Dangerous ideas and the evolution of Meme Machines

Why has a dangerous version of Islam evolved over the past few years? Scientist Susan Blackmore argues that humans are not in control of memes (which are an equivalent of genes in the world of ideas or stories).  Islamic extremism is such a meme, which has been copied by a process of imitation. The study of memes helps us to understand how and why new copying machinery, such as the internet, co-evolves with the memes it propagates without regard for its effect on human beings.

Susan Blackmore, you are expert in a fascinating theory called memetics. It is a theory trying to explain, how ideas evolve. Can you give an example of an evolving meme?

Memes are ideas, skills, stories or any information that is copied from person to person, or from person to books, computers or artefacts.
Scientific theories evolve but so do fashions and religions. A silly example is the practice of folding the end of toilet rolls that has now spread to just about every corner of the world. A more serious example is Islam which has evolved over the past few years to be extremely dangerous to free thought and human rights.

How can memetics help to understand trends?

Looking at the world from a meme’s eye view allows us to see why ideas that are dangerous for us humans, or for our genes or our planet, can nonetheless thrive because they have what it takes to persuade us human meme machines to copy them. We have to look at trends and ask “Why is this information getting copied?”
We need to get away from models based on the idea of humans as rational choice machines and see them instead as selective imitation devices – not perhaps an endearing view but certainly closer to the truth.

You call computers, books, web sites meme machines: They all copy, store and select memes. You are suggesting to take another look at those media: Let’s assume that they are not for our sake but for the memes to evolve. How come?

In any evolving system the information that is copied co-evolves with the machinery for copying it. DNA and its incredibly accurate cellular copying machinery evolved alongside the creatures it made possible. So writing, telephones, and computers evolved alongside the information that they copy. We humans are self-centred. We seem to believe that we created modern copying technology, including the Internet, for our own benefit. Memetics shows how and why this explosion of copying technology was inevitable (though not necessarily in this precise form) and why it is not under our control. This is important for understanding what will happen next.. The memes do not care (they cannot, of course) whether we are all overloaded and stressed. We need to consider how to live in an increasingly meme rich world.
And then there’s the effect on our planet – think of this new replicator sucking up resources increasingly fast, regardless of the effect on the planet …..

You will offer a workshop at the 2nd European Futurists Conference Lucerne. What will we learn from you?

You will learn the basics of memetics – the origin of the idea in evolutionary theory and some of its applications. We will look at how humans came to be shaped by memes in the past and how our minds are continuing to be designed by them. This provides the basis for thinking about the future – we can never predict precise outcomes in evolutionary theory, but we can make general predictions about how the web might evolve, how new technologies will affect memetic evolution and what the furture holds for human meme machines. We may not be necessary for memetic evolution for much longer and should be prepared for this major transition.

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 writes for several magazines and newspapers, a blog for the Guardian newspaper 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. Author of many books including The Meme Machine, which is translated into 13 other languages, and her latest book Conversations on Consciousness.

Her pre-conference workshop at the 2nd European Futurists Conference, Nov. 22, 2006:

The Evolution of Meme Machines

Useful links to Memetics here provided by Susan