Copy That: A Response

In my essay for The Stone, “The Third Replicator,” I argued that new replicators can piggy-back on older ones. This happens when the product of one replicator becomes copying machinery for the next replicator, and so on. Memes appeared, I wrote,  when humans (a product of genes) became capable of imitating, varying and selecting a new kind of information in the form of words, actions, technologies and ideas. The same thing is happening now, I argued, with a new replicator. Computers (a product of memes) are just beginning to be capable not only of copying but of copying, varying and selecting digital information. This means the birth of a new  replicator ─  temes, or technological memes.

In the comments that followed, I was called a “trippy visionary” (Guillermo C. Jimenez, 68), and a “pink hair meme” spreader (Jim Gerofsky, 133, though I don’t think it did spread much) and sent to the Chinese Room, but I am grateful for the many responses from readers,  which compel me to defend some of my arguments, clarify others and think hard about some of the questions raised.

Inevitably, some common misunderstandings of memetics surfaced, concerning the use of analogies, the existence of memes, the nature of selfishness and the role of imitation.

Marcelo (69) ably defends the use of analogies in scientific thinking. Yet the value of an analogy depends on how it is used, and many people seem to misunderstand this when it comes to both memes and temes. Let’s go back to 1976 and the origin of the term “meme” in Richard Dawkins’s “The Selfish Gene.” He says this: “I think we have got to start again and go right back to first principles. … .  The gene will enter my thesis as an analogy, nothing more.”  (Dawkins, 1976. p. 191). Those first principles are what he calls “Universal Darwinism” ─ that when anything is copied with variation and selection then evolution must occur. He looks at human culture, argues that songs, words, ideas, technologies and habits are all copied from person to person with added variations and heavy selection and so concludes that there must be a new evolutionary process going on. He calls the replicator involved in that new process the meme. 

The critical point here is that he starts from first principles; from what Dennett (1995) calls “Darwin’s Dangerous Idea.” I guess this is what 9 and 15 mean by saying I’ve “got it” i.e. “got” what Dawkins was saying, and what is missed by so many objectors. So thanks to 9 and 15! Dawkins does not do what many seem to accuse him of,  which seems to go something like this:

1. Genes are the replicator underlying biological evolution.

2. Cultural evolution looks a bit like biological evolution so by analogy let’s invent a new replicator to underlie culture and call it a meme.

They then add: 3. But memes and genes are so dissimilar that the theory of memes must be rubbish.

I have put this rather crudely but this seems to be what many people think. For  example, Frank (49) says “the meme-as-a-cultural-sort-of-gene analogy can only be taken so far.” I would agree there, but he has missed the point. Analogies between genes and memes are secondary. If memes really are replicators (and this depends both on how you define a replicator and whether cultural information really is copied with variation and selection) then we should expect some interesting analogies between genes and memes. But we should not necessarily expect them to be close. Indeed they often are not. And this is not surprising since one is based on digital information encoded in DNA and the other is a wide variety of behaviors, skills, technologies and so on copied in various ways and often with low fidelity by humans.

A future science of higher replicators, if ever such a science comes about, should be able to use analogies between replicators as fruitful ways of asking new questions or investigating how replicators behave. It should not expect all these analogies to be useful or close. Some will be and some will not.

Some commentators have understood and built on this. For example, Marshall (116) points out that “Genetic replicators have been “working on” the problem of accurate reproduction for rather a long time, and have evolved many mechanisms discretizing units of information, fixing or eliminating miscopies, defeating genes that game the process of random recombination, and so on.” He disagrees with me by concluding that what I call temes are really more memes (so does Mark Wei, 130, who thinks we are “still in a two replicator system, with the second replicator still in its infancy”), but he goes on to note, as I have also done, that memetic transmission is still in its early stages and so it is not surprising that the replicators are ill-defined and the process sloppy. 

Similarly R. Garrett (147) argues that memes have only had about a thousand generations of humans using sufficiently complex language to spread them. So it’s unrealistic to expect memes to be as developed as genes: they could more reasonably be compared with RNA enzymes in the RNA-world. He suggests that writing, the printing press and digital information storage might all be steps towards a digital equivalent of DNA. This, I think, is the way we should be using analogies between different replicators ─ looking at how general processes operate in ones we understand and then seeing whether or not we can discern similar processes happening in ones we do not understand.

Some people claim that memes do not exist, or are not proven to exist . This reveals another misunderstanding (Aunger, 2000). Memes are words, stories, songs, habits, skills and so on. Surely they exist.  Dennett asks “Do words exist?” Of course they do. The interesting question is not whether memes exist but whether thinking of words, stories, skills, habits and technologies as a new replicator is of any value. I say yes, many others say no. This, unlike the existence question, is an argument worth having.

