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  • Cultural evolution is a dangerous child

  • for any species to let loose on its planet.

  • By the time you realize what's happening, the child is a toddler,

  • up and causing havoc, and it's too late to put it back.

  • We humans are Earth's Pandoran species.

  • We're the ones who let the second replicator out of its box,

  • and we can't push it back in.

  • We're seeing the consequences all around us.

  • Now that, I suggest, is the view that

  • comes out of taking memetics seriously.

  • And it gives us a new way of thinking about

  • not only what's going on on our planet,

  • but what might be going on elsewhere in the cosmos.

  • So first of all, I'd like to say something about memetics

  • and the theory of memes,

  • and secondly, how this might answer questions about who's out there,

  • if indeed anyone is.

  • So, memetics:

  • memetics is founded on the principle of Universal Darwinism.

  • Darwin had this amazing idea.

  • Indeed, some people say

  • it's the best idea anybody ever had.

  • Isn't that a wonderful thought, that there could be such a thing

  • as a best idea anybody ever had?

  • Do you think there could?

  • Audience: No.

  • (Laughter)

  • Susan Blackmore: Someone says no, very loudly, from over there.

  • Well, I say yes, and if there is, I give the prize to Darwin.

  • Why?

  • Because the idea was so simple,

  • and yet it explains all design in the universe.

  • I would say not just biological design,

  • but all of the design that we think of as human design.

  • It's all just the same thing happening.

  • What did Darwin say?

  • I know you know the idea, natural selection,

  • but let me just paraphrase "The Origin of Species," 1859,

  • in a few sentences.

  • What Darwin said was something like this:

  • if you have creatures that vary, and that can't be doubted --

  • I've been to the Galapagos, and I've measured the size of the beaks

  • and the size of the turtle shells and so on, and so on.

  • And 100 pages later.

  • (Laughter)

  • And if there is a struggle for life,

  • such that nearly all of these creatures die --

  • and this can't be doubted, I've read Malthus

  • and I've calculated how long it would take for elephants

  • to cover the whole world if they bred unrestricted, and so on and so on.

  • And another 100 pages later.

  • And if the very few that survive pass onto their offspring

  • whatever it was that helped them survive,

  • then those offspring must be better adapted

  • to the circumstances in which all this happened

  • than their parents were.

  • You see the idea?

  • If, if, if, then.

  • He had no concept of the idea of an algorithm,

  • but that's what he described in that book,

  • and this is what we now know as the evolutionary algorithm.

  • The principle is you just need those three things --

  • variation, selection and heredity.

  • And as Dan Dennett puts it, if you have those,

  • then you must get evolution.

  • Or design out of chaos, without the aid of mind.

  • There's one word I love on that slide.

  • What do you think my favorite word is?

  • Audience: Chaos.

  • SB: Chaos? No. What? Mind? No.

  • Audience: Without.

  • SB: No, not without.

  • (Laughter)

  • You try them all in order: Mmm...?

  • Audience: Must.

  • SB: Must, at must. Must, must.

  • This is what makes it so amazing.

  • You don't need a designer,

  • or a plan, or foresight, or anything else.

  • If there's something that is copied with variation

  • and it's selected, then you must get design appearing out of nowhere.

  • You can't stop it.

  • Must is my favorite word there.

  • Now, what's this to do with memes?

  • Well, the principle here applies to anything

  • that is copied with variation and selection.

  • We're so used to thinking in terms of biology,

  • we think about genes this way.

  • Darwin didn't, of course; he didn't know about genes.

  • He talked mostly about animals and plants,

  • but also about languages evolving and becoming extinct.

  • But the principle of Universal Darwinism

  • is that any information that is varied and selected

  • will produce design.

  • And this is what Richard Dawkins was on about

  • in his 1976 bestseller, "The Selfish Gene."

  • The information that is copied, he called the replicator.

  • It selfishly copies.

  • Not meaning it kind of sits around inside cells going, "I want to get copied."

  • But that it will get copied if it can,

  • regardless of the consequences.

  • It doesn't care about the consequences because it can't,

  • because it's just information being copied.

  • And he wanted to get away

  • from everybody thinking all the time about genes,

  • and so he said, "Is there another replicator out there on the planet?"

  • Ah, yes, there is.

  • Look around you -- here will do, in this room.

  • All around us, still clumsily drifting about

  • in its primeval soup of culture, is another replicator.

  • Information that we copy from person to person, by imitation,

  • by language, by talking, by telling stories,

  • by wearing clothes, by doing things.

  • This is information copied with variation and selection.

  • This is design process going on.

  • He wanted a name for the new replicator.

  • So, he took the Greek word "mimeme," which means that which is imitated.

  • Remember that, that's the core definition:

  • that which is imitated.

  • And abbreviated it to meme, just because it sounds good

  • and made a good meme, an effective spreading meme.

  • So that's how the idea came about.

  • It's important to stick with that definition.

  • The whole science of memetics is much maligned,

  • much misunderstood, much feared.

