The Speculist: How About "Demes?"

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How About "Demes?"

Susan Blackmore says that evolution has a third kind of replicator, following on the heels of genes and memes, and that this new replicator needs a name. Blackmore is one of the big names in memetics, having written one of the most elaborate and well though-out books on the subject.

In her recent essay in New Scientist, she reviews how the first replicator, genes, enabled the incredible wealth of biodiversity that our planet enjoys. This was followed by the second replicator, memes, which -- coupled with the first -- enabled the evolution of human intelligence (which she claims is not only greater than, but of a different kind from any other variety of intelligence) as well as the emergence of human civilization. Now she believes a third replicator has emerged:

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.

Just as genes took over the process of evolution and memes have been the driving force behind human civilization, Blackmore asserts that these new digital replicators are driving the emergence of something entirely new. For now, humanity and this new entity exist in a symbiotic relationship, but that may not always be the case:

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; 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.

I take encouragement from the fact that, all these billions of years later, we are still carrying mitochondria around with us. This suggests to me that such a symbiotic relationship can be long-term or even permanent. One might ask whether eventually the digital technology and its new kind of replicator -- "demes," perhaps? -- will be subsumed into something called "humanity" or whether humanity eventually becomes a small working piece of something much larger.

Recognizing that the word "humanity" can be used in more than one sense, maybe both will be true.

Comments

"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; 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."

Let accelerating technology run its course. As it grows more precise and smaller, it will itself become far more energy efficient, and will make everything it's embedded in more energy efficient.

Those percentage also ignore the fact that other devices have already become much more energy efficient, and so are using a smaller percentage of energy sources.

The only reason high tech is eating a larger percentage of energy sources at such a rapidly increasing clip is because these devices have burst on the scene so recently.

It's not the disease;it's the cure.

I believe that the type of symbiotic relationship described here is the most likely avenue to successfully achieve the Technological Singularity. Continuing Sally Morem's observation, such a course of development provides its own framework within which to achieve "friendly AI" as well, if only as a derivative of IA technology precedence.

Sally said,

"Let accelerating technology run its course. As it grows more precise and smaller, it will itself become far more energy efficient, and will make everything it's embedded in more energy efficient."

That is very insightful. I am suddenly thinking about nanotechnology that gets inserted into one generation, replicates itself within the body in addition to performing its intended function and then passes its replicates onto future generations by dwelling within reproductive cells. One day man get a nanobot from each parent along with the dual genetic material now passed on.

This reminds me of Metaman, which I enjoyed back in the 90's.

"Deme" already has a meaning in population biology -- "breeding pool" is a reasonable approximation; technically, it's a population of individuals who are apt to marry and breed with one aother, on the order of a thousand people or so.

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