Evolutions Third Replica Tor

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  • 8/14/2019 Evolutions Third Replica Tor


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    genes that helped them do so. This "memetic drive" forced their brains to get bigger and bigger,and to become adept at copying the most successful memes, eventually leading to language, art,music, ritual and religion - the successful designs of human culture.

    This process was dangerous. Small brains are much more efficient if you don't have to copyanything, but once memes are around you cannot survive unless you do. So brains had to get

    bigger, and big brains are costly to produce, dangerous to give birth to and expensive to run.There is also danger in what is copied. If you start copying anything at all then you might copydangerous memes, like throwing yourself off a cliff or using up all your resources in pointlessrituals. This creates an arms race between two selfish replicators - memes benefiting from brainsthat copy anything and everything; genes benefiting from brains that are smaller, more efficientand highly selective.

    Either of these dangers might have finished our ancestors off, but they pulled through. The resultwas a compromise, with human brains being just about as big as our bodies could stand, and yetselective enough to avoid copying lethal memes. In the same way that parasites tend to co-evolvewith their hosts to become less lethal, so memes co-evolved with us. Languages, religions, skillsand fashions that began as parasites turned into symbionts. Not only do we get along with our memes now, we could not live without them.There was also a cost to the rest of life on Earth. Wherever they went humans took memes withthem, spreading agriculture and changing the landscape, obliterating some species, domesticatingothers and changing whole ecosystems. Then, much more recently, they began to build radicallynew kinds of technology, and the changes they effected dwarfed anything that had gone before.Was this just more of the same or something new?

    In all my previous work in memetics I have used the term "meme" to apply to any informationthat is copied between people, including stories in books, ideas embodied in new technology,websites and so on. The reason was that there seemed no way of distinguishing between"natural" human memes, such as spoken words, habits, fashions, art and religions, and what wemight call "artificial" memes, such as websites and high-tech goods. So on the grounds that afalse distinction is worse than none I stuck to the term "meme". Yet an email encrypted in digitalcode, broken into tiny packets and beamed around the planet does seem qualitatively differentfrom someone shaking hands and saying "Hi". Could there be a fundamental principle lurkinghere? If we ask what made memes different from genes, would that help us decide what wouldmake a new replicator different from memes?

    Putting it that way makes the answer easier to see. Memes are a new kind of information - behaviours rather than DNA - copied by a new kind of machinery - brains rather than chemicalsinside cells. This is a new evolutionary process because all of the three critical stages - copying,varying and selection - are done by those brains. So does the same apply to new technology?

    There is a new kind of information: electronically processed binary information rather than

    memes. There is also a new kind of copying machinery: computers and servers rather than brains. But are all three critical stages carried out by that machinery?

    We're close. We may even be right on the cusp. Think of programs that write original poetry or cobble together new student essays, or programs that store information about your shopping

    preferences and suggest books or clothes you might like next. They may be limited in scope,dependent on human input and send their output to human brains, but they copy, select andrecombine the information they handle.

    Machines now copy information to other machines without human intervention

  • 8/14/2019 Evolutions Third Replica Tor


    Or think of Google. It copies information, selects what it needs and puts the selections together in new variations - that's all three. The temptation is to think that since we designed searchengines and other technologies for our own use they must remain subservient to us. But if a newreplicator is involved we must think again. Search results go not only to screens for people tolook at, but to other programs, commercial applications and even viruses - that's machinescopying information to other machines without the intervention of a human brain. From there,we should expect the system to grow rapidly beyond our control and for our role in it to change.We should also expect design to appear spontaneously, and it does. Much of the content on theweb is now designed automatically by machines rather than people.

    The temptation is to think that technology we designed must remain subservient to us - but think again

    Memes work differently from genes, and digital information works differently from memes, butsome general principles apply to them all. The accelerating expansion, the increasing complexity,and the improving interconnectivity of all three are signs that the same fundamental design

    process is driving them all. Road networks look like vascular systems, and both look likecomputer networks, because interconnected systems outcompete isolated systems. The internet

    connects billions of computers in trillions of ways, just as a human brain connects billions of neurons in trillions of ways. Their uncanny resemblance is because they are doing a similar job.

    So where do we go from here? We humans were vehicles for the first replicator and copyingmachinery for the second. What will we be for the third? For now we seem to have handed over most of the storage and copying duties to our new machines, but we still do much of theselection, which is why the web is so full of sex, drugs, food, music and entertainment. But the

    balance is shifting.

    OutnumberedLast year Google announced that the web had passed the trillion mark , with more than1,000,000,000,000 unique URLs. Many countries now have nearly as many computers as people,and if you count phones and other connected gadgets they far outnumber people. Even if we allspent all day reading this stuff it would expand faster than we could keep up.

    Billions of years ago, free-living bacteria are thought to have become incorporated into livingcells as energy-providing mitochondria. Both sides benefited from the deal. Perhaps the same ishappening to us now. The growing web of machines we let loose needs us to run the power stations, build the factories that make the computers, and repair things when they go wrong - andwill do for some time yet. In return we get entertainment, tedious tasks done for us, facts at theclick of a mouse and as much communication as we can ask for. It's a deal we are not likely toturn down.

    Yet this shift to a new replicator may be a dangerous tipping point. Our ancestors could havekilled themselves off with their large brains and dangerous memes, but they pulled through. This

    time the danger is to the whole planet. Gadgets like phones and PCs are already using 15 per centof household power and rising ( New Scientist , 23 May, p 17) ; the web is using over 5 per cent of the world's entire power and rising. We blame ourselves for climate change and resourcedepletion, but perhaps we should blame this new evolutionary process that is greedy, selfish andutterly blind to the consequences of its own expansion. We at least have the advantage that wecan understand what is happening. That must be the first step towards working out what, if anything, to do about it.

    Your ideas: Help find a name for the third replicator

  • 8/14/2019 Evolutions Third Replica Tor


    Replicators on other planets?We are able to ask the question "Are we alone in the universe?" because our ancestors createdmemes, turning Earth into a "two replicator", or R2, planet, rich in language and culture. We areable to contemplate communicating with other worlds because Earth is fast becoming an R3

    planet, rich in digital technology that passes information around at the speed of light, and with

    the potential to send it out into the galaxy. How many other planets have taken a similar course?And why haven't we heard from them yet?

    The standard approach to answering that question focuses on the search for extraterrestrialintelligence. In 1961 Frank Drake proposed his famous equation for estimating the number of intelligent civilisations capable of communicating with us in our own galaxy. It includes the rateof star formation, the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets that can sustain lifeand the fraction that get intelligent life and then technology.

    Perhaps intelligence and civilisation are not what we should be concentrating on. My analysis based on Universal Darwinism suggests that instead we should be looking for R3 planets. Thenumber of those in our galaxy will depend on the probability of a planet getting a stable firstreplicator, then a second, and then a third. Maybe each step is hard, or maybe each is easy butdangerous. This new and simpler equation won't tell us the answers, but by posing new questionsit may help us understand why - so far - we have not heard from anyone else out there.

    Susan Blackmore is a writer and psychologist based in Devon, UK