  • But a lot of these problems can be avoided

  • by remembering the definition.

  • A meme is not equivalent to an idea.

  • It's not an idea. It's not equivalent to anything else, really.

  • Stick with the definition.

  • It's that which is imitated,

  • or information which is copied from person to person.

  • So, let's see some memes.

  • Well, you sir, you've got those glasses hung around your neck

  • in that particularly fetching way.

  • I wonder whether you invented that idea for yourself,

  • or copied it from someone else?

  • If you copied it from someone else, it's a meme.

  • And what about, oh, I can't see any interesting memes here.

  • All right everyone, who's got some interesting memes for me?

  • Oh, well, your earrings,

  • I don't suppose you invented the idea of earrings.

  • You probably went out and bought them.

  • There are plenty more in the shops.

  • That's something that's passed on from person to person.

  • All the stories that we're telling -- well, of course,

  • TED is a great meme-fest, masses of memes.

  • The way to think about memes, though,

  • is to think, why do they spread?

  • They're selfish information, they will get copied, if they can.

  • But some of them will be copied because they're good,

  • or true, or useful, or beautiful.

  • Some of them will be copied even though they're not.

  • Some, it's quite hard to tell why.

  • There's one particular curious meme which I rather enjoy.

  • And I'm glad to say, as I expected, I found it when I came here,

  • and I'm sure all of you found it, too.

  • You go to your nice, posh, international hotel somewhere,

  • and you come in and you put down your clothes

  • and you go to the bathroom, and what do you see?

  • Audience: Bathroom soap.

  • SB: Pardon?

  • Audience: Soap.

  • SB: Soap, yeah. What else do you see?

  • Audience: (Inaudible)

  • SB: Mmm mmm.

  • Audience: Sink, toilet!

  • SB: Sink, toilet, yes, these are all memes, they're all memes,

  • but they're sort of useful ones, and then there's this one.

  • (Laughter)

  • What is this one doing?

  • (Laughter)

  • This has spread all over the world.

  • It's not surprising that you all found it

  • when you arrived in your bathrooms here.

  • But I took this photograph in a toilet at the back of a tent

  • in the eco-camp in the jungle in Assam.

  • (Laughter)

  • Who folded that thing up there, and why?

  • (Laughter)

  • Some people get carried away.

  • (Laughter)

  • Other people are just lazy and make mistakes.

  • Some hotels exploit the opportunity to put even more memes

  • with a little sticker.

  • (Laughter)

  • What is this all about?

  • I suppose it's there to tell you that somebody's

  • cleaned the place, and it's all lovely.

  • And you know, actually, all it tells you is that another person

  • has potentially spread germs from place to place.

  • (Laughter)

  • So, think of it this way.

  • Imagine a world full of brains

  • and far more memes than can possibly find homes.

  • The memes are all trying to get copied --

  • trying, in inverted commas -- i.e.,

  • that's the shorthand for, if they can get copied, they will.

  • They're using you and me as their propagating, copying machinery,

  • and we are the meme machines.

  • Now, why is this important?

  • Why is this useful, or what does it tell us?

  • It gives us a completely new view of human origins

  • and what it means to be human,

  • all conventional theories of cultural evolution,

  • of the origin of humans,

  • and what makes us so different from other species.

  • All other theories explaining the big brain, and language, and tool use

  • and all these things that make us unique,

  • are based upon genes.

  • Language must have been useful for the genes.

  • Tool use must have enhanced our survival, mating and so on.

  • It always comes back, as Richard Dawkins complained

  • all that long time ago, it always comes back to genes.

  • The point of memetics is to say, "Oh no, it doesn't."

  • There are two replicators now on this planet.

  • From the moment that our ancestors,

  • perhaps two and a half million years ago or so,

  • began imitating, there was a new copying process.

  • Copying with variation and selection.

  • A new replicator was let loose, and it could never be --

  • right from the start -- it could never be

  • that human beings who let loose this new creature,

  • could just copy the useful, beautiful, true things,

  • and not copy the other things.

  • While their brains were having an advantage from being able to copy --

  • lighting fires, keeping fires going, new techniques of hunting,

  • these kinds of things --

  • inevitably they were also copying putting feathers in their hair,

  • or wearing strange clothes, or painting their faces,

  • or whatever.

  • So, you get an arms race between the genes

  • which are trying to get the humans to have small economical brains

  • and not waste their time copying all this stuff,

  • and the memes themselves, like the sounds that people made and copied --

  • in other words, what turned out to be language --

  • competing to get the brains to get bigger and bigger.

  • So, the big brain, on this theory, is driven by the memes.

  • This is why, in "The Meme Machine," I called it memetic drive.

  • As the memes evolve, as they inevitably must,

  • they drive a bigger brain that is better at copying the memes

  • that are doing the driving.

  • This is why we've ended up with such peculiar brains,

  • that we like religion, and music, and art.

  • Language is a parasite that we've adapted to,