by Alex Vikoulov
"We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One. And this deep power in which we exist, and whose beatitude is all accessible to us, is not only self-sufficing and perfect in every hour, but the act of seeing and the thing seen, the seer and the spectacle, the subject and the object, are one. We see the world piece by piece, as the sun, the moon, the animal, the tree; but the whole, of which these are the shining parts, is the soul.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson, "The Over-Soul" (1841)
I'm always leery when some neuroscientist comes along and says: “We are the brain. There’s nothing besides it. If something is wrong, it’s physical.” No, you are not a "brain in a vat", and if we are to deconstruct human intelligence, it would make sense to apply the so-called top-down “holistic” analysis — when we work from the general to the specific — the big picture to the smaller details, from the superset to the subset. So, in this type of analysis we should not start with the brain. Instead, if viewed collectively, human intelligence is a networking phenomenon based on technology and culture that we call civilization; individually, it's an operating system of the person's mind. The Darwinian model of evolution has assumed that life advances thanks to mutations in the genetic code, and that errors in copying genetic code inadvertently lead to adaptations that get passed down generations. But that traditional mutation-based model of evolution has transformed as of late, due to what geneticists are learning about DNA replication process. Evolution is not as random, or solely mutation-caused, as we previously thought but rather epigenetic, or environmentally responsive, and in case of our species, it is an emergent networking process we can call 'civilizational development'. In short, biological evolution of our species has been overtaken by techno-cultural, ‘epigenetic’ evolution ever since the invention of language.
WHAT IS EPIGENETICS?
Epigenetics has become big news in genetics in recent decades, as it allows us to examine a remarkable link between genetic functionality and environmental change. We usually define ’personality' as individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling, and behaving. “Nature vs. Nurture” has been heavily contested for centuries, each side weighing in now and then on how personality is formed. The 17th century philosopher John Locke was convinced that the human mind was a blank slate at birth, a concept first introduced by Aristotle as an “empty vessel”. It was experience that formed personality, they argued. In the 1930s, evolutionary biologist C. H. Waddington coined the term ‘Epigenetics’, which now refers to the study of changes in organisms caused by modification of gene expression rather than alteration of the genetic code itself.
According to the new findings of behavioral epigenetics, dramatic experiences in our past, or even in our recent ancestors’ past, leave molecular lesions to our DNA. Your forebears’ traumatic childhoods or exciting lifetime adventures might affect your personality, passing on anxiety or resilience by altering the epigenetic expressions of genes. Our experiences, and those of our ancestors are never gone, even if they might have been forgotten. They become a part of us, a molecular residue holding firm to our genetic scaffolding. The DNA remains the same, but psychological and behavioral tendencies are inherited.
Our cognitive abilities, sometimes referred to as ‘fluid intelligence’, can be evaluated when we encounter new information or novel situations. Genes exert a heavy influence on a person’s overall cognitive potential, but environmental factors either activate or suppress those genes. For instance, studying identical twins, or monozygotic twins, offers clues about different ways in which surroundings could influence a person's physical appearance, known as a ‘phenotype’. But who cares about looks if IQ and EQ are at stake, too? In extremely rare documented cases of ‘feral children’, a “wild child” is a human child who has lived isolated from human contact from a very young age, with little or no experience of human care, behavior or human language. Dina Sanichar, the Indian wolf boy, who has been "raised by wolves" in a forest in India, is believed to be the inspiration behind Rudyard Kipling's famous work, The Jungle Book. But his real story is less than glamorous: The vast majority of wild children have tremendous difficulties reintegrating into human culture, lack the basic social skills and interest in the human activity around them.
The Nature-vs-Nurture debate in relation to intelligence gets a lot more complicated with recent discoveries in the burgeoning field of neuro-epigenetics: The environment can modify the expression of genes in the brain, affecting intelligence far more than previously thought. As you may know, numerous genes influence our IQ and dramatic experiences can lock and unlock “intelligence genes”. Geneticists found a strong correlation between the epigenetic modifications of particular genes and general IQ, suggesting our experiences not only affect the wiring of our brain, but the very way our genes function at a basic level. Through the study of epigenetics, researchers also came to a staggering realization that if our emotional states affect our DNA and our DNA “filters” our perceptions of the world, then our emotions can indeed influence our physical reality in profound ways. Furthermore, while looking for ways to understand what controls our DNA, research led to the conscious mind. Scientists stopped looking at DNA as the only determinant factor to control human biology when they discovered how our biology is affected by our mind.
WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN MIND AND CONSCIOUSNESS?
'Mind' and 'Consciousness' are two different but somewhat overlapping terms related to the phenomenology of our experiential reality. Both of these terms mean different things to different people and can refer to a broad collection of interrelated phenomena. Both terms lack uniform definitions although generally speaking, consciousness refers to the awake state as opposed to dreamless sleep or coma, and also to subjective perceptual awareness, which can shift, change, and move around, e.g. modulated by attention or in "altered states of consciousness". What most people would agree upon is that the mind is organized mental activity that is formed from the substructure of consciousness and further made possible by memory and information processing capacities of the brain. To be clear, the mind, which is a cultural term that is debated in philosophy and used in psychology, generally refers to consciousness plus autobiographical memory, personal identity, irreducible sense of self, ability for introspection, all of which we experience as ‘qualia’.
As an idealist philosopher, I could make even further distinction between the two terms by saying that the 'Unified Field' [of consciousness] is fundamental and transdimensional, the mind, in contrast, is a “localized” expression of consciousness which is the result of subjective entity participating in that field. Conscious awareness, i.e. “local” consciousness, is recognized as self-reflective, feedback-driven information integration – there is “something it is like to be” an organism. We all are “partitioned realities” like “mindfiles” on the universal operating system – minds are many, consciousness is one. The mind that includes subjective memory and cognition emerges from the underlying field of ‘non-local' consciousness. ‘Mind’ has been used more often as term in philosophy while ‘Consciousness’ has been used more in scientific literature.
Your mind is such a magnificent everything. It basically encompasses all of your reality – thoughts, emotions, ideas, beliefs, intentions, attitudes, desires, motivations and practically any other aspect of your life. Your behavior and actions are influenced by your mind, so everything must start with a thought, which will then materialize into physical reality. Your beliefs are influenced by your environment, and your thoughts, emotions, and actions are subject of your current system of beliefs. So, when we're talking epigenetic evolution, we're actually talking evolution of the mind.
WHY HOMO SAPIENS IS NOW THE DOMINANT SPECIES ON THE PLANET
Viewed zoologically, we humans are Homo sapiens, a culture-bearing, upright-walking higher primate species that lives on the ground and very likely first evolved in Africa about 300,000 years ago. We are now the only living members of what many zoologists refer to as the human tribe. We are incredibly lucky to occupy the dominant place as a species on this planet not because of our strong muscles, or sharp teeth, or blade-like claws, but our collective intelligence, collaborative effort and inquisitive mind.
Is the meaning of life the answers of which we seek or is it merely seeking answers which give us meaning? We have this epigenetic trait of wonder in us – an innate desire to wander out into the uncharted territory – in order to explore new possibilities. Whether it’s taming fire to illuminate the dark night or hurling our space-faring instruments to help us look into the unknown interstellar expanse, our very circumstance today is solely due to our curiosity. Why are humans so damn curious? Because we find discovery so incredibly pleasurable. As a rule, we humans don’t care much about spectacle — what we care about is ecstatic understanding: in other words, “cognitive ecstasy”, that can be defined as electrifying cerebration or mastery of skill of extreme psychical pleasure. This can give us goosebumps of intellectual rapture, or puts us in motivational overdrive, otherwise known as the 'flowstate'. Homo sapiens, the first truly free species, that transcended the animal kingdom, is about to decommission natural selection, one of the most powerful evolutionary forces that have made us who we are today. Moving forward into our fantastical future, we must look deep within ourselves and decide what we wish to become.
