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First there were genes. Then there were memes. But is there a third kind of replicator? In this week’s New Scientist meme theorist Susan Blackmore boldly proposes, “[w]e’re close. We’re right on the cusp.”
A replicator is an entity that makes hi-fidelity copies of itself. Genes do this and it is due to the different extents to which genes enable their hosts to survive that we get biological evolution. The origin and continued existence of life and intelligence was famously explained by this process one hundred and fifty years ago. Meme theorists propose that the same process underlies cultural evolution, where (on some accounts) the replicator of that process is the so-called ‘meme.’
In her article Blackmore warns us that “electronically processed binary information” is coming to exhibit the same characteristics as genes and memes, and so is coming to be a new kind of replicator. As a selection process this may not be so unlikely: a form of selection on the servers that sustain the internet…why not? But Blackmore goes much further: “The temptation is to think that since we designed search engines and other technologies for our own use they must remain subservient to us. But if a new replicator is involved we must think again.”