Memetic Evolution

Most of us have a general sense of how biological evolution works. Simple organisms differentiate, mutate, and replicate. Some new traits prove to be good coping mechanisms and help organisms outlive and proliferate further than those organisms with traits ill fit for the environment. Over millions of years the biological changes that take place are increasingly complex. The survivors win. Their reward is life.

But evolution can explain more than biology. Memetic evolution, for example, happens upon almost identical lines. Simple ideas, the kind that represented simple objects or situations to our unintelligent ancestors, were encoded in spoken and pictorial languages (dubbed “memes” by Richard Dawkins). These ideas are sent from one mind to another, and just like genes, they differentiate, mutate, and replicate into other minds.

Some ideas take hold because they provide a benefit to the organism using them.  An early human who learns how to use a club has an advantage over one who hasn’t learned to use a club. A man who knows how to fashion a sword will do well in a fight against that club-wielding guy. Someone who learns how to string a bow and fire an arrow can stand back in the trees and kill the man with the sword with little risk. And the man who communicates all this information proficiently can show up with a gang of hundreds, each with a homemade bow, and so on, and so on. Now we have nuclear weapons.

As our human powers of rational thinking developed, we had an increasing ability to think abstractly, which had far-reaching benefits. Humanity went from understanding individual problems to understanding types of problems. When we figured out how to handle one type of problem, the individual problems of this type no longer required as much investment in thought. As our knowledge outgrew its abstractions, our memetic evolution accelerated exponentially. In relatively no time, our memetic, semantic, cultural reality was infinitely more complex than our biological reality.

Humanity seems like the only species with the ability to continue abstracting beyond the first few levels. Even when we teach lower primates sign language, we can prove that they think, but they tend not to read Bertrand Russell or discuss the plot of a good sitcom.

Memes replicate as aggressively as possible, just like genes. Particular genes can pass around the entire world, but it takes generations, decades of effort and luck. Ain’t nobody got time for that! By contrast, how many people know about the Sweet Brown meme since it appeared in the world?

As memes mutate and grow more complex, they push the boundaries of the semantic world outward into various specialized niches. This is obvious in our internet-soaked world culture. Nobody can keep up with all the facts of our world. Nobody can even keep track of all the relevant facts to their particular field of specialization at our current rate of memetic growth.

New insights gained from trial and error continue to expand all fields of knowledge. If you can combine ideas into something novel, you have pushed the boundary of our semantic world. Notice how ideas normally don’t just appear out of nowhere? Ideas are almost always build upon the foundations of previous ideas.

So wouldn’t it be great if there were a tool that organized memes into easily understandable fragments, and we could each curate our own stream of information so that the knowledge relevant to our interests could be scanned easily as well as studied for detail? Welcome to the world of Twitter.

Twitter acts as an exploder button for memetic evolution. Think of all the Sweet Brown remixes! But seriously, I want a genetic scientist to have all the specialized knowledge available from around the world so progress can continue. I curate my own feed and my knowledge of worthwhile writing and music and film has increased in a dramatic way. Plus it allows us to stay current, so our cultural developments remain on the cutting edge.

The internet has brought us together in unexpected ways. It’s easy to see how much time is wasted on sites like Twitter and Facebook. But it isn’t like that for everyone. Most of the gene swarm on planet Earth died off before our ancestors replicated successfully. Think of how much of Earth’s matter has been incorporated into our 7 billion neighbours. We give our particular genes a great success rate, so it’s a good thing for them that they made us. As for Twitter, could memetic evolution ask for a better medium of proliferation through human minds?

Memes, like genes, want nothing more than to replicate, and they do so in a very chaotic way until they find a best-fit pattern for the environment. We invented Twitter to share information. But our inventions are always on the shoulders of past ideas. So our semantic, memetic world has guided us to invent Twitter, the ultimate replicator (so far) for memes. Are we in the driver’s seat here, willfully directing memes for further progress, or are we being directed by our memes? And anyway, what’s the difference?

