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Memes, minds and imagination


In Imaginative Minds (Proceedings of the British Academy)
Ed by Ilona Roth. Oxford University Press

This is a draft of my chapter. It was slightly edited before publication

Two assumptions are often made about the human capacity for creative imagination: first, that it evolved because it serves a biological function; second, that consciousness is necessary for or is the driving force behind it. I suggest that both of these assumptions are false. I shall argue, instead, that human creativity, like biological creativity, is the result of an evolutionary process, but one based on memes rather than genes. Once our hominid ancestors were capable of imitation, a new replicator was let loose and evolved, driving human brains to become ever better at copying, storing and recombining memes. This coevolution between the memes and their copying machinery led to modern imaginative minds which have evolved, not primarily because they were biologically adaptive, but because they were advantageous for the memes. The driving force behind human creativity is not therefore consciousness, but the power of the evolutionary algorithm. Its function is not biological but memetic.

Introduction

The human imagination is a fount of creativity.  We can imagine things that we have never seen or heard, imagine multiple possible outcomes of events that have not yet happened, and even imagine things that are impossible in the real world. Sometimes we put these imaginings into action and change the world we live in. Humans appear to be unique in this capacity for creativity and imagination. This is not to say that these abilities came out of nowhere. Clearly they did not. Most animals are capable of learning, and arguably both classical and operant conditioning involve some capacity for imagination. For example, my cat deciding whether to go out has learned what lies outside, the blackbird on the lawn has learned that the cats lurk behind the hedge, and even the pestilential snail has a simple mental map of the garden. Whether they can all be said to “imagine” the garden is a moot point, but they certainly store information about it for making decisions.

In a big step up from ordinary learning, some species display insight in their capacity for solving novel  problems. For example, New Caledonian crows use and make tools in the wild, and in captivity have been shown to solve problems requiring invention. One crow, provided with straight wire, spontaneously bent it into a hook to retrieve food from a narrow container (Weir, Chappell and Kacelnik 2002 ). Whether this counts as imagination or not is a tricky question, but apparently she was able to consider the consequences of using different shaped wires for the task and act accordingly. Although most primates are probably incapable of such feats, some apes use tools, and chimpanzees not only use and make tools but also have simple cultures, passing on ways of getting food or water, or using tools (Whiten et al 1999).

All these skills may have been available to our hominid ancestors, but modern humans are different. Turner (this symposium) calls this the “grand difference”. Jacob Bronowski referred to the “specifically human gift” for calling to mind the recollection of absent things. Our minds are constantly busy with ideas, suppositions, and plans. We use language with its infinite capacity for creative recombination. And we have created vast cultures that have not only spread around the whole planet but are so powerful that they are changing that planet itself and interfering with every ecosystem. As Mithen points out (this volume), this development has had deleterious as well as beneficial effects for humankind. Essential to this extraordinary development is not only the capacity for learning, but the ability to play with ideas in the mind – to try out new combinations and imagine their consequences. This is the sense in which I shall use the term “imagination”.

Human culture, and its continuing evolution, depend on this capacity for recombination. For culture to evolve two abilities are critical: its carriers must be able to accurately copy the inventions or discoveries of others, otherwise existing design features will be lost; and they must be able to combine them in novel ways, otherwise culture remains static. We humans are remarkably good at both, and we now sustain extraordinarily complex cultural evolution. But why?

Why do we have imaginative minds? Why are we so creative? Indeed why do we have culture at all? The answer is usually taken to be obvious – that culture, creativity and imagination have evolved because they are biologically adaptive. I suggest that this answer is wrong and that there is a better alternative.

The function of imagination and culture

Most theories start with a simple assumption; that imagination must have served a biological function. In this view, early hominids with a better capacity for imagination would have had a reproductive advantage and so passed on genes for that ability. In this way genes underlying imaginative capacity would have spread, leading ultimately to the human imaginative mind. For example, Wilson claims that “innovation is a concrete biological process” (Wilson, 1998 p 236), and such arguments are common in evolutionary psychology (Pinker 1997). Mithen (1996 and this symposium) presents a more complex account. His seven steps involve several different processes, and he emphasises the importance of culture and the extended mind, but his underlying assumption is that the human imagination evolved because it was biologically adaptive.

