Thursday, 25 August 2011

Memetics - Introductory chapter

Here's the first chapter of my book on memetics - which is out now.

Introduction - A brief guide to this book

We will start with a brief introduction to the main themes of this book.

Apes with infected brains

This is a book about a curious and counter-intuitive idea. The idea is that humans are apes with infected brains. That we harbour living things inside our skulls which are even less closely related to us than the bacteria that thrive in our guts are.

These entities are not bacteria, or other microorganisms. They are a new form of life, not closely related to the DNA-based life forms that have dominated the planet for billions of years.

It is the presence of these entities that distinguishes modern humans from primitive cave-dwellers. They are what is responsible for our music, literature, science and technology.

It seems likely that these entities have been with us for millions of years - and are a major factor in contributing to making us human in the first place. This means that most accounts of human evolution that fail to take account of these entities are deeply misguided.

Describing humans as "apes with infected brains" is not intended to imply that the infectious agents are necessarily deleterious - just that they don't necessarily always have our best interests at heart. Many visitors are mutualists - useful symbionts. However, others are toxic and harmful - and humans are often in need of strategies for getting their brains disinfected.

Humans have grown dependent on these symbiotic visitors. As with our gut bacteria, most of us are now so dependent on them that we could barely survive without them.

Brain-zit analogy

At this point an analogy and some diagrams should help to illuminate the situation. Acne is a disease caused partly by bacteria - which infect the sweat glands in human skin. These help to create a plug which blocks the pore of the gland. The bacteria reproduce in the resulting trapped pool of juices, and then explode forth into the world - where some of them find their way into other sweat glands - thus completing their reproductive cycle.

The brains of adult humans are typically infected with similar entities. They are contagious ideas. They spend most of their reproductive cycle in human brains, and then spurt forth - often from the human mouth. Then they find their way through the air, and sometimes successfully find their way into another human brain - thus completing their reproductive cycle.

Ideas in brain.            Juices in Zit.

In this analogy, certain types of contagious ideas are considered to be similar to the bacteria that cause acne. Like the bacteria, those ideas reproduce themselves using energy derived from their human hosts, and spread from one human to another in a manner closely resembling a contagious disease.

Ideas spurt forth.             Juices spurt forth.

Not all ideas spread contagiously from one person to the next. Some ideas form inside human minds but never attempt to spread themselves to other humans. However, other ideas have mastered the trick of spreading "horizontally", form one human to the next - and these more powerful ideas are very common.

Also, transmission doesn't always occur through the human mouth. Sometimes, the ideas are transmitted using gestures. Sometimes, they are typed into computers. Sometimes, the idea is in the form of a picture - or a movie. The important thing is that they have found a way from one human mind to the next.

Parasites and mutualists

On average, these contagious ideas appear to be beneficial. In that respect, they are different from typical diseases, which are normally harmful to their hosts. Many ideas are more like gut bacteria - which are also beneficial, on average. There are other cases in nature of beneficial symbiotic relationships with microorganisms. For example, many common plants make use of nitrogen-fixing bacteria living in their root systems - to help them harvest nutrients from the atmosphere. Some plants actively cultivate ants which help the plants to protect themselves against predators. For example, the Swollen-Thorn Acacias of Central America have developed special bulbous chambers to act as homes for aggressive species of ants - which then protect the their tree house against predators and parasites.

However, not all culturally-transmitted ideas are beneficial to their hosts. Cults, religions, scams, fads and lies are often more like real diseases than they are like a mutually-beneficial symbiosis. Sometimes, the host is even sterilised. Sterilisation can actually benefit the infectious ideas - since liberating the host's reproductive resources can free up time and energy - which can then be used to propagate the ideas to new hosts.

This picture - of humans as apes with infected brains - is one which relatively few people are familiar with, and which even fewer have fully worked through the implications of.

Many find this kind of perspective to be counter-intuitive. If you open up the skull of a human, no parasites spill out. If you look at it under a microscope, no rapidly-dividing foreign-cells are seen. Some question exactly where these hypothetical invaders are - and whether they even exist. The short answer is that the parasites live in a virtual world.

Computer viruses

Fortunately there is another type of system which behaves in a similar way. Our personal computers are also frequently infected with parasites. These regularly get infected with their own species of computer virus - and yet, if you open up a computer, no viruses come spilling out. As with the human mind parasites, this is because they live in a virtual world.

Although the computer viruses live in a virtual world, they can still cause real damage, blackmailing the user, using their network connection by acting as a spam relay - and so on. The infected human brain behaves similarly. Though its infections are often unseen, their effects are not.

The new organisms

The picture that results from this is dramatic - and for many people it is unfamiliar. After several billion years of evolution a range of new types of self-reproducing creature have arrived on the scene. They have genes that are not made of nucleic acids. In next to no time, they have spread to all areas of the globe. Their effects can be seen everywhere. Suddenly, intelligent design, engineering, simulation, extrapolation, interpolation - and many other novel tools are being used to create the next generation of organisms. This is a new kind of evolution, faster than the older kind of evolution by random mutations that preceded it.

This is really the first time in the last three billion years that new, non-nucleic-acid-based self-reproducing entities have succeeded in getting a major foothold in the biosphere. There is currently an explosion of these new creatures. Their rise seems rapid and dramatic, and it shows little sign of levelling off.

The extraordinary and rapid rise to power of these new self-reproducing creatures raises important questions about what will happen in the future. One possibility is that their meteoric rise eventually slow down - and reach some kind of harmonious equilibrium with the older nucleic-acid-based systems that were responsible for their creation. Another is that the new creatures will stage a take over - as they find a way to build bodies and minds for themselves and then proceed unshackle themselves from their more primitive precursors.

We urgently need to develop a basic scientific understanding of what is happening in this area. Understanding the evolution of culture will throw light on human evolution, so we can better understand human nature, it will allow us to better deal with the modern world and the challenges that we now face - and it will also help us to prepare for the future. This book lays down some of the foundations needed to deal with these issues.

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