My Top 5 Spec Fiction Novels

“Speculative fiction” is used to describe a wide variety of stories including science fiction, fantasy, horror, alternate realities, and a whole host of literature that goes beyond our normal world. It is one of my favorite vehicles for storytelling because of the ability to construct worlds based on “what if” questions.

My opinions tend to shift as I grow, so any list I make is bound to change. But five spec fiction novels currently stand out in my esteem. Some of the novels below I read years ago, and some only just recently. Please drop me a line with recommendations or opinions. Here we go, in no particular order.

Valis by Philip K. DickValis

One of Philip K. Dick’s last novels, Valis is the story of Horselover Fat, a paranoid author with more than his fair share of identity problems. Mired in conspiracies and alternate realities, and with a disintegrating grip on reality, Fat goes on a quest to find Sophia, a two-year-old girl who may or may not be an incarnation of Gnostic wisdom. He is searching for the true meaning of religion, and at the same time trying to explain his life to himself.

This is a theoretical head trip that features the author himself as one of the characters. The best part of this novel is the way Dick treads the schizophrenic line between the real and unreal, conspiracy and truth, and multiple versions of the Self. You can read these themes again in PKD’s earlier (1977) and more popular novel A Scanner Darkly.

This is one of Dick’s most obliquely autobiographical novels, a literary sketchpad of ideas about what happened to him on February 3, 1974, when deep mysteries were revealed to him through a pink laser (or maybe an acid flashback). Appended to the novel are sections from his notorious Exegesis, featuring such gems as:

4) Matter is plastic in the face of Mind; and

14) The universe is information and we are stationary in it, not three-dimensional and not in space or time. The information fed to us we hypostatize into the phenomenal world.

 

Oryx and CrakeOryx and Crake by Margaret Atwood

Without a doubt, Margaret Atwood is a master of the genre. Of the pitiful few of her novels I’ve read so far, Oryx and Crake is her most accessible and brilliant.

Snowman lives in a wild ravaged by severe weather. He is savage, a relic from before the disaster, before the constant storms, unbearable sun, and new genetic humanoids who eat plants and take everything literally. He is from a life we, as readers, recognize. His world used to be like our world, may actually have been our world, in its emotions, interactions, and even technology. But now that Snowman is one of the last living pure human beings, he finds himself remembering life as it was before the disaster. As he remembers, we are carried along in a beautiful, character-driven memorial of his life up until everything changed forever.

Speculative fiction is often alluring because of the ideas it offers, of fantastic worlds and situations, future technologies and the dreams of what could be. Oryx and Crake has all this and more. This story is a powerhouse of character development. In fact, the character development never stops; Atwood takes us right inside Snowman and shows us a resoundingly human being in the center of a weird, new world. And with all her tender, human understanding, her big-thinking doesn’t suffer for it. Her world-building is remarkable, her future history is intriguing and thoughtful, and her prose is beautiful. Despite my utmost respect for Aldous Huxley, Oryx and Crake seems smarter, more grandiose, and yet subtler than Brave New World.

 

Against The Day by Thomas PynchonAgainst The Day

Against The Day is a sprawling megalith, set at the end of the 19th century, spanning thirty years and the known geographical world (as well as places only speculated about). An intricate pastiche of genres featuring dozens of characters, there is enough “speculative” stuff in here to allow it in the genre. At over 1000 pages this is Pynchon’s longest work, and it brims with such a wealth of themes, intrigues and comedy that I enjoyed simply being lost in its enormous and complex telling.

Against The Day is aptly considered metahistorical fiction because of its historical accuracy and frequent self-reflexive detours into the fantastical. In a miasma of comings and goings we meet Nikola Tesla, Franz Ferdinand, a dog named Pugnax who can communicate with the crew of an airship, a psychic detective, an anarchist dynamite terrorist addicted to his explosives, a traveling magician, and a few normal people who can be very confused at times.

