Memetics is an intellectually rich but controversial field which seeks to explain how our minds and cultures are designed by natural selection acting on replicating information, just as organisms evolve by natural selection acting on genes. Sue Blackmore, one of the field's leading thinkers, skillfully unfolds the major arguments for a meme's-eye view of the world, and explores the implications for humanity. Are our brains best seen as machines invented by and for propagation of selfish memes?
First articulated in Richard Dawkins' classic work, The Selfish Gene, memetics has been dismissed by some scientists, and proven a useful framework to others. Meme replication is theorized to follow genetic algorithms which inevitably lead to evolution whenever conditions of variation and differential copying of information occur. A key question is why certain memes (such as stories, songs, technologies, games, theories, lectures) survive at the expense of others. Blackmore and the audience examine factors in the propagation of 'selfish memes' that may be passed virally from human to human based on genuine utility or through trickery.
Since humans are evidently the only species capable of wide-spread imitation, we are likely the only carriers of memes. Perhaps the most controversial application of meme theory is the study of religion as a selfish memeplex or set of 'copy me' instructions backed up by threats and promises. Memetics can also inform the evolution of language and technology, leading to the interesting notion that the internet (as a selfish replicator) used us to create and spread itself. A principle problem with memes, Blackmore notes, is that successful replicators don't necessarily care about consequences or the conditions in which they carry on. This leaves us a responsibility to understand if and how replicating information acts in the world, and how we may need to beware of memes even as we co-evolve with them.
This talk was from the The Future of Ideas session at Pop!Tech. The other speaker in this session was Sam Harris. The question and answer period for these talks is included in this program.
Sue Blackmore is a freelance writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and a Visiting Lecturer at the University of the West of England, Bristol. She has a degree in psychology and physiology from Oxford University (1973) and a PhD in parapsychology from the University of Surrey (1980). Her research interests include memes, evolutionary theory, consciousness, and meditation. She practices Zen and campaigns for drug legalization.
Sue writes for several magazines and newspapers, and is a frequent contributor and presenter on radio and television. She is author of over sixty academic articles, about forty book contributions and many book reviews. Her books include Beyond the Body (1982), Dying to Live (on near-death experiences, 1993), In Search of the Light (autobiography, 1996), and Test Your Psychic Powers (with Adam Hart-Davis, 1997). The Meme Machine (1999) has been translated into 13 other languages. Her textbook Consciousness: An Introduction was published in June 2003 (Hodder UK, OUP New York), and A very short introduction to consciousness in 2005 (OUP). Forthcoming is (November 2005 OUP).
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