02 September 2006

Memetic evolution

I'm currently reading 'The Selfish Gene' by Richard Dawkins. It's 30 years since this book was first published but it is as relevant now as it was when first published, perhaps more so. I decided to read the book not because I am particularly interested in genetics but because there are so many references to it in other books I have read.

Eric Drexler frequently refers to Dawkins' 'meme' idea in 'Engines of Creation.' A meme is, essentially, a cultural 'idea' which becomes established within the consciousness of a certain group of individuals or within society as a whole. Memes can be propagated and perpetuated by various means, including of course the media, and now the internet. Before the media they would have been propagated verbally from person to person, group to person, or whatever. Later memes were propagated through writing. They can be the seed or the basis for entire belief systems, or they can be passing fads. Resilient memes survive in the consciousness of large numbers of people. Weak memes die out. Genes can be seen as 'replicators' and so can memes.

This brings us to the idea of 'memetic evolution'. It can be argued that humans are now beginning to step beyond the bounds of genetic evolution. We can make decisions, using our brains - our genetically evolved thinking apparatus', to defy our genetic programming, by using contraception for example. Memetic evolution allows as to evolve on a different, and much faster, level. We can do this by learning, effectively absorbing knowledge memes. These memes can help to preserve us, as new knowledge in medicine has done, they are 'good' memes and therefore survive and spread. There are also 'bad' memes. For example a meme for group suicide which quickly kills off all carriers of the meme. This would be bad for both the meme and the unfortunate individuals involved. Other bad memes survive and spread because they do not kill their carriers (at least not all of them).

I regard religion as a bad meme. Religion spreads, killing some of its carriers, but keeping plenty more alive to spread the meme. Religion also affects non-carriers by battling good memes containing beneficial information.

Memetic evolution and my definition of extravolution have a lot in common. Memes containing new technological insights spread throughout our planet, bringing us new knowledge which is beneficial to our survival. This process happens within the context of genetic evolution but also beyond it. Extravolution is shaping us at an ever-accelerating rate.

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