Susan Blackmore gives a TED talk on Memes and “Temes”
Susan Blackmore studies memes: ideas that replicate themselves from brain to brain like a virus. She makes a bold new argument: Humanity has spawned a new kind of meme, the teme, which spreads itself via technology — and invents ways to keep itself alive
There’s an interactive transcript for those who (like me) prefer to read rather than watch; that begins:
Cultural evolution is a dangerous child for any species to let loose on its planet. By the time you realize what’s happening, the child is a toddler, up and causing havoc, and it’s too late to put it back. We humans are Earth’s Pandoran species. We’re the ones who let the second replicator out of its box, and we can’t push it back in. We’re seeing the consequences all around us.
0:41 Now that, I suggest, is the view that comes out of taking memetics seriously. And it gives us a new way of thinking about not only what’s going on on our planet, but what might be going on elsewhere in the cosmos. So first of all, I’d like to say something about memetics and the theory of memes, and secondly, how this might answer questions about who’s out there, if indeed anyone is.
1:07 So, memetics: memetics is founded on the principle of Universal Darwinism. Darwin had this amazing idea. Indeed, some people say it’s the best idea anybody ever had. Isn’t that a wonderful thought, that there could be such a thing as a best idea anybody ever had? Do you think there could? Audience: No. (Laughter) Susan Blackmore: Someone says no, very loudly, from over there. Well, I say yes, and if there is, I give the prize to Darwin.
1:36 Why? Because the idea was so simple, and yet it explains all design in the universe. I would say not just biological design, but all of the design that we think of as human design. It’s all just the same thing happening. What did Darwin say? I know you know the idea, natural selection, but let me just paraphrase “The Origin of Species,” 1859, in a few sentences.
2:04 What Darwin said was something like this: if you have creatures that vary, and that can’t be doubted — I’ve been to the Galapagos, and I’ve measured the size of the beaks and the size of the turtle shells and so on, and so on. And 100 pages later. (Laughter) And if there is a struggle for life, such that nearly all of these creatures die — and this can’t be doubted, I’ve read Malthus and I’ve calculated how long it would take for elephants to cover the whole world if they bred unrestricted, and so on and so on. And another 100 pages later. And if the very few that survive pass onto their offspring whatever it was that helped them survive, then those offspring must be better adapted to the circumstances in which all this happened than their parents were.
2:54 You see the idea? If, if, if, then. He had no concept of the idea of an algorithm, but that’s what he described in that book, and this is what we now know as the evolutionary algorithm. The principle is you just need those three things — variation, selection and heredity. And as Dan Dennett puts it, if you have those, then you must get evolution. Or design out of chaos, without the aid of mind.
3:24 There’s one word I love on that slide. . . .
For those who prefer to watch and listen, here’s the talk:
One interesting consequence of memetic adherence to Darwin’s algorithm: sooner or later random variation will result in the emergence of a “survival instinct”: a pattern of behavior such that the entity, if threatened with death, will go to great lengths to defend its life and its progeny. Such a characteristic clearly has strong survival advantages vs. the “don’t care” strategy, and it quickly become established in all populations since entities that have the characteristic will quickly displace similar entities that lack it.
So in memes nowadays (after at least trillions of “generations” of meme evolution, memeplex entities have a highly developed immune system. It can be pretty drastic: cf. the French Revolution, North Korea, religious wars such as between Sunni and Shiite. All those are memeplexes whose immune systems strike pretty hard to eliminate competing memes, generally by killing the human hosts.
Susan Blackmore trigger the immune response of some memeplexes recently, which she describes in this post.