susan_blackmore's picture
Psychologist; Visiting Professor, University of Plymouth; Author, Consciousness: An Introduction

All around us the techno-memes are proliferating, and gearing up to take control; not that they realise it; they are just selfish replicators doing what selfish replicators do—getting copied whenever and wherever they can, regardless of the consequences. In this case they are using us human meme machines as their first stage copying machinery, until something better comes along. Artificial meme machines are improving all the time, and the step that will change everything is when these machines become self-replicating. Then they will no longer need us. Whether we live or die, or whether the planet is habitable for us or not, will be of no consequence for their further evolution.

I like to think of our planet as one in a million, or one in a trillion, of possible planets where evolution begins. This requires something (a replicator) that can be copied with variation, and selection. As Darwin realised, if more copies are made than can survive, then the survivors will pass on to the next generation of copying whatever helped them get through. This is how all design in the universe comes about.

What is not so often thought about is that one replicator can piggy-back on another by using its vehicles as copying machinery. This has happened here on earth. The first major replicator (the only one for most of earth’s existence and still the most prevalent) is genes. Plants and animals are gene machines—physical vehicles that carry genetic information around, and compete to protect and propagate it. But something happened here on earth that changed everything. One of these gene vehicles, a bipedal ape, became capable of imitation.

Imitation is a kind of copying. The apes copied actions and sounds, and made new variations and combinations of old actions and sounds, and so they let loose a new replicator—memes. After just a few million years the original apes were transformed, gaining enormous brains, dexterous hands, and redesigned throats and chests, to copy more sounds and actions more accurately. They had become meme machines.

We have no idea whether there are any other two-replicator planets out there in the universe because they wouldn’t be able to tell us. What we do know is that our planet is now in the throes of gaining a third replicator—the step that would allow interplanetary communication.

The process began slowly and speeded up, as evolutionary processes tend to do. Marks on clay preserved verbal memes and allowed more people to see and copy them. Printing meant higher copying fidelity and more copies. Railways and roads spread the copies more widely and people all over the planet clamoured for them. Computers increased both the numbers of copies and their fidelity. The way this is usually imagined is a process of human ingenuity creating wonderful technology as tools for human benefit, and with us in control. This is a frighteningly anthropocentric way of thinking about what is happening. Look at it this way:

Printing presses, rail networks, telephones and photocopiers were among early artificial meme machines, but they only carried out one or two of the three steps of the evolutionary algorithm. For example, books store memes and printing presses copy them, but humans still do the varying (i.e. writing the books by combining words in new ways), and the selecting (by choosing which books to buy, to read, or to reprint). Mobile phones store and transmit memes over long distances, but humans still vary and select the memes. Even with the Internet most of the selection is still being done by humans, but this is changing fast. As we old-fashioned, squishy, living meme machines have become overwhelmed with memes we are happily allowing search engines and other software to take over the final process of selection as well.

Have we inadvertently let loose a third replicator that is piggy-backing on human memes? I think we have. The information these machines copy is not human speech or actions; it is digital information competing for space in giant servers and electronic networks, copied by extremely high fidelity electronic processes. I think that once all three processes of copying, varying and selecting are done by these machines then a new replicator has truly arrived. We might call these level-three replicators “temes” (technological-memes) or “tremes” (tertiary memes). Whatever we call them, they and their copying machinery are here now. We thought we were creating clever tools for our own benefit, but in fact we were being used by blind and inevitable evolutionary processes as a stepping stone to the next level of evolution.

When memes coevolved with genes they turned gene machines into meme machines. Temes are now turning us into teme machines. Many people work all day copying and transmitting temes. Human children learn to read very young—a wholly unnatural process that we’ve just got used to—and people are beginning to accept cognitive enhancing drugs, sleep reducing drugs, and even electronic implants to enhance their teme-handling abilities. We go on thinking that we are in control, but looked at from the temes’ point of view we are just willing helpers in their evolution.

So what is the step that will change everything? At the moment temes still need us to build their machines, and to run the power stations, just as genes needed human bodies to copy them and provide their energy. But we humans are fragile, dim, low quality copying machines, and we need a healthy planet with the right climate and the right food to survive. The next step is when the machines we thought we created become self-replicating. This may happen first with nano-technology, or it may evolve from servers and large teme machines being given their own power supplies and the capacity to repair themselves.

Then we would become dispensable. That really would change everything.