Wednesday, May 14, 2008

A Glimpse of Memetic Coolness

Alrighty, I've noticed that I've been on a string of posts that are either really depressing or really angry, so today I'm a-going to churn out something on a more positive note. Here's a little something I picked up from Susan Blackmore's Meme Machine.

Well, not really Blackmore, seeing as she got it from Daniel Denett. It's a very interesting metaphor regarding memetic evolution. As we are all no doubt aware by now, evolution is largely a trial and error thing. A mutation pops up, and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune decide whether the organism is fit to survive. That's the good old-fashioned Darwinian way of doing things. For the benefit of those not heavily read in modern evolutionary biology, Darwinism, i.e. evolution as hypothesized in his Origin of Species is something of an incomplete theory. It's more of a baseline from which modern biologists have since built a more complete picture.

Anyhoo, the metaphor is called the Tower of Generate and Test, and the way it works is that you can basically slot an organism onto any of the four floors of the Tower, depending on it's method of generating and testing survival strategies.

On the ground floor are the Darwinian creatures. Basically, these creatures' cognitive abilities are completely pre-programmed into their genes. They cannot learn, and their behavioural traits are bought in the lives of it's members. This floor is mostly inhabited by simple creatures that can reproduce really quickly and hence afford to survive in this manner, e.g. amoeba, plankton, plants.

On the 2nd floor are Skinnerian creatures, named after B F Skinner. These creature's are a wee bit smarter because they can learn from their mistakes. Through conditioning, behaviour is killed off rather than the whole body. Think Pavlov's dog. This creature "evolves" much faster because many different behaviours can be tried in a single lifetime.

On the 3rd floor are the Popperian creatures, named after Karl Popper. These go one up on the Skinnerians because they can imagine possible outcomes to their actions. i.e. By simulating the action in their minds, their hypotheses are the only things put at risk.

On the 4th and final floor are the Gregorian creatures, named after Richard Gregory. They have the ultimate ability of imitation, and are thus able to carry their cultural artifacts with them through the generations, building knowledge on knowledge and accumulating information as a species, enhancing their overall intelligence.

And that's the whole Tower. No, I don't know if there's a possibility of a 5th floor. As it is, I find it very heartening to be on the 4th. It strikes me as something worth thinking about. I'm pretty convinced that humans are defined by their memes more than any other organism on the planet. When a calf is born, it knows instantly to shy away from anything that's not a cow and stick close to cow-like things. A bee comes pre-programmed with it's repertoire of dances to point out pollen to the colony.

But a human? A human has to be educated for years and years before he becomes a useful part of society. If Singapore is anything to go by, it would appear that humans even have to be taught how to make babies... The human species, viewed through the lens of evolutionary biology is a truly fascinating battleground between the gene and the meme, each driving or impeding the other.

I've mentioned before that, beyond the wildest dreams of our ancestors, advances in genetics, cybernetics and nanotechnology are quickly rendering the gene irrelevant. This leads one to the conclusion that soon, the human is going to be all about the memes. And that I've really got to get down to writing that introduction to memes I mentioned earlier. Oops... :-)

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