Thursday, June 5, 2008

Genes, Memes, And Temes: Reams of Teeming Beings Seemingly Teaming To Dream

The TED conference is one of my favorite places in the world. I love hearing ideas, hearing what people are thinking of, and seeing new fields of study in their infancy. One of these new fields is Mimetics, which is formed around the concept that brilliant biologist Richard Dawkins created.: memes. Memes, from the Greek word mimesis or imitation, (also related to the root mneme, from memory), are anything that can be imitated. Typically, we think of memes in the context of ideas or social habits (Natural Selection is a meme, as is this blog), but they can be as banal as "You can't HANDLE the truth!" or the Numa Numa dance meme.

The defining aspects of memes are two-fold: they spread through carriers like viruses, and they are subject to Natural Selection. Dawkins first created them as a model for genes, demonstrating that genes are not the only codings of information that Natural Selection can describe.

My interest with memes is that I am interested in culture; if culture is, as I've said before, the sum total of all the creative and spoken and intellectual and social creativity of a culture, than in a way, culture is entirely composed of memes. You could say that the sum total of all the memes in a given set of people is culture. I'm not sure that's the only definition, but if I were a mimeticist (which I am not, bear in mind) I'd probably go with that.

So I was interested to see Susan Blackmore's talk at TED--I was not previously familiar with her, but the title "Memes and Temes" caught my attention. Early on, I suppose, it became clear to me that my opinions about memes (although founded on the same beliefs as hers) have diverged with hers over several points.

  • The first point is which she made which I must strongly disagree with is one she made rather offhand, and at first I thought I would leave it out, but having thought about it I realized it was very important. Blackmore at one point makes reference to the fact that only human beings can support memes. I might have agreed with her, but two important references.

    The first is When Elephants Weep, an excellent book by Jeffrey Moussaieff Masson Susan McCarthy. The point of this book is not to catalogue all of the range of emotions of all of the animals, but if you read it all the way through you are convinced entirely that animals have, at the very least, a complexity of emotional intelligence beyond what we normally give them. You see, the book posits that humans assume that only humans are intelligent, and this causes them to not recognize the differing sorts of intelligences (emotional being the focus of the book) that creatures have. The more specific arguments in the book are hit and miss, but to the degree that animals are smarter and feel more than we usually give them credit, the book argues its point excellently.

    The second is another TED talk, given by Joe Klein. Klein, thanks to a cocktail party wager, spent a long period of time researching crows, with the eventual aim of creating a vending machine that crows could be trained to use. The point he was making is that crows are far more intelligent than we believed, and thus we could try to forge a new relationship with them, a more beneficial one.

    What these two sources have in common is a belief that not only are animals smarter than we give them credit, they also deserve to be treated in a manner more equal to us. Inserting the meme, as it were, that there is no huge chasm between mankind and animals, but rather that we can come into a new cultural relationship with animals.

    Indeed, if it is true that animals have memes--which Joe Klein reveals when he discusses the spread of crows teaching one another to use cars to break open nuts--then that means that animals too have culture (certain tribes of chimpanzees have different levels of tool use, as I understand it). The relationship between two cultures is very difficult than the relationship between one culture and a large number of automata.

  • The second point in which Blackmore lost me is in her new definition of temes. I understand, to a certain degree, that technology develops like verbal or social ideas--but I have no idea why she wants to treat them separately, and why she says that now is the point at which temes are becoming part of our society. When did we cross the "third threshhold" into teme-creating parts of culture? Was it the Industrial Revolution? The invention of the computer? Was it robotics? Or the first use of tools? (which would suggest that crows and chimpanzees are perhaps at the third threshhold already).

  • The third point I disagree with is her contention that each of the three threshholds has a potential to destroy the race. Any mutation has the potential to destroy its bearer. But the cataclysmic turning point in history that she seems to foresee smells of hyperbole and sensationalism.

  • The last point with which she and I don't see eye to eye is her fork-in-the-road for technology: mankind integrating into technology and disappearing, or mankind being replaced by more-competitive temes which don't care about the planet or about us.
The deeper problem that seems to me to unite these problems is the tendency of certain thinkers to try to fit new ideas into pre-constructed narratives. After all, the last point has been the subject of science-fiction writers for many decades now: if you combine the two choices you get The Matrix. But what her entire premise leaves out is mankind's self-consciousness.

I was looking down at the comments for the video and I saw, quite at random, this comment:
Genes don’t have any way of caring about whether they survive or not, and most species don’t have any way of knowing or caring if their species survives or not. The only way we human beings are able to care about our survival is because we host memes that identify us as human beings, as members of biological families, social groups, races, etc.

What memes are you host to? If all races disappeared as distinguishable entities and we all became a homogeneous latte color, would you care, and if so, why? How did you come to harbor a meme that says race is important?

If world culture became homogenized as well, so that we all shared the same language, values, and technology, would you be sad? Why?

If all nations became subsumed under some super union so that national boundaries were no more than administrative districts, would you lament the loss of the USA, France, Japan, etc.?

Suppose we lost the meme that says it’s important for human beings to survive, and instead of identifying with a particular instance of biological evolution--human beings--we became identified with evolution itself in whatever form it takes: animal, vegetable, or mineral. If computers become more intelligent than we are, and self-reflective, and capable of propagating themselves more efficiently than we can, would you lament that we were being replaced by products of evolution?.
The poster, Norman Bearrentine, is making a point that the desire for human survival is, in itself, a meme. And in fact, Bearrentine is pointing to something important: we, as humans, have a self-consciousness that gives us choice.

This brings me to the major point of divergence between Blackmore and myself. The idea behind CultureFuture is that we have the ability to control our own fate by exercising self-consciousness and criticism to guide ourselves forward. It is not natural selection: it is human selection. We, as human beings, have proven the ability to stop natural selection by saving the lives of people who would otherwise die. And we, as human beings, have the ability to look for ways to cooperate rather than compete. And we, as human beings, have the ability to make choices about our future.

Blackmore, in her discussion about the third threshhold possibly killing us all, is making an oblique reference to global climate change. But the very idea that we are discussing global climate change and alternative sources of fuel means that we as a race are invested in changing our fate. One of the most misleading phrases in science or statistics is "if current trends continue." Current trends rarely continue, and they especially don't continue if we see a trend we don't like and choose to make it not continue. We can do that.

It's true: eventually there will be implants. And there will be drugs available that will make people stay up all night without sleeping. But so long as there are hollistic doctors, and the Amish, and luddites, and people who don't trust surgeries, and government regulators, and a world-wide conversation on the effects of our actions, we have our hands on the steering wheel. The only challenge is to get us all to make the right choice.

Blackmore, in the outset, tells us that memes and temes and genes can't "want" and don't "care." But this is missing the point: we humans care. And since we humans generate memes, and temes, and genes, we can learn how to manipulate them to our ends. Sometimes these ends will be destructive--propaganda is the science of using memes to manipulate populations, for instance--but my faith is to believe that we eventually will make the right choices, and will bumble our way towards a tomorrow that is just so slightly better than today. Not through natural selection, but through human selection.

EDIT: [removed the video due to its irritating habit of playing from the get-go. find it at]

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