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Evolutions third replicator

• 31 July 2009 by Susan Blackmore

WE HUMANS have let loose something extraordinary on our planet - a third replicator - the
consequences of which are unpredictable and possibly dangerous.
What do I mean by "third replicator"? The first replicator was the gene - the basis of biological
evolution. The second was memes - the basis of cultural evolution. I believe that what we are
now seeing, in a vast technological explosion, is the birth of a third evolutionary process. We are
Earth's Pandoran species, yet we are blissfully oblivious to what we have let out of the box.
This might sound apocalyptic, but it is how the world looks when we realise that Darwin's
principle of evolution by natural selection need not apply just to biology. Given some kind of
copying machinery that makes lots of slightly different copies of the same information, and given
that only a few of those copies survive to be copied again, an evolutionary process must occur
and design will appear out of destruction. You might call it "design by death" since clever
designs thrive because of the many failures that don't.
The information that is copied, varied and selected is called the replicator, and the process is well
understood when applied to biology. Genes are copied, mutated and selected over and over
again. Assemblages of genes are used to build vehicles that carry them around, protect them and
propagate them. These vehicles - the lumbering robots, as Richard Dawkins calls them - are
animals and plants, the prolific and exquisitely designed products of the first replicator.
About 4 billion years after the appearance of the first replicator, something extraordinary
happened. Members of one species of lumbering robot began to imitate one another. Imitation is
a kind of copying, and so a new evolutionary process was born. Instead of cellular chemistry
copying the order of bases on DNA, a sociable species of bipedal ape began to use its big brain
to copy gestures, sounds and other behaviours. This copying might not have been very accurate,
but it was enough to start a new evolutionary process. Dawkins called the new replicators
"memes". A living creature, once just a vehicle of the first replicator, was now the copying
machinery for the next.
The idea of memes as a cultural analogue of genes has been much maligned, and most biologists
still reject it. Yet memetics has much to offer in explaining human nature. According to meme
theory, humans are radically different from all other species because we alone are meme
machines. Human intelligence is not just a bit more or a bit better than other kinds of
intelligence, it is something completely different, based on a new evolutionary process and a new
kind of information.
The main difference between conventional theories and memetics is this: most biologists assume
that culture and language evolved because they helped humans survive and pass on their genes,
and that genes retain ultimate control. Memetics challenges that assumption. Although the
capacity for imitation must once have been adaptive for the apes who started it, evolution has no
foresight and could not have predicted the consequences of letting loose a new evolutionary
process. Nor could it have retained control of memes once they began evolving in their own
So memes began to proliferate. What began as an adaptation soon became like a parasite - a new
evolving entity that changed the apes and their world forever. Once memes were proliferating,
individuals benefited from copying the latest and most successful ones, and then passed on any
genes that helped them do so. This "memetic drive" forced their brains to get bigger and bigger,
and to become adept at copying the most successful memes, eventually leading to language, art,
music, ritual and religion - the successful designs of human culture.
This process was dangerous. Small brains are much more efficient if you don't have to copy
anything, but once memes are around you cannot survive unless you do. So brains had to get
bigger, and big brains are costly to produce, dangerous to give birth to and expensive to run.
There is also danger in what is copied. If you start copying anything at all then you might copy
dangerous memes, like throwing yourself off a cliff or using up all your resources in pointless
rituals. This creates an arms race between two selfish replicators - memes benefiting from brains
that copy anything and everything; genes benefiting from brains that are smaller, more efficient
and highly selective.
Either of these dangers might have finished our ancestors off, but they pulled through. The result
was a compromise, with human brains being just about as big as our bodies could stand, and yet
selective enough to avoid copying lethal memes. In the same way that parasites tend to co-evolve
with their hosts to become less lethal, so memes co-evolved with us. Languages, religions, skills
and fashions that began as parasites turned into symbionts. Not only do we get along with our
memes now, we could not live without them.
There was also a cost to the rest of life on Earth. Wherever they went humans took memes with
them, spreading agriculture and changing the landscape, obliterating some species, domesticating
others and changing whole ecosystems. Then, much more recently, they began to build radically
new kinds of technology, and the changes they effected dwarfed anything that had gone before.
Was this just more of the same or something new?
In all my previous work in memetics I have used the term "meme" to apply to any information
that is copied between people, including stories in books, ideas embodied in new technology,
websites and so on. The reason was that there seemed no way of distinguishing between
"natural" human memes, such as spoken words, habits, fashions, art and religions, and what we
might call "artificial" memes, such as websites and high-tech goods. So on the grounds that a
false distinction is worse than none I stuck to the term "meme". Yet an email encrypted in digital
code, broken into tiny packets and beamed around the planet does seem qualitatively different
from someone shaking hands and saying "Hi". Could there be a fundamental principle lurking
here? If we ask what made memes different from genes, would that help us decide what would
make a new replicator different from memes?
