Friday, February 3, 2012

Memes Are Everywhere

At the end of 2011, I wrote about the cultural and memetic evolution of the economy. Most of you probably understood what I meant. But I would like to include here a summary of the idea of memetic evolution, which I have extracted from Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, published last year.

Humans exist in a sea of memes. For example, music is memes. Somebody invents a new piece of music, and performs it. A successful set of music memes gets performed by others. Because of memetic selection, there are more copies of Dvořák’s New World Symphony on the market than anything written by Johann Ditters von Dittersdorf. The reason that most folk songs are good is that they have endured centuries of memetic selection. Memetic selection appears to have condemned the deliberately atonal academic music of the twentieth century, such as the works of Anton Webern and Witold Lutosławski, to long-term obscurity. (You’ve never heard of them? That is my point.)

To a certain extent, memetic evolution is arbitrary. But memes, like genes, must correspond to underlying reality. In the case of music, harmonic consonance creates more of a feeling of peace and enjoyment than harmonic dissonance. Consonance results when the vibrations of different notes match one another’s overtone series. Humans desire more than just peace and enjoyment from their music, however, and a certain amount of dissonance is necessary to create a flow of musical events; resolution of a dissonance is part of the story of a piece of music. You cannot change the physical basis of consonance and dissonance any more than you can change the law of gravity. Rhythm is also based on the natural world and may be even more primal than harmony. The powerful drum beats of Japanese taiko and Lakota wacipi music bring back fetal memories of your mother’s heartbeat.

Computer programs are memes. Computer programmers commonly use evolutionary algorithms that consciously imitate natural selection. The program begins with a simple set of instructions, then generates slight variations, tries them out, then retains the ones that work the best. The weasel program is a simple example of an evolutionary algorithm. The computer iterates this process over and over, producing complex results that were designed not by the programmer but by memetic evolution within the computer. Old movies with battle scenes required (and boasted of) “a cast of thousands,” but modern movies often have such large-scale scenes generated by computer programs that use evolutionary algorithms.

Literature is memes. The marketplace is an arena of memetic evolution, as people choose some products over others. Science is memes, as scientists try out hypotheses, retaining and propagating the ones that successfully explain the natural world. Everywhere you look, there are memes, memes, and more memes, all of them evolving.

Check out the new YouTube video available soon on my YouTube Channel (StanEvolve). The video may not be available right away. Also remember to submit any comments, especially about topics you would like to discuss for this blog.

For more information about Life of Earth: Portrait of a Beautiful, Middle-Aged, Stressed-Out World, which has now been published in Chinese as well as English, see my website.

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