Are we one of the last generations of Homo sapiens — soon to be replaced by engineered superbeings, with a distant resemblance to us, their creators? After all, if life is like a software program running on the hardware of biochemistry, all we have to do is collect all the information we can to write our own algorithms of living things and create virtual environments or even whole-world simulations. That, coupled with the rise of machine intelligence, will seal our fate as a bio-species. Or, in rather optimistic way to see this, it will put the future of evolution in our own hands and not on the whims of natural selection but directed evolution.
LANGUAGE DEVELOPMENT: INVENTION OF THE SPOKEN AND WRITTEN WORD
Evolution is a fundamental process in Nature, and not necessarily related to genes. In our information-based world, there are many parallels between biological evolution and linguistic evolution. It is safe to say: Language development played the key role in evolution of the human mind. However, consciousness as well as language remain hard to solve precisely because they are the humankind’s innermost traits. Nobody ever said that studying the fascinating but flawed human mind with that very same mind should be easy. The human mind suffers from a “cognitive gap” in understanding its own conscious awareness.
How is it that human beings have come to acquire language? Terence McKenna (1946–2000) was an American idealist philosopher, ethnobotanist, psychonaut, author, and an advocate for the responsible use of psychedelics. He spoke and wrote about a variety of subjects, including metaphysics, psychedelic drugs, shamanism, language, philosophy, culture, technology, and the theoretical origins of human consciousness. In his book Food of the Gods: the Search for the Original Tree of Knowledge: a Radical History of Plants, Drugs, and Human Evolution, Terence McKenna crafts his carefully thought out theory proposing that our pre-human primate ancestors consumed psilocybin mushrooms for thousands of years, and this is the primary reason humanity’s evolution rapidly accelerated — launching us forward in the animal kingdom. Terence McKenna’s Stoned Ape Theory is more plausible than it sounds -- especially in context of the emergence of human mind and language development.
The "Linguistic Singularity" made us human. McKenna wrote that, with the invention of language, human biological evolution basically seized and cultural evolution, an epigenetic phenomenon, has taken over, ever since. McKenna's theory remains one of the most controversial, but fascinating and what it actually boils down to is that a new psychoactive chemical was introduced to a species, and over millennia, this chemical, that functions as a neurotransmitter, had a drastic effect on the evolutionary trajectory of that species. One thing is for certain: We would not be who we are today if Earth had not prepared us for the next evolutionary leap and given us a chance to eat our way to higher consciousness, according to McKenna.
Linguists have long found that human languages share many commonalities termed ‘linguistic universals’ or ‘cross-linguistic generalizations’. The idea that all languages share a deep underlying structure that’s almost certainly baked into our biology by evolution was encapsulated in Noam Chomsky’s concept of a ‘universal grammar’ which became the dominant linguistic theory. Its essential feature is syntax, or recursion, the capacity to embed phrases within phrases ad infinitum, and so express complex relations between ideas. The syntactic structure of languages — the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences in a language — as well as finer acoustic patterns of speech, such as the timing, pitch, and stress of utterances reflect this universal grammar. If these linguistic universals are indeed real, and if we understand their causes, then we can have a good grasp about how language is acquired or processed by the human brain, which is one of the central questions in linguistics. Most theories assume the reasons why languages have these cross-linguistic universals is because they're in some way determined by the peculiarities of human cognition: They are built on innate neural algorithms that promote and skew language learning.
Some linguists such as Benjamin Lee Whorf began to question universalist theories of language back in the 1950s. Instead of subscribing to the idea that abstract concepts were common across the whole of humanity, Whorf proposed that language itself shaped our perception of the world, effectively creating different perceptual strokes for different folks. This idea that language can shape perception and thought — a hypothesis formally known as ‘linguistic relativity’ — asserts that language doesn’t just express ideas, it actively shapes them, determining how we grasp reality itself. Initially met with great enthusiasm, this idea fell out of favor by the 1960s due to a lack of scientific evidence. Now, cognitive scientists are applying new technologies to resolve the issue. Taken together, these experiments point in a surprising direction: Language does, indeed, influence our ability to perceive the world around us.
