Good replicators get replicated

Over 3 billion years ago, a remarkable accident occurred…

Molecules were created that could make copies of themselves.

Not that surprisingly really – probability-wise – given the zillions and squillions of instances of stuff swooshing around and colliding.

Essentially the earth’s first replicator was born. As Eric D. Beinhocker said in The Origin of Wealth, GOOD REPLICATORS GET REPLICATED. This is a thought worth pondering for a very long time. The implications are huge.

This golden rule was basically the point of Richard Dawkins’ The Selfish Gene [1976], in which he explored how genes will get copied if they can, regardless of the consequences; and so long as you have variation, selection and heredity, you must get evolution, or ‘design out of chaos without the aid of mind’ (Dan Dennett). This is basic circular logic.

The really interesting thing that happened next was the birth of the second replicator on earth…

Us.

We humans copy information, or ‘memes’, from person to person, brain to brain. There’s variation and selection… it’s basically a design process. Just like genes, if memes can get copied they will – from hand gestures, to wearing earrings, to language, to toilets, to education. We’re all essentially propagating copying machines.

The thing is, we don’t just copy useful, beautiful, true things. That’s part of the reason our brains have grown so large. Rather than staying economical, concerned only with lighting fires, hunting, breeding; our brain capacity is extended to encompass other things, like Britney Spears, sudoku and advertising. In fact our brains have become mighty strange, hijacked by parasitic ideas, like religion (and like most parasites, we end up with a symbiotic relationship). Just as it isn’t our fault when our germs harm others who haven’t developed an immunity, we can’t be blamed for effectively wiping out others’ traditions by spreading our memes; and we can’t be surprised when those who aren’t immune to things we’re used to are very freaked out as a result.

This is something to bear in mind as we spread our teachings and technologies. Likewise, we should be aware of the evolution of technology and its parallels with genetics and mimetics. Good replicators get replicated; and the ‘fit’ is determined by the environment. So just as plants producing oxygen led to oxygen breathers like us prospering; you could say that we’re essentially destroying our current environment to make way for computers.

That may sound a little dramatic, but it’s worth considering whether the ‘fact’ that we invented the internet and other technologies is really true. Didn’t the internet evolve as a result of mimetics, i.e. the copying of cultural ideas from brain to brain over a period of time, whereby the best replicators get replicated?

At the same time, we can see how humans are evolving via technology. For example, before we could read and write, our memories performed much better. Nowadays that’s exacerbated by Google-mentality, skimming and quick kicks. We’re getting very good at developing technologies that remove functions from humans.

So what?

Well, the really interesting thought in all this is that we might be entering the era of the earth’s third replicator. In order to get what Susan Blackmore calls ‘temes’ (technological memes), you need the variation, the selection, the copying, all done outside of humans. Of course we’re starting to see that happen.

So maybe we didn’t create the internet for our own benefit. Maybe we’ve been looking at it all the wrong way. Instead, consider that ‘temes’ spread because they must. Just like the selfish gene.

If teme machines replicate, it won’t matter if the planet is unstable. They can thrive without us.

We are the old machines.

2 comments

  • There may well be a third driving force in evolution, accompanying selfish genes (physical forms) and selfish memes/temes (logic scripts).

    If body makes genes, and mind makes memes/temes, then spirit creates replicable patterns of emotional response – “lumines” – to value the physical forms and logic scripts.

    Ideas on evolutionary consilience between lumines, genes, memes/temes are explored in the first comment at http://j.mp/3h7BOp and at http://j.mp/985c1I .

    Best,

    Mark Frazier
    @openworld

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