Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Dawkins' Dangerous Idea


Hi, I'm Tim Tyler, and this video is on the topic of how memetics is a powerful and dangerous idea. I'm making it to promote my book on memetics - which is out now.

Some have pointed out that evolution is Darwin's Dangerous Idea.

In 1995, Dennett wrote, in a book with that title:

If I were to give an award for the single best idea anyone has ever had, I'd give it to Darwin, ahead of Newton and Einstein and everyone else. In a single stroke, the idea of evolution by natural selection unifies the realm of life, meaning, and purpose with the realm of space and time, cause and effect, mechanism and physical law. But it is not just a wonderful scientific idea. It is a dangerous idea.

If evolution was Darwin's Dangerous Idea, then memetics is Dawkins' Dangerous Idea. It is a subset of Darwin's idea - but it is one part of it which hits very close to home, if the human ego is resistant to Darwinism, memetics is one of the areas it objects to most - since it is so close to home.

Darwin's idea faced enormous resistance in its time. It took a very long time for it to be digested. Social science is still busy absorbing the implications of the fact that the human mind evolved. However, the idea that human culture evolves has been widely rejected for over a hundred years - including by most social scientists. It is more obvious that human culture evolved than that organic creatures evolved - since we can more easily see the process happening in real time over our lifetimes. However, by most kinds of reckoning, the study of cultural evolution is over 100 years behind the study of organic evolution.

Many blame Darwin for the eugenic sterilisation programs of Sweden, Germany, the United States and other countries. Memetics potentially holds some more serious problems for civilisation. Memetic engineering is vastly more powerful and dangerous than genetic engineering - and has the potential to turn us all into meme addicts. There's already a field of mililary memetics which studies propaganda, resisting propaganda, brain washing, manipulating public opinion, and other fun things. Memetic algorithms could ultimately go on to produce machine intelligence. Once the machines are smarter than us, humanity's days as masters of the planet may well be numbered.

Paul McFedries recently wrote:

Richard Dawkins became famous in the 1970s for his concept of the selfish gene, and he has become infamous in recent years for his unyielding atheism. But I predict that Dawkins will be known, a hundred years hence, not for these contributions to science and culture but for the concept of the meme. Feel free to spread that idea around.

Well, OK, then Paul, since you asked so nicely, citing my work and all, I will. I too think that memetics is Dawkins' Dangerous Idea. The evolution of culture is really the biggest and most important idea in The Selfish Gene. Of course some might object to attributing the idea to Dawkins, since we have Darwin saying:

The survival or preservation of certain favoured words in the struggle for existence is natural selection.

...so the idea really dates back at least to Darwin - but Dawkins is likely to get credit for the terminology - and language shapes thought, so people are likely to continue to associate memetics with Richard Dawkins - so it seems likely that it will be: Dawkins' Dangerous Idea.


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