Neuroscientists Andrew Newberg and Mark Robert Waldman write in their 2012 book, Words Can Change Your Brain: "Language shapes our behavior and each word we use is imbued with multitudes of personal meaning. The right words spoken in the right way can bring us love, money and respect, while the wrong words — or even the right words spoken in the wrong way — can lead a country to war. We must carefully orchestrate our speech if we want to achieve our goals and bring our dreams to fruition.” Why is language such a fundamental part of social relationships, human biology, and epigenetic evolution? We depend on truthful communication for exchanging reliable information with one another, for decision-making and predicting the future that have evolutionarily been crucial for our survival. We have now developed a rich array of norms, conventions and expectations for these linguistic exchanges, and we greatly appreciate oftentimes intentional distance from the plain truth provided by poetry, metaphor, analogy and abstraction.
The invention of record keeping, or proto-writing, and few centuries later, proper writing unsurprisingly coincides with the rise of first civilization. Sumer, an ancient civilization of southern Mesopotamia, is believed to be the place where written language was first invented around 3100 BC, another independent writing system also arose in Egypt around same time. Literature and writing, though connected, are not synonymous. Certain primary texts may have a qualifying role as literature's first furors. A splendid, very early example is Epic of Gilgamesh, in its Sumerian version predating 2000 BC. The history of literature, however, starts with the first true alphabet which was the Greek alphabet, adapted from the Phoenician. Latin, the most widely used alphabet today, in turn derives from Greek. The ‘Printing Revolution’ in the 15th century occurred when the spread of the printing press facilitated the wide circulation of information and ideas, acting as an "agent of change" through the societies that it reached.
THE NETWORK EFFECT: THE RISE OF INTERSUBJECTIVITY
Understanding evolutionary forces that shaped the human mind could help us comprehend how rare our intelligence is, and very possibly our role in the grander scheme of things. The human brain is so unique, and so densely interconnected, it’s unlikely to have developed by truly random chance. Our intelligence wasn’t a given but the result of an intensely complicated process, which historically could have played out quite differently. Matt Ridley, British journalist and best-selling author, argues that human achievement and intelligence are entirely “networking phenomena.” In other words, intelligence is collective and emergent as opposed to individual. When asked what scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive arsenal, Ridley highlights collective intelligence: “It is by putting brains together through the division of labor — through trade and specialization — that human society stumbled upon a way to raise the living standards, carrying capacity, technological virtuosity, and knowledge base of the species.”
Nearly all human accomplishments imply the work of groups of people, not just lone individuals. The human groups acting together in ways that display intelligent decision-making can be described as ‘superminds’. They include the hierarchies in most social organizations and governments, the markets that exchange goods and services, the communities that use norms and reputations to guide behavior in professional, societal, and political groups. All superminds represent a kind of collective intelligence, an ability to do things that the individuals in the groups couldn’t possibly have done alone, and civilization as a whole reveals the hive mind ontological design at its best. Harnessing the wisdom of the hive mind — the collective opinion of a group compared to that of a single expert — is a great tool of gaining knowledge, but simply polling a crowd is not a foolproof way to arrive at correct answers. What’s new nowadays is that machines can increasingly participate in the intellectual, as well as the physical, activities of these groups. That means we will be able to combine people and machines to create superminds that are smarter than any groups or individuals our planet has ever known.
Like network effects, learning effects have always existed in the offline world but have become supercharged in the digital world. In the offline world, learning effects are channeled through humans: In classrooms, in workshops, in boardrooms we learn from each other incrementally. Human learning, however, is about craftsmanship, while schooling, professional training, mentoring takes years, months or weeks at best. What’s new and different in the machine learning era is that certain kinds of learning have now become automated. Deep learning networks, such as Google's DeepMind, can learn by themselves with exposure to new data and become more valuable in the process. This is a pretty big deal economically. It involves the unlocking of new source of socio-economic value that was previously inaccessible. The question is: Will we humans stay in the loop?
