding of meme as a cultural or social norm, I can see its metaphorical value. I still see it as an analogy to genes – in other words, as a metaphor. Literally, memes are social norms, but they are better known for their metaphorical meaning as analogous to genes. If, on the other hand, memes are all knowledge - in other words, everything that is imbedded in human language - then the metaphor has been stretched too far to be meaningful in my view. A metaphor is an analogy without the conjunction, ‘like’, and analogies are the most common means to explain a new concept or idea to someone else. It is always possible that people can take a metaphor too literally, and I believe memes have suffered that fate.

As for the ‘third replicator’, it’s an intriguing and provocative idea. Will machines create a culture independently of human culture that will evolutionarily outstrip ours? It’s the stuff of science fiction, which, of course, doesn’t make it nonsense. I think there is the real possibility of machines evolving, and I’ve explored it in my own ventures into sci-fi, but how independent they will become of their creators (us) is yet to be seen. Certainly, I see the symbiotic relationship between us and technology only becoming more interdependent, which means that true independence may never actually occur.

However, the idea that machine-generated ideas will take on a life of their own is not entirely new. What Blackmore is suggesting is that such ideas won’t necessarily interact with humanity for selection and propagation. As she points out, we already have viruses and search engines that effectively do this, but it’s their interaction with humanity that eventually determines their value and their longevity, thus far. One can imagine, however, a virus remaining dormant and then becoming active later, like a recessive gene, so there: the metaphor has just been used. Because computers use code, analogous to DNA, then comparisons are unavoidable, but this is not what Blackmore is referring to.

Picture this purely SF scenario: we populate a planet with drones to ‘seed’ it for future life, so that for generations they have no human contact. Could they develop a culture? This is Asimov territory, and at this stage of technological development, it is dependent on the reader’s, or author’s, imagination.

One of Blackmore’s principal contentions is that memes have almost been our undoing as a species in the past, but we have managed to survive all the destructive ones so far. What she means is that some ideas have been so successful, yet so destructive, that they could have killed off the entire human race (any ideologue-based premise for global warfare would have sufficed). Her concern now is that the third replicator (machines) could create the same effect. In other words, AI could create a run-away idea that could ultimately be our undoing. Again, this has been explored in SF, including stories I’ve written myself. But, even in my stories, the ‘source’ of the ‘idea’ was originally human.

However, as far as human constructs go, we’re not out of the woods by a long shot, with the most likely contender being infinite economical growth. I suspect Blackmore would call it a meme but I would call it a paradigm. The problem is that a meme implies it’s successful because people select it, whereas I think paradigms are successful simply because they are successful at whatever they predict, like scientific theories and mathematical formulae, all of which are inherently un-memetic. In other words, they are not successful because we select them, but we select them because they are successful, which turns the meme idea on its head.

But whatever you want to call it, economic growth is so overwhelmingly successful: socially, productively, politically, on a micro and macro scale; that it is absolutely guaranteed to create the greatest catastrophic failure that the human race has ever witnessed. But that’s a subject for another post. Of course, I hope I’m totally wrong, but I think that’s called denial. Which begs the question: is denial a meme?

Sunday, 2 August 2009

Einstein's words

Today I bought a special edition of the science magazine, DISCOVER (July 2009), with the auspicious title, DISCOVER presents EINSTEIN. The magazine opens with an essay that Einstein wrote in 1931 (so before World War II). Or, at least, it was published in 1931, copyrighted by The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The essay is titled, The World as I see It, which one assumes was provided by Einstein himself.

For the rest of this post I will remain silent; I merely wish to present some very eloquent excerpts that provide an insight into Einstein’s personal philosophy.

How strange is the lot of us mortals! Each of us here for a brief sojourn; for what purpose he knows not, though sometimes he thinks he senses it.

A hundred times every day I remind myself that my inner and outer life are based on the labors of other men, living and dead, and that I must exert myself in order to give in the same measure as I have received and am still receiving. I am strongly drawn to a frugal life and am often oppressively aware that I am engrossing an undue amount of the labor of my fellow men. I regard class distinctions as unjustified and, in the last resort, based on force. I also believe that a simple and unassuming life is good for everybody, physically and mentally.