Similar arguments can be applied to the products of imagination. Theories of gene-culture co-evolution treat human artefacts as aspects of their phenotype, and consider their adaptive value in terms of their effect on gene frequencies. For example, Cavalli-Sforza and Feldman treat “cultural activity as an extension of Darwinian fitness” (1981, p 362) and on Wilson’s famous “leash principle”, “genetic natural selection operates in such a way as to keep culture on a leash.” (Lumsden and Wilson 1981 p 13). More recently, Miller (2000) argues that the human mind was shaped by sexual selection, with cultural products such as art, music or science acting as sexual displays; for him these cultural products are also aspects of the human phenotype, and are more like peacocks’ tails than independently evolving systems. In this symposium, Boyer asks whether cultural products are themselves adaptations. The only alternative he offers is that they are mere by-products constrained only by relevance.

There is, however, another possibility – that all these cultural products are part of a new evolving system that is piggy-backing on the old: the “grand difference” is not explicable entirely in biological terms because we humans are the products of two replicators not one – of memes as well as genes. In this alternative view, culture is seen to have evolved for its own sake, rather than for the benefit of us or our genes.

Memes as replicators

A replicator is defined as information that is copied with variation and selection (Dawkins 1976). The concept arises from the principles of universal Darwinism, according to which evolution must occur whenever there is variation, selection and heredity. In other words, evolution happens whenever something is copied, multiple copies are made with variations, and only some of the variants survive to be copied again (Dawkins 1976, Dennett 1995). This iterative process produces design whose function is the replication of that information. This is what is meant by the concept of “selfish replicators”.  Our most familiar replicator is the gene, but in 1976 Dawkins speculated about the possibility of other replicators and pointed out that, in culture, information is copied between people by imitation and teaching, and is subject to variation and selection. He called this new replicator the meme (to rhyme with gene);  examples include stories, songs, games, financial systems, scientific theories, music and the arts. The root definition of a meme is “that which is imitated” ( from the Greek “mimeme”, but see Aunger 2001, Blackmore 1998). In other words, a meme is not some independently existing ethereal entity: it is whatever it is that people copy between each other, or to and from artefacts such as books, images or computers.

There has been much disagreement over whether memes fit the requirements for being a replicator. For example, Sperber (2000) queries the nature of the copying process, and Gil-White (2005) argues that memes are not replicated at all (see also Aunger 2000, Blackmore, 2005). Richerson and Boyd (2005) argue that cultural variants are not replicators on the grounds that they are not faithfully reproduced, and are not particulate, independent “bits”. However, neither of these is a requirement for being a replicator. For example, perfect copying may be desirable, and replicators are more effective the higher the copying fidelity, but poor quality replicators may still count as replicators, and it is an empirical question just how high the copying fidelity must be for an evolutionary process to take off. Similarly, digital copying and recombination makes for a more effective evolving system, and arguably all such systems evolve towards digital versions as genes have done, but this does not mean that crude analogue copying cannot sustain any evolution, nor that continuously varying memes, such as gestures or dances cannot count as replicators; they may be just rather poor quality ones. Following Dawkins (1976) and Dennett (1995), I conclude that memes are replicators because they are information that is copied with variation and selection.

As an example, consider urban legends. Countless stories are told by people all over the world every day. Most of these are boring or relevant only to a few people; they are forgotten and die out quickly. Some are repeated among groups of friends or in families and so have a longer life, while others are copied all over the world and achieve the status of legends. These stories clearly fit the definition of a replicator.

First there is heredity. These stories are not created anew by each person who tells them, but spread like infections from person to person across the globe, originally by word of mouth, but now by radio, television, telephone and email. Each person must be able to recall and store the story accurately enough to be able to retell it to the next.

Second, there is variation. This occurs through misremembering or imprecise copying, and by elaboration of the story or recombining it with elements from other stories. In this way many variants appear and may be at large in the population of stories being passed around. Such legends as the phantom hitchhiker, the Kentucky fried rat, or the poodle in the microwave, all have variants (Brunvand 1999). For example, there are tales of microwaved cats, dogs, hamsters and even tortoises, and some of these creatures die an agonising death while others explode all over the ignorant owner who thought she could dry its fur in her new oven. In British versions the owner is nearly always an American; in American versions she is from South Africa, or from another, often Southern, state.