In our increasingly interconnected world, ‘Social Cognition’, which is a sub-topic of social psychology, studies how people process, store, and apply intersubjectivity-related information, i.e. interactions between people and different social situations, emphasizing our inherently social being. Social cognition focuses on the role that cognitive processes play in our social interactions. The way we think about others plays a major role in how we think, feel, and interact with the world around us. Predictably, when people are linked in real time using swarming algorithms, studies confirm, we can form closed-loop systems that enhance our intelligence to a level higher than our own individual abilities. This suggests that artificial swarm intelligence is a viable pathway to building superintelligent AI systems. After all, if a swarm of bees can make complex life-or-death decisions better than a human CEO, a swarm of already smart humans working together should be able to soar to inconceivable intellectual heights. The planet is shrinking to a point. Before globalization we lived in the age of empires spanning centuries and continents. At the dawn of globalization we used to say that our world turns into a “global village”, now it's turning into a “global smart-home” — transforming from the planetary hive mind ontology to the ‘Syntellect ontology’, one global mind.
TECHNOLOGY: OUR EXTENDED PHENOTYPE
As we have seen, an epigenetic world means a world not based on gene transfer and chemical propagation but a world based on ideas, on symbols, on concepts, on technologies, on human imagination, on non-material subjective values. The more one’s awareness rises, the more genes get switched on, and switching on genes that one has never had experience with during one’s lifetime. But admittedly, our minds are now running on the outmoded biological “hardware and software”. What we'll soon see is the ultimate directed evolution fueled forward by gene editing, reproduction assisted technology, neuro-engineering, mind uploading and creation of artificial life.
Our success as a technological species essentially created what might be called our species-specific “success formula”. We devised tools and instruments, created new methodologies and processes, and readjusted ecological niches to suit our needs. And our technology shaped us back by shaping our minds. In a very real sense, we have co-evolved with our technology. As an animal species among many other species competing for survival, this was our unique passage to success. Other “satellite” species, the ones that we had domesticated, have co-evolved with us as well. Through artificial selection, i.e. breeding, dogs underwent their own accelerated epigenetic factor-driven evolution sculpted by the inter-species partnership with humans. Dogs became our trustworthy and beloved companions: Millenia of close association have turned once-wolves into amazingly social creatures.
Technology has always been a “double-edged sword” since the adoption of fire, which has kept us warm and cooked our food but also burned down our huts. Today, we surely enjoy the fruits of modern civilization when we fly halfway around the globe on an airbus, when we extend our mental functionality with a whole array of Internet-enabled devices, when our cities and dwellings become icons of technological sophistication. Thanks to technology, rightly viewed as our extended phenotype, we’re actually living in the most peaceful, abundant, civilized time in history, and things are likely to continue getting better, as data suggests. As we now gradually transcend our biology, we are, in actuality, more than users of technology, we are “reproductive organs” of technology. We are Homo technicus as much as Homo sapiens. In the broader context, we are technology.
Merging with Artificial Intelligence is arguably the next evolutionary stage for humanity. There's nothing unnatural about that: AI is a natural extension of us, organic intelligence. In the same way that culture co-evolved with larger brains, we will co-evolve with our creations. We always have: Humans would be physically different if we had not invented fire or spears. Evolutionarily, just as RNA survived by being incorporated by DNA, and unicellular microbes survived the multicellularity explosion by symbiotically co-existing with higher lifeforms and by being incorporated into their microbiome, we can figure out ways to become superintelligences ourselves by assimilating the transcendent aspects of artificiality that otherwise could easily become a mastermind, both in control of us and out of control. At the dawn of artificial superintelligence, humanity is trying to not only find its place again, but to do the inevitable, the inescapable and previously inconceivable – merging with technology we created. We are now birthing a new intelligent species on this planet and rebirthing ourselves in the process. More and more people are becoming mesmerized by their digital creations, literally extensions of themselves, and developing more of a personal relationship with them, a clear trend towards the merger of human and machine intelligence. This merger will open gateways to unimaginable vistas of self-exploration, empowerment and hope for the human enterprise.