Pynchon fans will recognize his trademark wit, his complex wordplay, his penchant for anarchism, pharmacological exploration, dirty sex, ridiculous names, and his ability to lead us into subtly strange cul-de-sacs of theory, only to emerge and find the world has not waited up for us. For people who have not read his work, this may not be the best to start with, but Against The Day is a novel I rate highly in just about any category.

 

Childhood's EndChildhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

Arguably history’s best science fiction writer, Arthur C. Clarke floored me with this one. With no main character to speak of, one might think the story hard to follow, but the development of ideas is so masterful here, so wise and poignant, that I was rapt the entire time.

Aliens have peacefully invaded Earth, and in doing so have brought about unprecedented peace and progress. Their motivations are vague, and the mystery is only amplified by their insistence on governing remotely, not allowing humankind to see them. When an alien is discovered at a cocktail party researching human psychical behavior, and an impromptu Ouija Board session reveals the destination of the alien’s home star, Jan Rodricks decides to stow away on their ship to discover something, anything, about them.

Meanwhile the culture on Earth undergoes a complete overhaul. When technological development creates a peaceful but artless near-utopia on Earth, citizens found New Athens, a cultural center dedicated to creative arts. But something is happening to Earth’s children, and humanity’s dreams of controlling its own destiny collapse. They are being prepared for something strange and new. By the time Jan returns home, he no longer recognizes Earth.

This beautiful, early gem of science fiction (1953) combines mystical, religious and technological transcendence to mind blowing effect.

 

The Forever War by Joe HaldemanThe Forever War

William Mandella is drafted into the United Nations Exploratory Force to combat a distant alien race. Navigation into “collapsars” makes the interstellar distances reachable in very little subjective time. But when William returns after his first successful mission, he finds decades have gone by. The culture shift is too extreme for him. Homosexuality is the new norm, promoted by world governments to curb overpopulation. William has become an outsider. He is unable to wrap his head around the technologies and ideologies that have developed in his absence. Alienated from his home planet, he re-enlists for a new wave of combat. But the more he fights, the further he finds himself from the world he once knew.

With each interstellar jump, society changes too drastically for him to cope, and his only recourse is to the life he knows—military life—with all the murder, calculated brutality, and inhumanity that comes with war. One of the only things keeping him grounded is his lover and fellow soldier Marygay. But the machinery of war is cruel and the soldiers are rarely allowed to stay in once place for any length of time. William has lost his context, lost himself, and he can only move forward.

This amazing meditation on the alienation of war is a beautifully told allegory from a man who knows what he’s talking about. This is military science fiction at its finest, and fans of hard science will be blow away by Haldeman’s innovations, even if they are fictitious. Despite the harsh reality presented in the book, there is an enduring humanity throughout. Through fabulous leaps in spacetime, William Mandella runs a gamut of anger and nihilism and ultimately reaches a kind of acceptance in the ongoing flux of war. This is a beautiful novel that nearly overwhelmed me.

Honorable Mentions:

A Scanner Darkly, Ubik, and Radio Free Albemuth by Philip K. Dick

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

Rendezvous With Rama by Arthur C. Clarke

Snow Crash by Neil Stephenson

A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin

Sirens of Titan by Kurt Vonnegut Jr.

Arbitrary Emotions

Yesterday was Remembrance Day, if I remember correctly. I’ve never been totally comfortable with this idea. Celebrating wars makes no sense to me. There are certain events in history I’m happy not to dwell on, and politically motivated mass murders are among these events. Veterans have my gratitude and respect continually; picking one hour of one day to remember them seems arbitrary to me. Maybe I’m cold because I don’t feel compelled to parcel out my emotions on a schedule.