Finally, selection occurs because some variants are more frequently copied than others. This may be because they are emotionally more powerful, funnier, easier to recall, or for any other reason have the edge in the competition to be stored and passed on. The result of all this competition is that some variants end up being far more common than others. This is memetic selection.

The same principles of copying with variation and selection apply to all the written material in the world – think of the competition between newspapers to be sold, or between books to be published, displayed in bookshops, bought, read, and recommended to others. It applies to behaviours such as eating with a knife and fork rather than with chopsticks, to driving on the right rather than on the left, or to drinking tea with milk rather than with lemon. It applies to the competition between paintings to be displayed, plays to be performed, scientific theories to be tested and published, and political systems to prevail. In all these cases, and many more, multiple variants are created and then subjected to the ruthless competition to thrive in human culture.

The underlying principle of memetics is that, as true replicators, memes compete to be copied for their own sake. The results of that competition shape human minds and culture, but that is not their function – the function of memes is nothing other than their own replication. Memes may be copied for any reason at all, including biological value, ease of copying, ease of remembering, emotional appeal or many other factors but, as Dennett puts it “The first rule of memes, as it is for genes, is that replication is not necessarily for the good of anything; replicators flourish that are good at ... replicating!” (Dennett, 1991, p 203).

Memes which harm their carriers or their carrier’s genes may be likened to viruses or parasites; email viruses and chain letters are simple examples that waste resources for no gain to the person who copies them, but there are many more virulent ones. Suicide bombers and martyrs may be infected with memes which thrive even when, or indeed because, their carriers kill themselves. Dawkins calls religions “viruses of the mind” because of the way in which these stable and long-lived memeplexes use tricks, such as promising heaven and threatening eternal punishment, to induce their hosts to protect and propagate them at the hosts’ expense. Viral memes may be especially interesting as examples of selfish replicators, but it is important to remember that most memes are not viruses in this narrow sense. Viral memes are a small subset of the meme pool which includes neutral memes and useful or life enhancing ones, as well as some that are viral in some circumstances and helpful in others. All these compete to be stored in human brains or artefacts, and then to be recombined, varied and copied again.

Humans as meme machines

Memetics provides an explanation of human evolution that is quite different from that of purely gene based theories or conventional theories of gene-culture coevolution. In this view, what makes us uniquely human – what makes the “grand difference” – is not intelligence per se, nor symbolic capacities, nor tool use, but our capacity for imitation.

Imitation is often thought to be a simple or childish process, whereas creativity is thought to be difficult. After all, kids find imitation so easy that they even have a game, “Simon Says”, in which the whole point is not to imitate unless you hear the words “Simon says”. The fun of the game is in laughing at those poor players who just cannot control themselves and end up imitating when they should not. In fact, I shall argue, imitation is the hard part and creativity its consequence. Imitation is cognitively very demanding which is why so very few species are capable of it. Human children only find it easy – and we adults take it for granted – because we humans are so good at it. The advent of imitation was, I suggest, the turning point in hominid evolution; the new ability that turned us from gene machines into meme machines. All evolutionary processes depend on an accurate copying mechanism, and that mechanism tends to evolve towards higher and higher fidelity. Imitation may not have started as very accurate at all, but it was still the essential copying process without which cultural evolution could never have taken off. Only once human imitation was sufficiently accurate (and we do not yet know exactly how accurate that is) could memetic evolution begin. Once it began, increasing creativity was inevitable. 

Imitation, as a new form of social learning, may have originally evolved because it was biologically adaptive (see e.g. Richerson and Boyd 2005), but I suggest that once it did so the world was changed forever and there was no going back. The possibility of imitation, and hence copying with variation and selection, let loose a second replicator; memes. And once memes appeared the environment for human genes was irrevocably changed.

These early memes may have been new ways of hunting or carrying food, new sounds or gestures, ways of lighting fire or making clothes or ornaments. We cannot know for sure, but we can assume that once such behaviours could be copied, some of them would be accurately and frequently copied and would spread in the newly emerging meme pool, while others would fail and die out. In this way

the new replicator would begin evolving in its own right and for no purpose other than itself. As Dawkins put it “Once this new evolution begins, it will in no necessary sense be subservient to the old.” (Dawkins, 1976, p 193-4). Whether the evolving memes helped or harmed their carriers would not be the ultimate arbiter, but just one of many factors influencing memetic success.

