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?