Events like this mean to bring us together, to concentrate mass intention at one place or time. I’m not sure what this accomplishes. When I remember my lost loved ones, I invoke their company with my own memories and thoughts. Memorial events seem to honour the pain of loss. The fact that someone is dead doesn’t make him or her more worthy of appreciation. Maybe these energies would be better used avoiding wars.

“The pioneers of a war-less world are the youth who refuse military service.”

– Albert Einstein

Remembering 9/11 with a few minutes of silence on each anniversary is a strange way to remembering something horrible. It’s as though we want to believe that the numbers of certain dates have meaning, but they don’t. Sure, the attack was likely planned on 9/11 for symbolic reasons, but what is the significance of remembering this event exactly 365 days later, 366 on leap years? Astrological resonance?

Likewise, February 14th is a day like any other; it has inherently nothing to do with romantic love. Being born into a culture that celebrates Valentine’s Day is just the luck of the draw. We have as much control over when these days fall as we have over where we are born. Why is this something to celebrate? Pride in something that happened to us doesn’t make sense. In fact, I see no value in pride, but a lot of opportunity to over-inflate the ego.

I don’t understand the Pride Parade because I see no reason for pride. Is being gay an accomplishment, or something you’re born into? Being proud is not the same as being unashamed. I am unashamed of my pants, but I am not proud of them. When your buddy in high school bragged and high-fived you because he had sex with some girl—that is a level of social development we hope we grow out of. They should call the parade something else.

So what is the point of this arbitrary calendar of emotions? Are we flexing society’s emotional muscles to stay in shape? The Conspiracy Theorist in me wants to say that this government-set calendar is an attempt to sync the emotional lives of people together to make them more nationalistic, more dependable shoppers, and more predictable in the face of disasters and drastic political decisions.

On the other hand, sharing emotional moments probably helps people empathize better. Maybe the point is to flex the empathy muscle. Now that I think of it, if we all celebrated our own holidays on our own schedule, there would be a better chance your Memorial Day celebration would buzz-kill my Weekend of Absolute Hilarity.

NaNoWriMo 2014

One year ago I attempted writing a novel in a month as part of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo). It motivated me because it was essentially a contest with myself. Well, it’s November again and NaNoWriMo 2014 has begun, but I am not writing another novel this year. This morning, I finished a long, grueling edit of last year’s novel Residuum. One more polish and I’ll send it out.

50,000 words in a month felt like a steep hill to climb. Writing while working a day job meant I had only a few hours every weekday to make my word count (much more on weekends). In this sense the contest offers great training for hopeful novelists; if you can’t make your word count consistently, you will not be the next Stephen King.

My new draft sits right around 90,000 words, which is about three hundred double-spaced pages. I generally find it easier to overwrite at first and then pare down, taking out all the non-essential bits. I aimed at 50,000 last November and ended a little over 60,000 words, but I was left with the tough task of adding to my novel.

I added to Residuum because it wasn’t finished. Many subplots or themes weren’t properly developed because I was rushing to meet the deadline, and since I wanted to make this novel as good as possible, I needed time to think about those peripheral issues and develop them in a thoughtful way that integrated seamlessly with what I had already written. So I took my time. I knew my second pass would seriously fill out my page-count, but I had no idea I’d be coming up with 50% additional material.

Something I didn’t realize when I began my novel is that many speculative fiction markets won’t even accept a 50,000-word book. 75,000 seems to be the agreed-upon minimum for genre fiction, and many prefer novels 85,000 words and up. I can only imagine the disappointment some must feel when they bust their asses to finish their 50,000 word masterpieces to realize many publishers and agents won’t even look at it.

NaNoWriMo inspires people to be creative, and for that I consider it a great project. Anything that motivates people to push their creative potential nudges our world in the right direction. For someone’s first attempt at a novel, I highly recommend it. Their motivational emails and forum discussions really do make one feel like a part of something exciting. But considering that one year later I’m still working on the same novel, I don’t feel I’m missing out this year. Maybe next year.