In this view, the function of imagination cannot be understood without reference to memes; cultural products are not seen as by-products or as adaptive to genes, but as replicators in their own right. They can be thought of as a parasite or symbiont living and evolving along with the human brains that copy them and forcing those brains to adapt to their presence. This transforms our view of human nature and, I believe, makes far more sense of why we are so different from other species.

Dennett (1995) describes the importance of different replicators in his image of the Tower of Generate-and-Test. On the ground floor are Darwinian creatures, selected by death; on the second floor are Skinnerian creatures whose behaviour is selected by learning; on the third floor are Popperian creatures whose ideas can be selected in their imagination; and on the top floor are Gregorian creatures whose memes are selected in culture. In each case there is a replicator and a selective process going on, and evolution occurs as a result, but the last step is a dramatic one because the replicator escapes from the individual out into the social world. Humans are the only species to have truly made the leap to being Gregorian creatures. They are the product of two interacting replicators, genes and memes.

This coevolution of memes and genes is a two-way process. Genes influence the selection of memes because they build the copying machinery of the human body and brain. But memes influence genes too, in a process I have referred to as memetic drive. Once a species is capable of imitation, memes start evolving; those of high fidelity, fecundity and longevity outperform the rest, leading to increasing numbers and varieties of memes, and changes in the dominant memes. This memetic evolution, with all its various products, changes the environment in which genetic selection takes place. Depending on the direction the memetic evolution happens to take, genes may be forced to follow, and in this sense they are driven by the memes (Blackmore 1999, 2001).

This theory differs from most theories of gene-culture co-evolution because of the final step. The process works like this. Before there were many memes, the major pressures on hominid genes came from the physical environment and from other individuals. But once memetic evolution took off, status, survival and reproductive chances were affected by the memes a person acquired. This would create a need for new strategies concerning whom to copy and whom to mate with. For example, it might pay to mate with those who were capable of imitating the currently most popular memes. So, if wearing skins as clothes was frequently copied (i.e. it was a successful meme) then people who were poor at copying clothes-wearing would be at a disadvantage. If there were genetic differences between people in how good they were at acquiring this skill then these genes would spread in the gene pool, gradually increasing people’s ability.

Note that wearing clothes has a biological advantage in terms of warmth and protection, so the spread of clothing and the ability to copy clothing could be explained biologically. However, the interesting point is this. Once the ability to imitate increases in the population, then more behaviours and artefacts can be copied. So memetic evolution increases. Inevitably people will copy all sorts of memes, not just clothes, including those that are biologically useful and those that are not. Unless certain memes are positively lethal to their carriers (and even then, under some circumstances), they may thrive along with the useful ones. In most theories of gene-culture coevolution this is as far as the argument goes, but memetics takes a further step.

If acquiring the latest memes provides a genetic advantage, then genes for acquiring those memes will increase. This means an inherited improvement in the ability to copy whichever memes have been successful in the memetic competition. In other words, the direction of memetic evolution drives the direction taken by the genes. Genes are forced to build brains that can copy the most successful memes. Since memes thrive for memetic, not just biological, reasons this means we can only understand the design of the human brain by considering memes as well as genes.

In this way we can see culture not as a biological adaptation, but as a new parasite made possible by the advent of imitation. I have argued that language itself began as a memetic parasite that then coevolved to become a symbiont with its human carriers (Blackmore 1999). Indeed we can see all of culture as a new organism parasitic on the old. Like other parasites it may initially have been dangerous but then evolved to become less so; it might even be like the bacteria that originally invaded other organisms and then evolved to become indispensable organelles, so that now we are dependent upon being infected with culture.

It may be that the memetic parasite is initially so dangerous that it can kill any species that acquires it before it has time to adapt. This may have happened to other species in the past, in which case we humans were lucky to have survived the danger phase long enough to co-evolve with our culture. This may be an extreme hypothesis and it may be false, but it follows directly from taking memetics seriously that is, from seeing memes as spreading because they can and not necessarily because they are adaptive for their carriers. In this view, having survived the advent of the new replicator, human brains evolved to become ever better meme machines, copying, storing and recombining memes with increasing fidelity. Examples of this process may include not only the evolution of the big brain and language (Blackmore 1999) but our enjoyment of art, science and religion, and our capacity for imagination.

