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11/22/06


Mind Shadows      Jaron Lanier Disagrees with Richard Dawkins' Meme Theory

Born in 1960, Jaron Lanier shuns career stovepipes and has taught computer science in various institutions, including Dartmouth, Columbia, and Yale. A polymath, he is sought out as an important contributer to current discussions on matters such as the philosophy of consciousness and the findings of science. His interests are widely divergent, among them the interface between artificial intelligence and biology as well as quantum physics. A pianist, he writes chamber and orchestral music. He is also an author and visual artist.

As a goat farmer, Jaron Lanier supported his way through college. While growing up, he lived far from cities, near Mesilla, New Mexico, with his father in tents until they built a house centered around a geodesic dome. The phrase virtual reality was coined by Lanier, to his eternal regret.

In an interview, he was asked about the Meme Theory of evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. In his classic book, The Selfish Gene, Dawkins explains memes thus:

"Examples of memes are tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, clothes fashions, ways of making pots or of building arches. Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation. If a scientist hears, or reads about, a good idea, he passed it on to his colleagues and students. . . . If the idea catches on, it can be said to propagate itself, spreading from brain to brain. `. . . memes should be regarded as living structures, not just metaphorically but technically. . . . When you plant a fertile meme in my mind you literally parasitize my brain, turning it into a vehicle for the meme's propagation in just the way that a virus may parasitize the genetic mechanism of a host cell. . . . 'belief in life after death' is actually realized physically, millions of times over, as a structure in the nervous systems of individual men the world over."

Here, then, is the question and Lanier's answer:

"Q: Is culture as important as genes in shaping the future of our brains? I'm not talking about Richard Dawkins' idea of memes here, which I dislike anyway.

A: I think the meme idea is wrong for a variety of reasons. First, there's an obvious sense in which ideas are Lamarckian and genes are not. Memes promote the wrong idea about genes. Richard's idea about genes is that there is a continuity of different creatures that come into being and evolution is walking through an infinite library where each space on the shelf is a slightly different creature. It's like Borges' infinite library, which contained every book that could be written. Every organism that could exist is in Richard's library, and there are two problems with this idea, both of which should kill this metaphor. The first problem is the size of the library. Let's suppose Borges' library was actually created and only held books up to 300 pages. Even in that case the library could not fit into our universe. Our civilization could not possibly survive long enough, even with the biggest starship we could build, to hold it. Just to get from one interesting book to the next would require more energy or space than our civilization has available to it. We're lucky enough to be next to one readable book and that's the only one we'll ever see. You could think of his library as the most efficient, definitely mathematical, perfect, conceivable form of procrastination ever invented.

The second problem is the difference between Borges' and Dawkins' infinite libraries. In Borges' library all the books in between the readable books might not be sensible to us but at least they're printable. But in Dawkins' library, all the creatures between viable creatures are not sensible or even viable. They're just possible creatures. You can't take an arbitrary genetic sequence and have a creature come out." Found here.

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