CULTURE: OUR SHARED MEME-SPACE
Human culture undoubtedly shaped the evolution of human cognition and memory. Cultural activities, such as the use of language, influence our learning processes, affecting our ability to collect all kinds of data in order to infer a desirable mode of behavior from them. The brain is not a classical digital computer in which a particular event necessarily leads to another particular event. Instead, it functions according to co-evolving mechanisms of learning and data acquisition, with certain memory capacities that, some would argue, jointly represent a complex ‘quantum cognition’ neural network. Our physical characteristics, our hormonal makeup, our inherited factors, and acquired cultural contextuality filter the signals received by the brain from which it constructs perceptions presented to our conscious awareness. In a given set of identical conditions, the stimuli collected by the brain is not the same for every individual. Besides that, the brain's ability to process these stimuli is vastly different from individual to individual. Therefore, the decision made by two individual minds in the same situation, could, and likely will, be quite different. Now, to complicate the matter further, the memes get involved.
A meme is the smallest unit of an idea in the same way that a gene is the smallest unit of organismic structure. In his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins coined the term ‘meme’ to denote bits of information that replicate themselves, ideas that are transmitted from mind to mind across time and space. Dawkins defines a meme as a replicating information pattern that uses minds to make copies into other minds. These patterns include the ‘percepts’ created by mental interpretation from sources of information such as books and digital media. Memes are thoughts, ideas, beliefs, tastes, prejudices, attitudes that replicate in our shared meme-space. Dawkins writes: "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 leading from body to body via sperm 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."
Memes are not just learned, they run deeper than that, they are part of our shared experience as human beings. This is how we communicate to each other through spoken, written, and body language; this is how we participate in customs, rituals and cultural traditions. Indeed, human civilization has always been a “cultured” virtual reality. We don’t often think of cultures as virtual realities, but there is no more apt descriptor for our widely diverse sociology and interpretations than the metaphor of the “virtual reality.” In truth, the virtual reality metaphor encompasses the entire human enterprise. We should realize that all our ideologies and religions, our belief systems and models of reality are our own personal operating systems — real to us but wry to someone else — each of us lives in a seemingly shared but simultaneously private virtual world.
A renowned cellular biologist Bruce Lipton says that during the first seven years of our life each of us takes on subconscious social programming – infused patterns and beliefs – that defines and sometimes limits our reality. To be clear, memes are beliefs that spread from our parents, from society at large, from individual to individual. Nonetheless, we can shift, change and re-write this early cultural conditioning to become more powerfully conscious co-creators of our own life. There is mounting evidence that personality is malleable throughout one's life: Radical openness has been observed in cognitive training interventions and studies of the effects of psychedelic drugs. Open-mindedness also increases for students who choose to study overseas, confirming the idea that travel broadens the mind.
Pre-dating all secular religions, shamanism is the oldest spiritual path on the planet, it has been tried, tested and refined by almost every culture, on every continent. Because of this ancient global heritage, shamanism is a valid spiritual route accessible to anyone in the world. This well-trodden pathway is calling to many now at this time of global transition. With the rise of the Internet, as an opportunity for a new kind of liberation, the web is birthing a techno-cultural renaissance grounded in ancient spiritual teachings. From the outset, the web was adopted by mainstream culture almost overnight. In the era of the Internet memes, marketers began to employ ‘viral marketing’, digital shamanism of sorts taking advantage of the new global medium. With the further advent of the Internet, the subset of current memetic evolution ‘Social Computing’ finally set in. In December 2012, the exuberant video "Gangnam Style" became the first YouTube clip to be viewed more than one billion times.
Beyond doubt, many memes may be disseminated by some individuals for their own self-interest. The politicians, the press, the schools, and others are able to feed a constant stream of memes within the populace and encourage their growth. Just like genes, survivability of which depends on their environment, memes by necessity are simplistic so as not to take up too much space in our limited brain capacity. In that sense, memes that are compatible support each other's growth and survivability. Thus, there is always a great deal of memetic activity in social media, some rightly say it is a “meme minefield”.