The origins of art and music

There are many theories of the origins of art and almost all rely on biological functions of some kind. For example, Ramachandran and Hirstein (1999) propose eight laws of aesthetic experience, and these derive directly from the structure of perceptual systems that evolved for biological purposes. Zeki describes one of the functions of art as “an extension of the major function of the visual brain”, that is, a search for the enduring features of objects and situations (Zeki 1999 p 79), and Solso (2003) attributes artistic appreciation to a consciousness that evolved for other purposes.

Music provides an especially interesting example. Pinker declares that “As far as biological cause and effect are concerned, music is useless.” (Pinker 1997 p 528), and Dennett (1999) says we “cannot avoid the obligation to explain how such an expensive, time-consuming activity came to flourish in this cruel world”. Miller (2000) provides an explanation, citing music as an example of a sexual display, but this, in common with other biologically based theories, treats the music as part of a person’s phenotype, rather than as a new system evolving in its own right. Mithen (this volume) suggests that music began as part of a holistic communication system that remained when language evolved separately into a system with words and grammar. The important difference is that for Mithen the functions of language and music are communication, the expression of emotions and the facilitation of group bonding. In other words they have biological functions and are advantageous for the organisms and their genes. On a memetic theory the primary function of memes is the survival and proliferation of the musical memes themselves.

Dennett (1999) imagines how music might have begun – a just-so story about the first ever infectious sounds.

One day one of our distant hominid ancestors sitting on a fallen log happened to start banging on with a stick—boom boom boom. For no good reason at all. This was just idle diddling, a by-product, perhaps, of a slightly out-of-balance endocrine system. This was, you might say, mere nervous fidgeting, but the repetitive sounds striking his ears just happened to feel to him like a slight improvement on silence…

Now introduce some other ancestors who happen to see and hear this drummer. They might pay no attention, or be irritated enough to make him stop or drive him away, or they might, again for no reason, find their imitator-circuits tickled into action; they might feel an urge to drum along with musical Adam.

Dennett explains that it does not matter why either the first person, or the imitators did what they did – it might have been for good biological reasons or it might have been because of some quirk in the design of their brains or the weather that day. The important point is that the drumming was copied, and so with a community of other imitators around, the sounds began to spread. Among all the different drummings, some proved more infectious than others. It didn’t matter why  - maybe because they were easier to remember, sounded nicer, or were less harmful – the point is that once they could be copied they were copied, and so the drumming virus was born.

Dennett supposes that soon some of the hominids began humming, and humming memes spread in the meme pool. At first the copying might have been inaccurate and new variants rare, but even so the number and variety of musical memes gradually increased and the competition hotted up. Memes now had to be more catchy, easier to hum, or more likely to gain attention, in order to find themselves preserved in the meme pool. Individual brains changed too because everyone now lived in a music filled culture and they learnt to hum some of the tunes, with some learning faster and learning more tunes than others, and some being good at recombining tunes they heard to make new variants.

As Dennett himself says, this is only a Just-So story. We cannot know what really happened, but the point is this: once there were creatures capable of imitation something like this must have happened. Of all the many behaviours carried out, some would have been copied more than others. If any proved especially copyable, given the oddities of the hominid brain and the specifics of the environment, then those would spread, and so memetic evolution would be up and running.

The next step, which Dennett does not consider, is memetic drive. If drumming and humming became popular, and people who were good at it acquired status, then the pressures on hominid genes would change. It would now pay to have a brain that is good at copying drumming and humming, when previously it did not. Any genes that contribute to that ability are now favoured and so, gradually, hominid brains are redesigned. The co-evolutionary process then continues indefinitely. Improvements to the copying machinery mean that more sounds can be created, copied, and imaginatively recombined, and that in turn means further redesign and so on.

