Monday, August 03, 2009

Breakthrough!! The Third Replicator Is Discovered

The editors at New Scientist have become completely incapable of distinguishing between science and things that pretend to be science. The latest evidence of this failing is an article by Susan Blackmore titled: Evolution's third replicator: Genes, memes, and now what?.
WE HUMANS have let loose something extraordinary on our planet - a third replicator - the consequences of which are unpredictable and possibly dangerous.

What do I mean by "third replicator"? The first replicator was the gene - the basis of biological evolution. The second was memes - the basis of cultural evolution. I believe that what we are now seeing, in a vast technological explosion, is the birth of a third evolutionary process. We are Earth's Pandoran species, yet we are blissfully oblivious to what we have let out of the box.

This might sound apocalyptic, but it is how the world looks when we realise that Darwin's principle of evolution by natural selection need not apply just to biology. Given some kind of copying machinery that makes lots of slightly different copies of the same information, and given that only a few of those copies survive to be copied again, an evolutionary process must occur and design will appear out of destruction.
But all is not lost. One of the benefits arising out of the self-destruction of New Scientist is that it gives us all a chance to watch a train wreck in action.

[Photo Credit: Train Wreck at Gare Montparnasse, Paris, France, 1895 from]


  1. Why exactly is the idea that "evolution by natural selection need not apply just to biology" indicative of a train wreck?

  2. Who's not reading the links? Wtb science in my science. Heck, i'd even settle for science "news" in science mag.

  3. Again, uneccessarily violent response to any hint of memetics. Of course, Blackmore does butcher the subject quite a bit, in my opinion, especially with proposing a third replicator (that is no different from the second one!) while memetics is still in the process of being established.

    But what the hell, let 'er speak! Not like this is any more extreme than Doolittles "OMG HGT destroys the tree of life as we know it!!!1!!one!"

    The public wants thought provoking stuff (and it's up to them to be rational and skeptical), they're not so easily excited by "RBR is downregulated by XYZ via epigenetic silencing by recruiting ABC!" or "XYZ and ABC act in a complex!!!one!"

  4. Could "some kind of copying machinery that makes lots of slightly different copies of the same information" be a photocopier or a scanner that needs a tune up?

  5. Veronica,

    Blackmore is talking about self-replicators. The copy machine is not a self-replicator because it produces printed paper, and that's a reproductive dead end (the paper does not go on to reproduce more paper).

  6. Psi> I'm not sure the violent reaction is to memetics, but to the poor logical adaptation of it... of course I haven't seen Larry's previous posts on the topic, so I can't accurately judge that.
    My issue with Blackmore's article is that she makes the assumption that techonology, web sites and their ilk are self-replicating, like human customs and behaviours, when in fact they aren't. Dawkins documents to come extent how cultural items might replicate, with variation, in The Selfish Gene. Blackmore's attempt to ride his coattails neglects that there is a conscious selection of technology, not subconscious. Her analogy would be more apt if it compared her third replicator to artificial selection in farm animals. When there might be self-replicators involved, they don't appear to differ from memes, nor does she provide any substantial evidence that they do.

  7. >IST I agree with the pointlessness of her 'technological memes'. I don't buy into the whole free will concept (it definitely does not follow than one must then sit around and do nothing, as is popularly assumed >.<), and I see decision-making as a selection process driven by neurology, part of which is in the form of memes (just like evolutionary selection is driven by chemistry+physics, some of which is in the form of genes and such). As such, there's no such thing as 'conscious' vs. 'subconscious' selection; the former is just apparent in the epiphenomenon of 'consciousness', the latter happens 'elsewhere'.

    Also, memes, as elementary replicators and entities possibly being selected upon (here it gets fuzzy like genes but that's for later discussion...), cannot be words, as Dawkins and Blackmore seem to suggest. That thinking stems from a misunderstanding of basic linguistics, and has been rather detrimental to the success of memetics, IMO. There could be something elementary that makes up thought, or perhaps not, but there's no evidence -either- way at the moment. Perhaps someday a Watson+Crick of memetics could come along and crack the neurological 'meme code', if such a thing exists.

    But mainstream academia's hostility towards the concept itself is quite irrational and embarrassing. I thing it partly stems from:
    1. scientists won't touch human mind/culture/language stuff with a ten foot pole if their lives depended on it
    2. social 'scientists' are viciously allergic to the scientific method encroaching upon their sacred ground and reducing humanity to mere physical law, or whatever.

    That's an overgeneralisation, of course, but Cartesian Duality is still strongly respected in both circles. And nothing pisses me off quite like Dualism/Pluralism. Basically that postulates a radically unparsimmonious system of multiple mutually-inaccessible 'ontological realities', and makes all integrative research between sciences and humanities come to a grinding halt. It seems at least a strong part of the War on Memetics comes from that...

    There is some progress though: The June issue of Nature Rev Genet has an evolutionary linguistics paper titled: "Human language as a culturally transmitted replicator" by Mark Pagel. I guess by the time such a thing makes it to Nature Reviews it's no longer too radical of a thought...

    Lastly, major problems arise when trying to apply an extremely special case of evolution (<0.1% of total biodiversity, ie metazoa) from a limited perspective (population genetics and a tiny bit of biochem, completely ignoring molecular and cell biology) to non-biological domains. We should perhaps put more emphasis on applying microbial models, which are far more general, at least in quantity.
    Sadly, most people playing around with memetics have been either animal biologists, or social scientists who learned evolution from animal biologist. That, in my mind, is an obvious recipe for failure.

    Sorry for length... >_>


  8. @PSI

    "Perhaps someday a Watson+Crick of memetics could come along and crack the neurological 'meme code', if such a thing exists."

    There's nothing to crack - the neurons are the equivalent of DNA bases.

  9. Anonymous

    I was being funny/sarcastic about words such as "copying machinery." I guess my attempt at humour failed.

  10. Gee....this sounds like the dihydrogen monoxide scare all over again......