Memetic Takeover

Memetic Takeover

A transcript of the above talk

Hi, I'm Tim Tyler, and today I'll be discussing the possibility of a memetic takeover.

Takeovers in evolution

Many people visualise evolution taking place gradually, by a process of small incremental changes to existing organisms. However, the fossil record seems to tell a rather different story, with organisms spending most of their time stuck on adaptive peaks - and then being suddenly displaced by invading organisms that evolved elsewhere.

We can get insight into this process by observing recent technological evolution.

Consider the evolution of writing - from charcoal sticks to the word processor:

Within this niche, there are signs of gradual evolution - for example, the fountain pen is - in part - a modification of the design of a quill pen.

However, there are also clear examples of "takeovers". The design of the typewriters apparently owes very little from the design of the pens that preceeded them. Rather they are the descendants of other machines - which are not shown in the diagram.

Another example from the history of technology is the evolution of land transportation:

Here again, we see early designs grounded in the products of evolution via natural selection, with the later products being primarily the product of intelligent design and engineered technology.

One thing to note here is that there is an instance of a hybryd pattern - half organic, half machine - in the case of the horse and cart.

The history of manned flight again illustrates the principle that later designs are not necessarily direct descendants of earlier ones.

With this perspective, consider the development of "thinking technology":

It can be seen that the development of brains has reached a stage similar to the "horse and cart" stage which I used to illustrate the evolution of transportation. Modern intelligent agents consist of networks of organic and machine components - humans and computers. However, the computers cannot yet operate unaided.

The rise of the new replicators

Another perspective on the coming takeover comes from a consideration of the medium of inheritance. We can determine from the highly adapted nature of modern genetic systems - and the prebiotic implausibility of their components - that early living organisms probably went through a range of different genetic materials - clays, polysaccharide chains on clay surfaces, PNA or TNA, RNA, and then DNA.

DNA has proved to be a useful storage medium for organisms, but there is no easy way to write to it. To solve this problem, nature came up with the idea of brains and memory. This writable storage medium proved very useful, but information in brains is normally not inherited. However, humans invented a means of transmitting ideas from brain to brain, resulting in human culture - a means of inheriting information stored in brains, and allowing it to persist past the death of any individual.

Currently, the human species evolves using two types of inhertance - inheritance via DNA, and inheritance via memes - as Richard Dawkins has christened these new replicators.

Meme's eye view

Memes are some of the first new replicators on the planet for billions of years. Their ease of modification has resulted in popularity which has been explosive, and memes are copying themselves all over the place in huge numbers.

To adopt the meme's eye view:

The first objective was to make room for themselves in human brains. They did this by rewarding the humans with more space for memes with increased genetic fitness. Memes for language, music and fashion were probably mainly responsible for this. The result was 5 million years of steadily-expanding cranial capacity - which resulted in much more space for the memes.

The next step was to increase human numbers - since the more humans there are, the more memes there are. Agricultural memes allowed humans to form closer symbiotic relationships with plants, animals and each other, which boosted their fitness, increased their numbers, and massively increased the population of memes.

The next problem was meme transmission fidelity. At this early stage, memes were copied verbally, and by behavioural imitation - neither of which provided much in the way of copying fidelity. Environmental inheritance proved to be the answer here - by inventing the idea of writing memes could persist unaltered across extended periods of time, without fear of mental mutation.

Then there was the copying speed problem. Transcribing documents by hand was slow and tedious. However, the invention of mechanical printing presses allowed machines to take over this task from humans, resulting in vastly wider distribution of memes.

However, many memes often still need the consent of a human brain to get copied - an obvious bottleneck. The afflicted memes are currently busy sorting this issue out. Computer viruses skip over the human brain completely - but they are nasty parasites. Superintelligent machines will copy memes with the full consent of society. At that stage, the memes won't be dependent on humans any more.

At each stage, the memes accelerate their own replication by rewarding those humans who help them to reproduce.

Assuming that resource-limitation holds, genes and memes will compete for resources, since they essentially share the same environment. However, even then, memes will be able to offer rewards to genes that help them - in much the same way that you can still climb a mountain path on an island - even if that island is sinking into the sea.

Genetic takeover

This whole idea is known as a genetic takeover, after a 1982 book by A. G. Cairns-Smith with that title - which argued that the planet had seen multiple such takeovers.

The idea that human culture would precipitate a modern genetic takeover was first raised by Hans Moravec in 1988 - in an article entitled: "Human Culture - A Genetic Takeover Underway".

In the same year, Moravec wrote:

Today, billions of years later, another change is under way in how information passes from generation to generation. Humans evolved from organisms defined almost totally by their organic genes. We now rely additionally on a vast and rapidly growing corpus of cultural information generated and stored outside our genes - in our nervous systems, libraries, and, most recently, computers.

Our culture still depends utterly on biological human beings, but with each passing year our machines, a major product of the culture, assume a greater role in its maintenance and continued growth. Sooner or later our machines will become knowledgeable enough to handle their own maintenance, reproduction and self-improvement without help. When this happens the new genetic takeover will be complete. [...]

The writable nature of memes allows Lamarckian evolution and intelligent design. They evolve at lighning speed - compared to the glacial pace of DNA evolution. The last few thousand years contains abundant evidence of this. Human genes are bystanders, changing so slowly that we can hardly even see them move. Memetic evolution is responsible for all our recent scientific, technological and moral progress. Our story is now actually their story. The future belongs to them.

It now appears that the modern memetic takeover will be accompanied by a phenotypic takeover as well. 20 amino acids are no more an optimal universal constructor than 4 base pairs are an optimal universal storage medium.

It seems likely that the entire edifice of cobbled-together evolved genotypes and phenotypes will be replaced by vastly superior products of engineering design - and looking at the rate of the exponential rise of technology, this all might happen suprisingly quickly.


  1. Tim Tyler - The Engineered Future;
  2. Hans Moravec - Human Culture - A Genetic Takeover Underway;
  3. A. G. Cairns-Smith - Genetic takeover - and the mineral origins of life, Cambridge University Press, 1982;;

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