If this is how music evolved then we can easily understand why we modern humans have the sort of brains (and ears and hands) that help us enjoy making and listening to music. Once we know a few songs or melodies, we can easily elaborate them into new ones, or combine motifs from different ones in our imagination. We are like that, not because music serves any biological function, but simply because, at some point in the past, musical memes infected our ancestors and helped to redesign their brains. Those brains are now designed to remember, hum, sing, play, and pass on music; they are skilled at mixing up all the fragments they hear to make new ones and at using the schemes and musical tricks they come across to develop them further. This is what it means to have a musical imagination. If quite different memes had happened to thrive at that time, our brains would have ended being designed quite differently. We are musical creatures not because of music’s survival value for our genes but because of the replicator power of musical memes.

Another example of memetic drive in action could be the power of religious belief. It is a curious fact that humans seem to be naturally religious creatures (Boyer 2001, Newberg and D’Aquili 2001). Even today most people in the world believe in God. This is true even in highly educated and technologically advanced societies such as the USA, where a 2003 Harris poll found that 79% believed in God. By contrast, Britain has one of the lowest levels of religious belief and observance, with a 2004 BBC poll showing just under half of people claiming to believe in God. Even so, this is a large proportion, and enormous amounts of money and effort are devoted to religious observance. The resources consumed are even larger if one includes cults, New Age groups and non-theistic religions as well. All this demands explanation.

Most theories of the origins of religious belief treat it as a natural consequence of having a brain designed for other purposes. For example, Pinker (1997) describes how religious concepts arise from our evolved perceptual capacities and from limitations in our understanding of the world. Boyer (2001 and this volume) argues that religion consists of by-products of normal mental functioning evolved for other purposes. In contrast, Ehrlich argues that “Organized religion thus seems to have evolved to help stabilize hierarchical social structure.” (Ehrlich 2000, p 256). There may indeed be biological value in being religious; for example, membership of certain religious groups confers social advantages and reduces fear of death. On the other hand levels of violent crime are much higher in the religious USA than in less religious Britain, so religious belief is no panacea for social ills. On a memetic theory of the evolution of religiosity this is not surprising. Indeed we might expect religions to flourish even if they cause severe hardship and suffering.

Religions provide one of the most powerful examples of infectious memeplexes. In his analysis of “viruses of the mind” Dawkins (1993) uses Roman Catholicism as an example, pointing out all the tricks that this highly successful and long-lived memeplex uses to get itself copied and safely stored. Hidden within the complex of stories and dogmas are powerful instructions to pass on the whole package, both to one’s children and to others. This instruction is backed up by untestable threats and promises, including heaven, hell, and eternal damnation. Doubt is to be fought against and belief admired, which helps prevent intelligent children from questioning the whole idea. Giving money to the poor is encouraged, and so is giving money to the church itself. This makes possible the fabulous buildings, wonderful music, extravagant paintings, and other glories which instil awe and delight in church-goers – so encouraging them to spend time in church, to encourage others to come too, and to spread the memes still further.

As with the origins of musical ability, I have argued that memetic drive is responsible for our deep-seated religious tendencies: the long history of co-evolution between religious memes and human brains has resulted in brains that are designed to be good at copying, storing and manipulating the kinds of religious memes that happened to survive. If this is so it is not surprising that religions persist in the face of contemporary education and scientific understanding which make most religious claims seem ridiculous.

Incidentally, music plays a significant role here. Having evolved a delight in music we enjoy singing and listening to others sing. A religious memeplex can then use this evolved capacity to spread itself by using the music to carry the viral words. We sing “Praise my soul the King of heaven” “Now thank we all our God” “All things bright and beautiful …” “Jesus Christ is risen today ….”. Curiously I have no trouble thinking up countless examples of hymns I learnt in my childhood. They are certainly long-lived memes.

Note that phrases like “the religion uses x” or “religions want x” are shorthand. They do not imply that the memes have plans or intentions – obviously they do not because memes are only the behaviours, words and sounds that are copied. These phrases can be unpacked as “religions that have x are copied more often than those that do not”. In this way memetics explains how and why the great religions of the world are structured the way they are, and have survived so long and irrevocably infected so many people. It can also explain how their power shifts with changing cultures, and why other newer religions are taking over in some places, including secular “religions” such as Transcendental Meditation, Landmark Education, and New Age beliefs.

