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  • How many Creationists do we have in the room?

  • Probably none. I think we're all Darwinians.

  • And yet many Darwinians are anxious, a little uneasy --

  • would like to see some limits on just how far the Darwinism goes.

  • It's all right.

  • You know spiderwebs? Sure, they are products of evolution.

  • The World Wide Web? Not so sure.

  • Beaver dams, yes. Hoover Dam, no.

  • What do they think it is that prevents the products of human ingenuity

  • from being themselves, fruits of the tree of life,

  • and hence, in some sense, obeying evolutionary rules?

  • And yet people are interestingly resistant

  • to the idea of applying evolutionary thinking to thinking -- to our thinking.

  • And so I'm going to talk a little bit about that,

  • keeping in mind that we have a lot on the program here.

  • So you're out in the woods, or you're out in the pasture,

  • and you see this ant crawling up this blade of grass.

  • It climbs up to the top, and it falls,

  • and it climbs, and it falls, and it climbs --

  • trying to stay at the very top of the blade of grass.

  • What is this ant doing? What is this in aid of?

  • What goals is this ant trying to achieve by climbing this blade of grass?

  • What's in it for the ant?

  • And the answer is: nothing. There's nothing in it for the ant.

  • Well then, why is it doing this?

  • Is it just a fluke?

  • Yeah, it's just a fluke. It's a lancet fluke.

  • It's a little brain worm.

  • It's a parasitic brain worm that has to get into the stomach of a sheep or a cow

  • in order to continue its life cycle.

  • Salmon swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds,

  • and lancet flukes commandeer a passing ant,

  • crawl into its brain, and drive it up a blade of grass like an all-terrain vehicle.

  • So there's nothing in it for the ant.

  • The ant's brain has been hijacked by a parasite that infects the brain,

  • inducing suicidal behavior.

  • Pretty scary.

  • Well, does anything like that happen with human beings?

  • This is all on behalf of a cause other than one's own genetic fitness, of course.

  • Well, it may already have occurred to you

  • that Islam means "surrender," or "submission of self-interest to the will of Allah."

  • Well, it's ideas -- not worms -- that hijack our brains.

  • Now, am I saying that a sizable minority of the world's population

  • has had their brain hijacked by parasitic ideas?

  • No, it's worse than that.

  • Most people have.

  • (Laughter)

  • There are a lot of ideas to die for.

  • Freedom, if you're from New Hampshire.

  • (Laughter)

  • Justice. Truth. Communism.

  • Many people have laid down their lives for communism,

  • and many have laid down their lives for capitalism.

  • And many for Catholicism. And many for Islam.

  • These are just a few of the ideas that are to die for.

  • They're infectious.

  • Yesterday, Amory Lovins spoke about "infectious repititis."

  • It was a term of abuse, in effect.

  • This is unthinking engineering.

  • Well, most of the cultural spread that goes on

  • is not brilliant, new, out-of-the-box thinking.

  • It's "infectious repetitis,"

  • and we might as well try to have a theory of what's going on when that happens

  • so that we can understand the conditions of infection.

  • Hosts work hard to spread these ideas to others.

  • I myself am a philosopher, and one of our occupational hazards

  • is that people ask us what the meaning of life is.

  • And you have to have a bumper sticker,

  • you know. You have to have a statement.

  • So, this is mine.

  • The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are

  • and dedicate your life to it.

  • Most of us -- now that the "Me Decade" is well in the past --

  • now we actually do this.

  • One set of ideas or another

  • have simply replaced our biological imperatives in our own lives.

  • This is what our summum bonum is.

  • It's not maximizing the number of grandchildren we have.

  • Now, this is a profound biological effect.

  • It's the subordination of genetic interest to other interests.

  • And no other species does anything at all like it.

  • Well, how are we going to think about this?

  • It is, on the one hand, a biological effect, and a very large one.

  • Unmistakable.

  • Now, what theories do we want to use to look at this?

  • Well, many theories. But how could something tie them together?