Schopenhauer’s saying “A man can do what he wants but not want what he wants” has been a very real inspiration to me since my youth; it has been a continual consolation in the face of life’s hardships, my own and others’, and an unfailing wellspring of tolerance. This realization mercifully mitigates the easily paralyzing sense of responsibility and prevents us from taking ourselves and other people all too seriously; it is conducive to a view of life which, in particular, gives humor its due.

I have never looked upon ease and happiness as ends in themselves – this ethical basis I call the ideal of a pigsty. The ideals that have lighted my way, and time after time have given me new courage to face life cheerfully, have been Kindness, Beauty and Truth. Without the sense of kinship with men of like mind, without the occupation with the objective world, the eternally unattainable in the field of art and scientific endeavors, life would have seemed to me empty. The trite objects of human efforts – possessions, outward success, luxury – have always seemed to me contemptible.

I am truly a “lone traveler” and have never belonged to my country, my home, my friends, or even my immediate family with my whole heart; in the face of all these ties, I have never lost a sense of distance and a need for solitude – feelings which increase with years. One becomes sharply aware, but without regret, of the limits of mutual understanding and consonance with other people. No doubt such a person loses some of his innocence and unconcern; on the other hand, he is largely independent of the opinions, habits, and judgments of his fellows and avoids the temptation to build his inner equilibrium upon such insecure foundations.

My political ideal is democracy. Let every man be respected as an individual and no man idolized. It is an irony of fate that I myself have been the recipient of excessive admiration and reverence from my fellow-beings, through no fault, and no merit, of my own. The cause of this may well be the desire, unattainable for many, to understand the few ideas to which I have with my feeble powers attained through ceaseless struggle.

The led must not be coerced; they must be able to choose their leader. An autocratic system of coercion, in my opinion, soon degenerates. Force attracts men of low morality, and I believe it to be an invariable rule that tyrants of genius are succeeded by scoundrels. For this reason I have always been passionately opposed to systems such as we see in Italy and Russia today.

The really valuable thing in the pageant of human life seems to me not the political state but the creative, sentient individual, the personality; it alone creates the noble and the sublime, while the herd as such remains dull in thought and dull in feeling.

This topic brings me to that worst outcrop of herd life, the military system, which I abhor. That a man can take pleasure in fours to the strains of a band is enough to make me despise him. He has only been given his big brain by mistake; unprotected spinal marrow was all he needed. This plague-spot of civilization ought to be abolished with all possible speed. Heroism on command, senseless violence, and all the loathsome nonsense that goes by the name of patriotism – how passionately I hate them! How vile and despicable seems war to me! I would rather be hacked to pieces than take part in such an abominable business.

The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion that stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed. It was the experience of mystery – even if mixed with fear – that engendered religion. A knowledge of the existence of something we cannot penetrate, our perceptions of the profoundest reason and the most radiant beauty, which only in their most primitive forms are accessible to our minds – it is this knowledge and this emotion that constitutes true religiosity, and in this sense, and this sense alone, I am a deeply religious man.

I cannot conceive of a God who rewards and punishes his creatures, or has a will of the kind that we experience in ourselves. Neither can I nor would I want to conceive of an individual that survives his physical death; let feeble souls, from fear or absurd egoism, cherish such thoughts. I am satisfied with the mystery of the eternity of life and with the awareness and a glimpse of the marvelous structure of the existing world, together with the devoted striving to comprehend a portion, be it ever so tiny, of the Reason that manifests itself in nature.

Saturday, 1 August 2009

Interview with a disillusioned nun

This is another radio interview (Friday 31 July 2009) which I strongly recommend, both inspiring and counter-expectative. (The link is only available for the next 2 weeks)

Dr. Colette Livermore worked with Mother Teresa's Order before leaving and studying to become a medical practitioner. She's written a book on her experiences titled, Hope Endures.

This is a repeat interview and I had heard it before. In between I read Robert Hutchison's book on Opus Dei, Their Kingdom Come, which I wrote about in another post in June this year, Politics in religion, religion in politics. In light of what I had learnt from Hutchison's book, Sister Colette's experiences in the Order made a lot more sense.

This is religion at its most perverse, where obedience is rated higher than normally-accepted standards of moral behaviour (it will make you fiercely angry). As Dr. Colette explains herself, it actually flies in the face of what Jesus taught.

You can download the audio as a podcast and listen to it whenever you want, but you won't get the musical selection. On the other hand, you can listen to it now and get the music as well. Either way, it's only available on line for the next 2 weeks. It is the 31 July interview in the list.