Our early ancestors would not have had such complex and highly evolved religious memeplexes to deal with, but the same principles apply. If some people adopted rituals to help hunting or relieve the pain of famine or death, and others copied them, then variations of these rituals would compete to be copied. The same would apply to any other aspect of religious behaviour or tradition. Some of these religious memes would thrive at the expense of less fit memes, and those successful ones would very slowly drive genes to provide machinery good at copying them. In other words the human brain would gradually be redesigned for religious behaviour just as it was for language and musical ability. There need have been no biological advantage to religious behaviour at all. Whether there was or not is beside the point – so long as the memes did not actually kill off too many of their carriers. The point is that the religious memes themselves could have forced our brains to end up the way they are.

The co-evolution of replicators and their copying machines

I have suggested that human brains were redesigned by the second replicator, memes, which drove them to become better and better meme machines. This process can be seen as an example of a more general process in which replicators evolve along with the machinery that copies them. For example, genes did not arise on this planet fully designed along with nuclear RNA, messenger RNA, ribosomes and all the other complex paraphernalia of their replication. All of this slowly evolved into the exquisitely high-fidelity system we see today (Maynard Smith and Szathmáry 1999).

This is not surprising. If there was variation in copying systems as well as in the replicators themselves, those copying systems producing higher quality replicators would outperform the others and take more of the available resources. In this way the whole system would evolve into a more effective evolutionary system, with stable and safe storage, high fidelity copying, and variation produced by the controlled recombination of elements rather than by degradation and errors.

The equivalent in human evolution was the co-evolution of memes along with the brains, voices, hands and bodies that copied them. But this process has not stopped there. The same process can be seen in the evolution of printing presses along with the books and papers they copy, cameras along with the images they produce, and computers along with the documents, images, spreadsheets and other products they manipulate. In the world wide web we see a system comparable with (though no where near as fine as) the biological system; enormous amounts of information are safely stored, copied with almost one hundred percent fidelity, and available for recombining with other bits of information in the system. This process is still going on and is sustaining increasingly fast evolution of both the information and the system itself. The web itself is now a fount of creativity.

We can now return to the question of why humans have such imaginative and creative minds. All these examples of co-evolution produced systems that were increasingly creative, and had ever better methods for recombining old designs to produce new ones; from the biological system to the world wide web. In each case the copying machinery became ever better at copying the kinds of information that had been successfully copied in the past, from the copying of DNA sequences to the copying of html texts. The human brain is just one intermediate stage in this sequence of coevolutionary processes; it is a machine designed by its coevolution with memes to copy memes, store them, and mix them up to produce new ones. The answer to the question why we have imaginative minds is that meme-gene coevolution designed them.

Consciousness, creativity and evolution

Before Darwin, no one could understand how living things could evolve unless someone designed them – hence Paley’s famous argument for existence of God. Our intuitions tell us that clever designs require a conscious designer and, as Dennett (1995) points out, our experience seems to confirm this. We always see fancy things making less fancy things. We don’t see a pot making a potter, or a web making a spider, but always the other way around. Then Darwin came along and turned this intuition on its head. His great insight was to realise that natural selection could mindlessly design all of the living world without a designer and without a plan. Simple, dumb, mindless processes can, given enough time and materials, create the cleverest things in the world.

Some people still find this shift hard to make today, as is seen in the continuing antagonism to Darwinism in many parts of the world, and the success of creationism and intelligent design as religious alternatives to Darwinism. Then there are various theories that try to sneak a role for intelligence or consciousness back into evolution. For example, Teilhard de Chardin (1959) proposed that all life is striving towards higher consciousness, and Julian Huxley believed that evolution was pulled along by consciousness as well as driven from behind by blind processes (Pickering and Skinner 1990).  More recently, Wilber (1997) describes the inevitable progress from insentience to superconsciousness, and Hubbard (1997) urges us to take conscious control of our future in “conscious evolution”. However, with these exceptions, most people have managed to make the Darwinian shift from thinking that evolution needs a designer to realising that biological creativity is a bottom-up process in which simple things produce complex results with neither a conscious designer nor a plan.

This same shift has not been made in thinking about human creativity. In popular discourse there is a common tendency to speak of creative people as individual conscious designers who deliberately, and from the top down, create something new using the power of their imagination. In this view creativity and consciousness are closely associated, as can be seen in the numerous popular books, business plans, and self-help tapes that encourage you to increase your consciousness and creativity, or learn to be creative through enhanced creative awareness.

