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TED2008: Memes and Temes

Susan Blackmore is one of the major promoters of memetics, a field that’s misunderstood and sometimes disliked. Her talk is designed to defend the idea of the meme. She begins, “Cultural evolution is a dangerous child to let loose on the world.” In doing so, we’ve become “Earth’s pandora species” we have loosed the second replicator, the ability to replicate behaviors, not just via genetic material. “That’s the view that comes from taking memetics seriously.”

Memetics is founded on “the principle of universal Darwinism”, which she believes is “possibly the best idea anyone ever had.” At root, what Darwin said was that if you have variation, selection and heredity, you must get evolution, or, as Daniel Dennett puts it, “Design out of chaos without the aid of the mind.” Important in this formulation is the word “Must” – if you’ve got those preconditions, you must have natural selection.

She points out that Darwin didn’t know about genes – he talked about natural selection in other ways, including the natural selection of language. Richard Dawkins make the argument that there are other forms of replication on the planet – information copied from person to person by imitation. That which is imitated is the “mimeme”, shortened to “meme”. Before criticising memes, it’s worth going back to that simple definition – “information copied from person to person.”

She goes through the room and identifies a few memes – sunglasses worn on a chain around the neck, women wearing earings. Those individuals didn’t invent those behavior – they’ve simply imitated it. She shows a wonderful meme – toilet paper folded in a hotel. She’s documented this in a jungle camp in Assam, as well as in almost any hotel you enter. “It’s supposed to tell you the place is clean, but it really tells you that other people have touched your toilet roll, spreading germs.”

“All these memes are trying to get copied, using you and me as copying machinery. We are the meme machines.”

She believes that humans are basically a war between genetics and memetics. Genes want us to be efficient and reproduce. Memes want to be reproduced, and make us do silly things, like copying wearing feathersor face paint. Eventually, the memetic drive demands a bigger brain that can copy and adopt these memes. “Language is a parasite we’ve adapted to.”

Somewhere in externalizing these memes through technology, we’ve created a new type of memes – technology-enhanced memes, which she calls “temes”. These temes are “forcing our brains to become tene machines.” We will start putting in implants and taking drugs that force us to stay awake – we’ll believe we’re choosing to do som, but the temes are making us do it.

She refers to the Drake equation – an equation intended to calculate the possibility of extraterrestrial life. She offers her own equation, less dependent on human intelligence, and more dependent on replicators.

N = P x fR1 x fR2 x fR3 x L

The number of planets with communicative life is a function of the number of planets, times the fraction with the first type of replicators, times the fraction with the second type of replicators, by the fraction with the third type of replicators, times the lifespan of planets with third-level replicators. This last term is key, because every step is dangerous. The big brain required for second-level replication – memetic replication – is dangerous. It makes childbirth more dangerous and takes up 20% of body’s energy for 2% of the body’s weight.

“Temes don’t care about us – they simply want to create more of themselves. Don’t think we created the internet for our own benefit – think about temes spreading for themselves because they must.”

Will we survive as a species? The question is whether we survive this third danger point, the world in which temes reproduce themselves with no regard for the consequences for us.

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