  • The idea of replicating ideas;

  • ideas that replicate by passing from brain to brain.

  • Richard Dawkins, whom you'll be hearing later in the day, invented the term "memes,"

  • and put forward the first really clear and vivid version of this idea

  • in his book "The Selfish Gene."

  • Now here am I talking about his idea.

  • Well, you see, it's not his. Yes -- he started it.

  • But it's everybody's idea now.

  • And he's not responsible for what I say about memes.

  • I'm responsible for what I say about memes.

  • Actually, I think we're all responsible

  • for not just the intended effects of our ideas,

  • but for their likely misuses.

  • So it is important, I think, to Richard, and to me,

  • that these ideas not be abused and misused.

  • They're very easy to misuse. That's why they're dangerous.

  • And it's just about a full-time job

  • trying to prevent people who are scared of these ideas

  • from caricaturing them and then running off to one dire purpose or another.

  • So we have to keep plugging away,

  • trying to correct the misapprehensions

  • so that only the benign and useful variants of our ideas continue to spread.

  • But it is a problem.

  • We don't have much time, and I'm going to go over just a little bit of this and cut out,

  • because there's a lot of other things that are going to be said.

  • So let me just point out: memes are like viruses.

  • That's what Richard said, back in '93.

  • And you might think, "Well, how can that be?

  • I mean, a virus is -- you know, it's stuff! What's a meme made of?"

  • Yesterday, Negroponte was talking about viral telecommunications

  • but -- what's a virus?

  • A virus is a string of nucleic acid with attitude.

  • (Laughter)

  • That is, there is something about it

  • that tends to make it replicate better than the competition does.

  • And that's what a meme is. It's an information packet with attitude.

  • What's a meme made of? What are bits made of, Mom?

  • Not silicon.

  • They're made of information, and can be carried in any physical medium.

  • What's a word made of?

  • Sometimes when people say, "Do memes exist?"

  • I say, "Well, do words exist? Are they in your ontology?"

  • If they are, words are memes that can be pronounced.

  • Then there's all the other memes that can't be pronounced.

  • There are different species of memes.

  • Remember the Shakers? Gift to be simple?

  • Simple, beautiful furniture?

  • And, of course, they're basically extinct now.

  • And one of the reasons is that among the creed of Shaker-dom

  • is that one should be celibate.

  • Not just the priests. Everybody.

  • Well, it's not so surprising that they've gone extinct. (Laughter)

  • But in fact that's not why they went extinct.

  • They survived as long as they did

  • at a time when the social safety nets weren't there.

  • And there were lots of widows and orphans,

  • people like that, who needed a foster home.

  • And so they had a ready supply of converts.

  • And they could keep it going.

  • And, in principle, it could've gone on forever,

  • with perfect celibacy on the part of the hosts.

  • The idea being passed on through proselytizing,

  • instead of through the gene line.

  • So the ideas can live on in spite of the fact

  • that they're not being passed on genetically.

  • A meme can flourish in spite of having a negative impact on genetic fitness.

  • After all, the meme for Shaker-dom was essentially a sterilizing parasite.

  • There are other parasites that do this -- which render the host sterile.

  • It's part of their plan.

  • They don't have to have minds to have a plan.

  • I'm just going to draw your attention to just one

  • of the many implications of the memetic perspective, which I recommend.

  • I've not time to go into more of it.

  • In Jared Diamond's wonderful book, "Guns, Germs and Steel,"

  • he talks about how it was germs, more than guns and steel,

  • that conquered the new hemisphere -- the Western hemisphere --

  • that conquered the rest of the world.

  • When European explorers and travelers spread out,

  • they brought with them the germs

  • that they had become essentially immune to,

  • that they had learned how to tolerate over

  • hundreds and hundreds of years, thousands of years,

  • of living with domesticated animals who were the sources of those pathogens.

  • And they just wiped out -- these pathogens just wiped out the native people,

  • who had no immunity to them at all.

  • And we're doing it again.

  • We're doing it this time with toxic ideas.