Some commentators are bothered by the notion of selfish memes or more generally of selfish replicators, and get themselves into trouble wondering about intentionality, anthropomorphism and teleology (100, 109, 119, 122, 129). When I say that memes are selfish I mean that they will get copied whenever and however they can without regard for the consequences. This is not because they have human-like self-preserving desires or emotions, but because they cannot care (they are only words, skills, habits etc). This is precisely the same argument as with genes ─ they have effects on living things but they don’t care because they cannot care. This becomes especially interesting when applied to temes. If I am right and we are on the verge of attaining a third replicator, this too will be selfish because it cannot care. Squillions of digits being copied, mixed up, selected and copied again cannot care about the consequences to us, our genes or to the planet. This is the sense in which temes are or will be selfish. Their inevitable evolution will drive the creation of ever more teme machines with ever more information passing around, with no regard for us or our planet.

This brings me onto the question of human emotions and consciousness. Many commentators berated me for ignoring human emotion or for playing down the importance of sentience, consciousness (36, 40, 58, 94, 129, 169) and free will (170, 172). As many of you will know, I think both consciousness and free will are illusions, by which I mean that they are not what they seem to be.

For example, people often think of consciousness as some kind of power or force which is able to act on their brain, but I reject this covertly dualist notion. Others think of consciousness as some kind of added principle in brain function, i.e. there is vision, learning, memory etc. etc. and then consciousness as well. I reject this, too (Blackmore 2002, 2010). Consciousness, in these senses, does not exist. It is an illusion that comes about when clever brains build stories about self and other and try to understand their own actions. So in reply to some of these comments I would suggest that consciousness need play no role in creativity, selection or anything else we do. In a way this is one of the delights of memetics; one can think about everything we are and do, including the way that we construct illusions of a conscious self who is in charge of our bodies, without invoking any special stuff or property or power called “consciousness.” 

What about creativity? Several mention this (61, 70, 73, 137, 143, 148), some saying that I have sneaked it in illegitimately while others argue that you cannot get novelty, creativity, or invention from “mindless copying” (137). No you can’t. You get novelty, creativity, and invention from mindless copying with variation and selecting. That’s the whole point. I would go so far as to say that this process (the evolutionary process, Darwin’s dangerous idea) is the source of all design in the universe (Blackmore, 2007). This is what creativity is. When we humans create new ideas, paintings, poems, stories, or technical achievements, it is because old ones have been copied, integrated with each other, mixed up, added to, and then the results have been ruthlessly selected, either within one brain or within the cruel worlds of bookshops, scientific peer review, cost-cutting, the fickleness of human desires and many other processes. We do not need either the concept of consciousness or the notion of some special creative capacity within humans to explain why we are such imaginative and creative creatures (Blackmore, 2007).

Cube (148) gives a wonderful example of this in by-pass surgery. The technology required was not invented by one person but by the efforts of many groups, lots of small steps, and lots of trial and error, all tested in the real world of patients and hospitals.

If you think that we humans have some special faculty of creativity or consciousness or sentience then you may think, as do 123 and 170, that we can somehow “escape the project.” Dawkins may have thought this too when he ended the “Selfish Gene” with the stirring words “We, alone on earth, can rebel against the tyranny of the selfish replicators” (1976. p. 201). I disagree (Blackmore, 1999). We are meme machines soon to become embedded in a three replicator system and without any consciousness, free will, or other spooky power that might enable to leap outside the system.

I will end with a few comments that raised interesting questions. William Benzon (41) makes many helpful comments and I have already replied to these separately (84, 112) . I enjoyed 55’s thoughts about cells and unification of people into one greater organism. I have been pondering on these processes, too. As for temes, some (76, 152) worry that since all information is effectively stored for ever somewhere in the Internet there can be no “survival of the fittest” which would discount them as replicators. However, much of this information languishes never to be copied again. As 141 points out “copying is what keeps a meme alive”.

Cube (148) says “I’m not quite sure why the Internet, although faster and cheaper, is qualitatively different from the printing press.” Some point out that most varying and selecting is still done by us humans, even though we let our machines do so much of the copying and storage. Most of the stuff out there is there because some human put it there or because other humans like it and keep copying it.

I agree but this is what I suggest is beginning to change: it’s not the Internet per se that is so different, but the advent of machines that can carry out all of the three processes required for evolution: copying, varying and selecting. Out there among all the computers interlinked around the world are, I suggest, the beginnings of such machines. This is what will bring about, or already has brought about, the birth of the third replicator.

Susan Blackmore is a psychologist and writer researching consciousness, memes, and anomalous experiences, and a visiting professor at the University of Plymouth. She is the author of several books, including “The Meme Machine (1999), “Conversations on Consciousness” (2005) and Ten Zen Questions (2009).


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