Sunday, January 20, 2008

Meme machines

What if what makes humanity unique amongst the animal kingdom was something completely unexpected ?

Of course, as a species we are intimately related to the web of life- far more than most people imagine. We have the same general anatomical make up for the most part. Our general body structure from muscle and bone on down to the cellular and genetic dimensions are all remarkably similar. There are even related social patterns at the population level that reverberate throughout the mammalian kingdom that offers little to solidly differentiate us from the rest of our brethren.

Viewed from a larger perspective, Darwinian evolution and natural selection can explain how we along with all of life on this planet came to be. It is perfectly reasonable to thread the spontaneous percolation's of some nascent self-replicating chemical reactions eons ago to the enormity and variability of life today –including us. From those early beginnings an enormously chaotic flow of possibilities bubbled up haphazardly through time to a place where humanity came to be. Here an ugly and gangly hairless primate sits in front of a mirror contemplating itself.

Many would argue that this is precisely what makes us so unique. Our ability to think and speak creates intelligence- our human consciousness- and is like no other among all living things. Indeed these are qualities that stand out starkly as distinct from the rest of the animal kingdom.

But intelligence is far more difficult to define than one might imagine, as Susan Blackmore notes in her ambitious and provocative book “The Meme Machine”. For one thing, trying to measure quantitative levels of intelligence in humans leads to a hopeless maze of dead ends. You might be an artistic maestro, yet a blithering idiot with numbers, or vice a versa. Some people can sing beautifully, others grunt…these variability's become too fuzzy and defining "what is intelligence" itself becomes an almost insuperable challenge.

Add to these problems what the burgeoning science of artificial intelligence (AI) has taught us about intelligence. This really makes us sit down and scratch our heads. Computer AI can vanquish the best human minds in many difficult intellectual and complex interactons such as playing chess as well as run circles around them in simple information processing tasks. On the other hand, scientists are struggling to “teach” AI computers (in robot bodies) to run up stairs or to visually follow a bouncing ball across a room- rather unintelligent qualities many animals posses. This illustrates that intelligence is really hard to pin point and claiming it as being uniquely human not so easy a task.

If intelligence is not what make humans so unique, how about consciousness? Trying to define consciousness is an even more difficult affair than our previous dilemma. Only recently has the scientific community been able to more clearly address this issue- facing the “hard” problem head on. Researchers are now able to tease away centuries of subjective philosophical conjecture from the mind/body problem with observable facts. In so doing, much to the chagrin of many, they are peeling away illusory and ephemeris ghostly souls from the real workings of the brain. It seems the mind is the brain- period. At any rate, that is where the research is going and this brings us to another conundrum.

The dancing pattern in our heads we call consciousness- our minds eye- may not even be real. Neurologist and researcher Rodolfo Llinas poignantly discusses what he describes as the mirage of human consciousness; observations that thread nicely with the present discussion. Consciousness is far more slippery than intelligence to pin down and this makes it exceedingly difficult for us to say whether other creatures are conscious or not. If these presumably- yet not exclusively- human traits do not make us unique, what does? According to Blackmores' speculations, there is one phenomenon that humans consistently show with a fluidity and ease that no other animal come close to exhibiting. This is our ability to imitate.

This extraordinary concept at first seems a bit out there- until you think about it a while. Imitation comes so easily to us- like breathing- that sensing it is almost a counter intuitive effort. Waving, smiling, and blinking are basic forms of imitation and seem only reflexive yet are truly special human qualities.

It is interesting to note that imitation is very rare in animals other than humans. For example, Blackmore notes correctly that “You can teach a cat, or rat, to beg neatly for its food by progressively rewarding it, but you cannot teach it by demonstrating the trick yourself- nor can another cat or rat. Years of detailed research on animal imitation has led to the conclusion that it is extremely rare.”

Imitation is so ingrained into human activity that learning in this way is not differentiated from other types of learning in language. Blackmore states “We use the same word ‘learning” for simple association or classical conditioning (which almost all animals can do), for learning by trial and error or operant conditioning (which many animals can do), and for learning by imitation (which almost none can do).” But this quality, so much a part of human interaction, may be what sets us apart from other animals. The act of imitation is actually a type of information transfer where an element of imitation is "replicated" from one individual to another. Whether these elements are called pieces of information, an idea, or a behavior is less important than the fact that they are passed on and acquire a form of existence- a "life"- of their own.

Taken as a whole, there is an infinite variety of these elements and they take on qualities somewhat related to the replicative evolutionary properties of material genes. According to this theory, imitated units of information are like genes and the human brain like bodies- the vehicle through which they propagate.

Richard Dawkins coined the term “memes” to describe these non material entities because they, like genes, seem obey a form of Darwinian evolution, albeit beyond the biological constraints of the organic world. Some of these memes even coalesce forming groups or packages of complementary memes- “memetic selfplexes”-much like some genes will replicate "en masse". Most importantly this fascinating- and speculative- train of thought hints at the incredible possibility that it is this complex dance of interacting memes that is what makes humans “human”.

Dawkins and Blackmore submit that these memes reflect another level of evolution; a Universal Darwinism. Though our brains were born of biological origins, its unique evolutionary path of, for example, intense societal interaction has given rise to the fluid phenomenon of meme replication. This is the rise of a new and separate evolution where humans can claim a unique position among animals as originators of a novel evolutionary opportunity. This is reminiscent of some of the patterns observed in nature such as the coalescing patterns of life that have tended to reoccur throughout earths living evolutionary past. Perhaps what is truly unique about humans is that we may have the ability to see through these patterns and truly see ourselves- whoever we are.


Blackmore, S. The Meme Machine. Oxford Univ Press, NY. 1999

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