The Scientific Indian

Genes, Memes, hos, Hums

There is, I must say, a rather unconventional article in New Scientist called Evolution’s third replicator: Genes, memes, and now what? by Susan Blackmore about … what’s the word I am looking for…hmm.. Human Culture + Technology.

Susan suggests that we have unleashed a technoculture goo. Remember Eric Drexler’s Engines of Creation? Something like that–with mixed metaphors but without the encumbrances of technical nitty-gritty that Drexler had. So, what’s this goo? Let Susan explain, because however hard I tried I could not write a summary (and I tried very hard, trust me).

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.

There is much muddling through in the article. At one points Susan argues

“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 right.

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 is a strawman doing a hand-waving. The Strawman: Evolution retains control. Hand waving: Memes became parasites. It is unclear what Susan means by ‘control’. There are constraints on an evolving thing, but there is nothing exercising ‘control’. There are quite a few things that are unclear in the essay. I am afraid this lack of clarity is not simply in the use of language but in the notion of ‘third replicator’ itself. I hope I am wrong. But, until I am proven so, I’ll take these ideas with a large dose of scepticism.

The broader problem with the essay is that it is all rather too speculative. The article can’t be understood as a scientific argument and should not have been pitched as one.


  1. #1 Sri
    August 19, 2009

    The article doesn’t claim it is a scientific theory, I would think it is a conjecture. Remember even DNA and quantum theory would have started as speculation too.
    Meme itself is not an accepted idea by many mainstream scientifist, but this only indicates that social sciences can not have “provability” as theories in natural sciences do. Just look at economics and pyschology, the so called sciences..

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