Darwins Dangerous Idea changed my
life - or perhaps it was the illness that gave me time to read it. I got
flu, the flu changed to chronic fatigue, and for many weeks I was barely
able to walk, disinclined to talk and incapable of work. But I could read
From my hopelessly vast pile of "books to
be read this week" I took down DDI. One reason was my admiration
for Dennetts Consciousness Explained. Some reject it as "Consciousness
Explained Away" but I agree with Dennett that we are confused about
consciousness because the brain spins a false story about a mythical self
inside the brain who experiences the world and makes the decisions. I
use his book in my teaching, even though it is 468 pages long and every
page dense with argument. DDI is even longer but then, for a change,
I had plenty of time.
Darwins great insight was that you need
only three things; heredity, variation and selection - and then evolution
is inevitable. If you have creatures whose offspring resemble them, variation
among those offspring and an environment in which only some can survive,
then inevitably whatever helps survival will be passed on to the
next generation, and the creatures will gradually become better adapted
to their environment. For me, Darwins theory is the most beautiful
in all of science.
For Dennett, evolution is an algorithm. This
is Darwins Dangerous Idea - that the algorithmic level is the
level that best accounts for the speed of the antelope, the wing of the
eagle - and so on. It is "a scheme for creating Design out of Chaos
without the aid of Mind". It is a "Universal Acid" that
rips through other explanations and destroys them. It is a recipe for
exploring the vastness of Design Space. And this is how we humans came
to be. No God is needed, no grand designer, just a mindless algorithm.
Now algorithms can run on different substrates.
What if there were other realms susceptible to Darwins dangerous
idea? Back in 1976 Richard Dawkinss best-selling book The Selfish
Gene came out. I must have read it soon afterwards and I remember
enjoying its explanation of genes as selfish "replicators" competing
to get into the next generation. But did I notice the last chapter? Perhaps
I wrote it off as one of those speculative flings at the end of a great
book. In any case I had certainly forgotten all about it until Dennett
reminded me. Dawkins had asked the provocative question - are there any
other replicators on the planet? - and answered "Yes". Ideas,
fashions, behaviours and skills are passed on by imitation and compete
to replicate themselves from one brain to another. He called them "memes".
A science of memetics has not yet become established,
but Dennett took the idea seriously and applied Darwins algorithm
to the design of minds. A person, says Dennett, is a certain sort of ape
infested with memes. So that is who I am.
As I lay in bed and struggled with "memes"
I began to see the world in a different way. From a "memes
eye view" we are just machines for ensuring their own selfish propagation.
Mysteries of human behaviour from altruism to the origins of language,
or the power of the internet, began suddenly to make sense. I wanted to
jump up and write but could only lie there and think all the more.
As I gradually get better from my illness I am
determined not to return to the hectic madness of my previous life or
the frustrations of studying paranormal phenomena that almost certainly
do not exist. I learned that what I like doing best is reading and thinking
- and writing, of course. Now I am writing my own book on the science
of memetics, inspired by the three Ds; Dennett and Dawkins and Darwin.