Putting it that way makes the answer easier to see. Memes are a new kind of information -
behaviours rather than DNA - copied by a new kind of machinery - brains rather than chemicals
inside cells. This is a new evolutionary process because all of the three critical stages - copying,
varying and selection - are done by those brains. So does the same apply to new technology?
There is a new kind of information: electronically processed binary information rather than
memes. There is also a new kind of copying machinery: computers and servers rather than
brains. But are all three critical stages carried out by that machinery?
We're close. We may even be right on the cusp. Think of programs that write original poetry or
cobble together new student essays, or programs that store information about your shopping
preferences and suggest books or clothes you might like next. They may be limited in scope,
dependent on human input and send their output to human brains, but they copy, select and
recombine the information they handle.
Machines now copy information to other machines without human intervention
Or think of Google. It copies information, selects what it needs and puts the selections together
in new variations - that's all three. The temptation is to think that since we designed search
engines and other technologies for our own use they must remain subservient to us. But if a new
replicator is involved we must think again. Search results go not only to screens for people to
look at, but to other programs, commercial applications and even viruses - that's machines
copying information to other machines without the intervention of a human brain. From there,
we should expect the system to grow rapidly beyond our control and for our role in it to change.
We should also expect design to appear spontaneously, and it does. Much of the content on the
web is now designed automatically by machines rather than people.
The temptation is to think that technology we designed must remain subservient to us - but think
Memes work differently from genes, and digital information works differently from memes, but
some general principles apply to them all. The accelerating expansion, the increasing complexity,
and the improving interconnectivity of all three are signs that the same fundamental design
process is driving them all. Road networks look like vascular systems, and both look like
computer networks, because interconnected systems outcompete isolated systems. The internet
connects billions of computers in trillions of ways, just as a human brain connects billions of
neurons in trillions of ways. Their uncanny resemblance is because they are doing a similar job.
So where do we go from here? We humans were vehicles for the first replicator and copying
machinery for the second. What will we be for the third? For now we seem to have handed over
most of the storage and copying duties to our new machines, but we still do much of the
selection, which is why the web is so full of sex, drugs, food, music and entertainment. But the
balance is shifting.
Last year Google announced that the web had passed the trillion mark, with more than
1,000,000,000,000 unique URLs. Many countries now have nearly as many computers as people,
and if you count phones and other connected gadgets they far outnumber people. Even if we all
spent all day reading this stuff it would expand faster than we could keep up.
Billions of years ago, free-living bacteria are thought to have become incorporated into living
cells as energy-providing mitochondria. Both sides benefited from the deal. Perhaps the same is
happening to us now. The growing web of machines we let loose needs us to run the power
stations, build the factories that make the computers, and repair things when they go wrong - and
will do for some time yet. In return we get entertainment, tedious tasks done for us, facts at the
click of a mouse and as much communication as we can ask for. It's a deal we are not likely to
turn down.
Yet this shift to a new replicator may be a dangerous tipping point. Our ancestors could have
killed themselves off with their large brains and dangerous memes, but they pulled through. This
time the danger is to the whole planet. Gadgets like phones and PCs are already using 15 per cent
of household power and rising (New Scientist, 23 May, p 17); the web is using over 5 per cent of
the world's entire power and rising. We blame ourselves for climate change and resource
depletion, but perhaps we should blame this new evolutionary process that is greedy, selfish and
utterly blind to the consequences of its own expansion. We at least have the advantage that we
can understand what is happening. That must be the first step towards working out what, if
anything, to do about it.
Your ideas: Help find a name for the third replicator
Replicators on other planets?
We are able to ask the question "Are we alone in the universe?" because our ancestors created
memes, turning Earth into a "two replicator", or R2, planet, rich in language and culture. We are
able to contemplate communicating with other worlds because Earth is fast becoming an R3
planet, rich in digital technology that passes information around at the speed of light, and with
the potential to send it out into the galaxy. How many other planets have taken a similar course?
And why haven't we heard from them yet?
The standard approach to answering that question focuses on the search for extraterrestrial
intelligence. In 1961 Frank Drake proposed his famous equation for estimating the number of
intelligent civilisations capable of communicating with us in our own galaxy. It includes the rate
of star formation, the fraction of stars with planets, the fraction of planets that can sustain life
and the fraction that get intelligent life and then technology.
Perhaps intelligence and civilisation are not what we should be concentrating on. My analysis
based on Universal Darwinism suggests that instead we should be looking for R3 planets. The
number of those in our galaxy will depend on the probability of a planet getting a stable first
replicator, then a second, and then a third. Maybe each step is hard, or maybe each is easy but
dangerous. This new and simpler equation won't tell us the answers, but by posing new questions
it may help us understand why - so far - we have not heard from anyone else out there.
Susan Blackmore is a writer and psychologist based in Devon, UK