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English review - The Replicators Are Coming

Susan Blackmore is a psychologist, lecturer, writer and a Visiting Professor at the University of Plymotuh (UK); after a disappointing and forsaken research in parapsychology, she turned to the studies of consciousness, memes and anomalous experiences, which earned her a well deserved fame. Her book The Meme Machine has been translated in 16 languages, in Conversation of Consciousness she interviews, amongst other great minds, philosophers such as Daniel Dennett, and in her latest publication, Seeing Myself, she dives into the world of out of body experiences.

One thing that was immediately clear when she walked on the stage in the Grotius Builduing’s lecture hall was that her lively attitude, and her brilliance and humour enaibled her to keep the numerous audience focused and entertained without any effort. Her lecture was then followed by a brief discussion with Pim Haselager, a philosopher specialized in Artificial Intelligence at Radboud University and the Donders Institute.

The Best Idea That Anybody Ever Had

Who designed nature, culture, technology? According to Blackmore the answer to this questions is given to us by Darwin, who, in the Origin of Species, came up with “the best idea anybody ever had”: if creatures vary, if there is a struggle to survive, and if the few survivors pass on what helped them to survive, the resulting next generation will be better adapted than the previous one. The greatness of the idea is that once you understand evolution, you see that it’s inevitable, and once you see that it’s inevitable, then you can apply it to everything: according to Universal Darwinism, evolutionary algorithms design everything in the universe, without the need for any designing mind.

The Selfish Gene

In The Selfish Gene (1976), Richard Dawkins stressed the generality of the evolutionary process by explaining how genes are only one example of what he called ‘replicators’, that is, information copied with variation and selection. But when humans pass information to one another through their unique ability of imitation, we find a second type of replicator: memes are “a unit of cultural transmission or a unit of imitation”. Anything that is imitated by humans, ranging from ideas to songs to riding bikes, is a meme.

Memes

As genes themselves, memes are selfish replicators: they get copied whenever they can and without any concern for the consequences (for us, their carriers, for the planet, and so on). In the competition for survival, memes use humans, the meme machines, for their own copying agenda: through fidelity, fecundity and longevity of copies, memes determine their success, regardless of their being useful, useless or falsely promising.

A New Menace: Tremes

Are genes and memes the end of the story, or might there be a third replicator out in the world? Blackmore’s suspicion is that digital information processed in silicon-based machinery is a valid candidate for the role, being it copied, varied and selected out of human control. Indeed, in the era of Artificial Intelligence, the copying feauture of digital information is evident; moreover, algorithms capable of learning through feedback and adjusting themselves have been invented; finally, internet ads selections are no more in the hands of humans but, once again, are the result of mindless algorithms. It thus seems that we found a third type of replicators: tremes.

Selfish Tremes

The question that we must ask ourselves is: who is going to benefit from this new type of replication? Unfortunately, it might not be us. As genes and memes before them, tremes are selfish, and, for our own good, we must think about the consequences. The problem is, says Blackmore, we might be worried about the wrong things: we are afraid of some intelligence that we imagine being trapped in a robot, in the same way we see ourselves as intelligent entities closed inside brains. On the contrary, human intelligence is not a unity, but an ensemble of things we can do that came about gradually by biological and memetic evolution; moreveor, global intelligence is now evolving in a massive scale, distributing itself globally, while humans, driven by a greed for digital information, provide machines with the ability to reproduce themselves faster and faster, and this process, which is out of our control, requires more and more energy.

It Doesn’t Have To Be A Treme Apocalypse

Are we doomed to an unstoppable treme replication that might lead us to our own destruction? Not necessarily: in the discussion with Haselagar and the audience, many questions were raised on how to contrast this dangerous trend. Solutions might not be ready at hand as we would like them to be, but Blackmore’s hope is that by focusing correctly on the problem, as she explained, we can finally move in the direction to solve it.

Don’t Be Afraid

In conclusion, let us not be scared, but rather aware of Universal Darwinism: in addition to genes and memes, tremes are worryingly taking part in the competition of evolutionary survival, a competition where players do not care about human-regarding consequences. Nevertheless, understanding the problem is the first part of the solution, and it is not yet the time to lose hope. Finally, we are not battling against a semi-organism creature that, according to Haselager, seems to emerge from an over-anthropomorphizing of treme evolution: Blackmore explains that, just as in the case of human brains, what is described is a distributive machine that mindlessly processes information, by taking inputs and throwing outputs. If there is anything anthropomorphic here to be found, it is only because of our fallacious understanding of human intelligence.

This report was written by Josephine Pascoe, as part of the Research Master Philosophy of the Radboud University.