The same idea, that consciousness can exert power or create design, can be found in philosophy and psychology. For example, Searle (1992) claims that consciousness is caused by brains and that it serves to increase creativity and flexibility. Mithen (1996) argues that consciousness plays an integrating role, bringing separate aspects of the mind together and so allowing for greater creativity. These suggestions fit with the common intuition that novel thinking is difficult and that difficult tasks require consciousness.  

This emphasis on consciousness meets with several problems, not least the fact that consciousness itself is impossible to define and poorly understood. The term is mostly used in contemporary science and philosophy to refer to subjective experience, or “what it’s like to be” something (Blackmore 2003). Taking this definition, it is hard to understand how subjective experiences themselves could act as a force or have any function at all – a serious problem for theories of the evolution of consciousness, but also for any theory that makes consciousness the power behind creativity.

Attempts to link creative imagination to consciousness run into another problem if they imply that when we imagine something it must be “displayed” in consciousness, or be consciously visible to the mind’s eye, or in some other way come “into consciousness”. These phrases all imply versions of what Dennett (1991) calls the “Cartesian theatre” – the mythical time or place in the mind or brain where things come together and consciousness happens. This cannot exist, according to Dennett, not only because there is no observer inside the brain but because there is no centre of operations, nor indeed a centre of any kind, and there is no finishing line beyond which previously unconscious processes suddenly become conscious ones. The brain is a massively parallel system with no special inner sanctum where information comes to be turned into the contents of consciousness.

The idea that consciousness is essential for creativity conflicts with another odd and interesting fact. This is that many creative writers, thinkers, scientists and artists, claim that their best work just “comes” to them. They have no idea how they do it, and indeed often feel that “they” did not really do it at all. It is as though the poem, the solution to the scientific problem, or the painting just shaped itself without any conscious effort, or even any awareness on the part of the creator. Some describe this feeling of total immersion as a state of “flow” (Csikszentmihalyi and Csikszentmihalyi 1988) in which the self seems to disappear. This kind of selfless creativity seems at odds with the idea that consciousness is the force behind creativity. Yet these artists may be right and the common intuition that consciousness causes creativity may be  wrong.

I suggest that it is time to give up this old and false intuition, just as we (reluctantly) gave up the need for a creator God. The shift needed here is exactly the same shift that was made in the mid nineteenth century when Darwin explained how natural selection works.  Instead of hanging onto the intuition that clever design needs a conscious designer, we should apply the principle of universal Darwinism to ourselves as well.

Memetics does just this, and so provides a new way of thinking about human creativity. In this new view, the process of copying with variation and selection is the only creative design force in the universe. This simple iterative process, along with processes of self-organisation and random change, not only designed all living things, but all human inventions as well. Neither biological evolution nor human creative imagination is a top-down process in which a clever conscious mind thinks up new ideas and puts them into effect; both are mindless processes in which new products emerge because old ones are copied with variation and selection. All human creativity results from memetic evolution; from the reiterative process of recombination and selective imitation of behaviours and artefacts. It may not feel that way, but then our intuitions about the way the mind works have not proven a reliable guide to how they really work, so this should not unduly surprise us.

In this Darwinian view we human beings are not creative because we have specially powerful conscious minds, or creative inner selves, but because we are capable of selective imitation. And those of us who are the most creative are those who are best at accurately copying and storing the memes we come across, recombining them in novel ways, and selecting appropriately from the myriad new combinations created. Incidentally this makes the (so far untested) prediction that creativity should be positively correlated with the ability to imitate, rather than some people being creative while others are just copiers. In this new view, we humans are the copying machines – the meme machines that form part of a new evolutionary process:  the true creative power behind human imagination is memetic evolution.

To some people, this view may seem depressing or dehumanising, with its emphasis on selective imitation and away from the power of consciousness. Yet it provides a unifying view of creative design. As information explodes, the web expands, and human life becomes ever more complex and full of cultural creations, we can see the same process at work as that which designed the living world. Everything was, and still is, designed by the power of that familiar mindless process, the evolutionary algorithm. This is a beautiful, if daunting, view of our place in the world.

 

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