In politics, foreign affairs conducted by certain countries often resemble “chimp gangs” fighting with each other for dominance – only at our “slightly higher” human level of culture-powered evolution. Fortunately, in the 21st century they now fight more with words, propaganda, and occasional provocations, and less with armed conflicts and devastating wars that are kept as the last resort. Arguably, we humans are more compassionate than chimps. Without compassion, civilization, or at least a decent civilized society, would probably collapse. On the other hand, we still have a long way to go: We know that humans are capable of doing incredibly cruel things to each other, especially if they are not held accountable. Major American cities in the richest country of the world are flooded with homelessness epidemic with thousands of “underprivileged” human beings living on the street, and pockets of those cities look worse than any third world country. Periodically, we are confronted with inhumane facts right before our very eyes. How can this be if we are compassionate? The answer is that the gradients of empathy are attained in stages – compassion is most likely not genetic. Rather, compassion (thankfully) is a meme that is “planted” into our heads since childhood.
OPERATING SYSTEM OF THE MIND
While the primary purpose of genes is to determine the physical characteristics of our bodies, including our brain and nervous system, they also influence decisions of the mind. For instance, the fact that genes make us feel irresistible pleasure during a sexual intercourse certainly has a significant influence on the mind. But the mind is also strongly influenced by beliefs – and that is where memes come in. The memes related to morals are often termed ‘mores’ which my dictionary defines as, "folkways of central importance accepted without question and embodying the fundamental moral views of a social group". For our discourse here we will assume that the individual's mind makes its decisions by analyzing the inputs as amplified by the genes and memes. Here's a useful analogy: Our mind controls our bodily movements, our thinking processes and emotions somewhat like an operating system in a computer where genes are its hardware components and memes are downloadable software programs, along with the associated data.
Although memes are comparable to genes in the fact that they replicate and that they influence our behavior, the way memes influence the mind is quite different from how genes do. Our genetic psychological factors are powerful forces that compel us to act, unfortunately, they are too slow to adapt to a rapidly changing world. We are struggling today with gene-based emotions appropriate for the caveman. Genes cause problems because they provide psychological guidance for a particular situation that is no longer adequate. The evolved genetic solutions for certain problems apparently worked at one time but may no longer be up to the task. After all, it takes thousands of years for the genes to be modified.
Genes directly affect our physiology in two ways: physical traits and sensory palette. Many of the characteristics of humans, both physical and mental, are pre-determined at birth. We all are unique when it comes to capabilities, emotions, and physical makeup. To the mind, memes are additional facts that are combined with the genetic input for optimal efficiency in decision-making. Although memes are just beliefs, for all intents and purposes to the mind they are facts that are accepted as such and the mind moves on. If this approach were not taken, our mind would get stuck in “analysis paralysis” to the point that it would never be able to make a timely decision.
Rapidly changing human societies and our surroundings made it imperative for some kind of adaptive mechanism to be built in our mind that would allow for these swift societal and environment changes. You live in your own virtual world run on its custom operating system. What's real to you may be surreal, unreal and untrue to someone else. We are all alternate realities, so to speak. “Debate, don't impose on others,” I repeatedly say to myself. Isn't it why it's hard to convince anyone to change their mind in online conversations? Unlike genes, memes, or "facts on file", may be added, replaced or modified many times in a person's lifetime. Stereotypes and prejudices are judgmental shortcuts. Prejudices are comparable to other memes. They allow the mind to make a quick judgment call first developed as a survival mechanism. If the prejudice is based on logic and facts, then it can be useful. If it's based on blind faith or "pseudo-axioms", like most memes, then it can be bad. Also, in recent times, we are prone to define a ‘prejudice’ as an unfavorable meme. So, it seems that prejudices are just a subclass of memes that are believed to be generally bad.
As mentioned before, memes are more effective than genes in dealing with modernity because of their ability to rapidly develop. While genetic forces have evolved over many centuries, if not millennia, to adapt to particular issues, memes can appear and propagate comparatively “in a heartbeat”. The price to pay for this quick reaction is that there is little chance for corrections when the erroneous memes are in place. The behavior they evoke is not best for humans. In large part they just evolve in response to short-term circumstances, limited information and frequently, ignorance. Memes also generate psychological and emotional forces that are just as powerful as genetic forces. As an example, materialism well may be now regarded as not only an "expiring" philosophical paradigm, but for a lack of a better word, “pseudoscience” notably in physics where mind-independent objective reality and 'local realism' among other materialist assumptions have been routinely falsified, dismissed and debunked since 1920s. Yet, this materialist “pseudo-knowledge” has been indoctrinated in many minds, especially in the West, by institutions ensuing at least four centuries of the biased intellectual directive and social conditioning.
