Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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  Science Fact-ion by Randall Hayes
September 2016

Spelunking the Noosphere

Back when I was an academic, I had a grant from a local consortium funded by the National Science Foundation to produce an evolution podcast and blog called VSI: Variation Selection Inheritance. In that blog I wrote somewhat regularly about cultural evolution, which pretty much everyone agrees is an attractive metaphor for the way culture works. Ideas come in and out of fashion, ideas mutate over time, and ideas seem to compete with one another for dominance in what Aaron Lynch and Douglas Hofstadter called the ideosphere, an ecosystem of ideas, after Jesuit priest Teilhard de Chardin’s noosphere. The metaphor is especially apt for languages, where linguists have documented shifts in word frequencies and sound patterns that are analogous to the shifts in gene frequencies in biological populations. In 1976, evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins hypothesized a unit of information that he called a meme, a unit of information that could copy itself. He called them replicators to emphasize their agency, despite knowing perfectly well that genes do not in fact copy themselves in any literal way. They rely on a cellular environment, with a bunch of enzymes and the ATP to power them. Replication is a distributed process, not a localized event caused by a single agent.

Agency was important to his conception of the meme, because he was including it in a book called The Selfish Gene, where he pushed the idea that we silly organisms are not in control of our behavior as we imagine, that we are slaves to our genes, who want only to be copied. I don't know if Dawkins had read any science fiction (he didn't cite any), but this compulsive aspect of individual contagious ideas, what he called “viruses of the mind,” was exactly what SF had focused on. There was (and still is) little fiction based around de Chardin's larger and richer idea of the noosphere. Paradigms, based on the work of Thomas Kuhn, have been more popular in SF, but usually one battle at a time, not zoomed out to the ecosystem level of the noosphere. An exception is the White Wolf role-playing game Mage, where entire conceptual worlds war ceaselessly with one another for control of humanity's collective unconscious.

It took almost twenty years for the idea of contagious particles of information to catch on, but the academy of the 1990s was afire with a new science called memetics. There were discussion boards and conferences and a journal and everything. They got really hung up on what memes were, physically. Some books just said “information,” and left it at that, which is roughly where biology was with genes when Darwin and Mendel called them “traits,” with no idea what they were made of chemically. Others, taking a cue from the discovery of DNA structure in the 1950s, which kick-started the biotech revolution, decided that the only way to make progress was to define what a meme was. The community spent about ten years trying and then kind of gave up. Memes were no longer fashionable, except maybe in the worlds of marketing and computer science (where viruses and genetic algorithms are still hot topics). Now the word meme mostly means pictures with funny captions that circulate on the Internet.

In contrast, the biological community spent almost a hundred years arguing about whether genes exist as particles at all, and if they did, whether they were made of nucleic acids or proteins. During that time, they made quite a lot of progress in learning how genes act, while still doubting whether they were real or just a convenient metaphor. Similar debates played out over other forms of biological inheritance, though they took less time. Prusiner won the prion argument after about 20 years. The various forms of DNA tagging that we call epigenetics each took at least a decade.

Our horizons keep expanding in other ways, too. It's now becoming clear that selection can happen at multiple levels of biological organization simultaneously—genes, organelles like mitochondria, cells, bodies (in the case of organisms that clone themselves), and even in super-organism groups like ant colonies. There is even evidence that evolution happens outside biology, in chemical systems that don't involve replication, but the looser category of repetitive creation, where different nonliving catalysts compete in terms of reaction rates.

My point here is that, given how the concept of information transfer has evolved through the history of biology, memetics deserves another chance. It's true that we don't know exactly how information is encoded in the brain (there are even people who say that it’s not there). We may not know for a long time. We can still make progress. And SF can help, by exploring memetics in story form. As mentioned above, there are lots of stories about compulsive single ideas, but there are not so many about the larger dynamics of competition and cooperation in a population of ideas. There's no memetic equivalent of the Hardy-Weinberg equation for genetic turnover (except in linguistics). There's no Endangered Species Act for the preservation of languages, or any other aspect of culture (though I do remember a story that mentioned “cultural preserves”).

Here's an especially concrete application that may spark interest in writers and artists. Creative Commons licensing and other schemes like open-access science publishing are trying to open up intellectual property law in ways that are useful to individuals and society in general. What happens to intellectual property as a concept if we recognize, on a societal level, that creativity is a distributed process of recombining memes, as chronicled in the classic BBC series Connections or the more recent Everything Is a Remix? That localizing creativity to an individual mind is satisfying to our primate social circuitry, and simple for accounting purposes, but fundamentally inaccurate, not to mention unfair? Does the IP concept mutate, or collapse, or explode into chaos and war? What concept do we replace it with?

Here's an extension of that idea, potentially even more disruptive. Like Dawkins, Buddhists have been saying for millennia now that the individual self is a convenient illusion, that our minds are collections of “thoughts without a thinker,” thoughts that think themselves. Neuroscience is slowly coming to the same conclusion. What will that paradigm shift look like, out in the world? Western culture since the Rennaissance has been built of and by individuals. How will the future conceive of itself, and how will it look back on us?

Randall Hayes is a convenient label for the meme pool who runs Agnosia Media, LLC and recruits speakers for Greensboro Science Cafe. In between columns, he blogs at the crypto-currency-driven scrum known as Steemit.com under the handle plotbot2015.



It still exists at the Internet Archive, though I haven't added anything to it in a couple of years.




This is not historical, but it’s cool.








This is the book, but there’s a free sketch of the book below.






Click “PMC full text” in the upper right-hand corner if your old eyes are bad like mine.











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