It’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, for each of us to make decisions without using memes. Since memes are involved in our thinking process, we usually need to use memes to evaluate other memes. Even to the best of our effort to think logically, we may still be basing our decision on "facts" that are really just memes. After all, the concept of meme is a meme itself, and even the ‘scientific method’ or any field of study is nothing more than a meme-set! The modes of reasoning may themselves be called into question. The rules of inference by which conclusions are drawn from postulates have a logical congruence. When viewed abstractly, though, they are but rules for transposing strings of symbols into other strings. Entirely different sets of transformation rules can produce equally consistent results. Could it be at least possible that the way we reason is not a universal absolute but merely an evolutionary expedient adapted by intelligent beings indigenous to this planet? Just as our classical intuitions do not grasp relativity or quantum mechanics and thus only apply within a narrow range of conditions, so may our reasoning processes be fundamentally primitive and incomplete. Our perceptions of reality are shaped by our rationality, so new mechanisms of reasoning may effectively change our view of reality.
The genes we have inherited and the memes that we have adopted define our outlook on life. They provide to us a necessary reality framework and the launchpad for our decisions. But our memes are not superior just because we happen to hold them. We simply should not be overly critical of other cultures based on nothing more than our own meme/gene makeup. Koreans eat dogs, the French enjoy frogs’ legs for dinner, Americans consume hamburgers made of cows. We live by our set of memes and they live by theirs. It’s important to remember that any judgment you make about anything is directly governed, or at least “instagrammed”, by memes and genes. Can we behave without being influenced by memes and genes? While we can't completely eliminate the influence of memes and genes since we still need to relate to others, we can still consciously divert their impact. Obviously, it is not in your best interests to totally resign to the control of memes. If we accept that many of our actions are meme-based and therefore can be changed, we have the potential to improve our lives by evaluating the memes and overriding those that we believe to be potentially harmful. But how can we override memes? They are just as powerful as genes and they color our thinking, right? True, but they can be overridden via critical thinking and conscious deliberation.
Choice is made at the mind level. We do play this game of life and without a conscious choice the game just loses sense. But then again, you can "choose" whatever you want to believe in: Like it or not, you are constantly in the process of building your own belief system as an operating system for your mind. It's always entertaining to watch high-spirited Freewill-vs-Fate debates, for example, but what it actually boils down to is your subjective belief or non-belief in free will as well as its definition. Your mind creates its own operating system from available meme-space but it's always a "choice" of what building blocks should be included in your memetic architecture. Believing in free will or believing in determinism is a choice of perspective.
When I was about to finish writing this essay I receive a strange phone call from a man who introduced himself Matthew and spoke with a distinct Anglo-Saxon accent. Here's our conversation, more or less:
Alex: "Hello?! This is Alex!"
Matthew: "Good morning, sir! My name is Matthew (such-and-such)… you can call me Matt. We've been following your work and we have a proposition for you. Have you ever heard of the Illuminati?”
At that point I thought it was some kind of prank, so I quickly replied: “Yes, of course, it's my favorite supervillain group in the movies!”
Matthew: “Well, what if I tell you that we have few thousand members in our global organization and we are not villains but the old guardians of civilization with clearly defined goals. Would you be willing to join us?” Still in disbelief and in a prankproof mode, I go: “But I am a digilati already!” pronto realizing it was long past April Fool day but still leaving some room to a pre-Halloween trick.
Matthew: “I know it may sound pretty weird but we're approaching the Event (he stressed it here) and we'd like you to be part of the force for the good of humanity. Is that something you would be interested in?”
Alex: “Well, all my work is confirmation of that, isn't it?”
Matthew: “Precisely! The Illuminati are going to break their silence closer to the Event…”
Alex: “I gotta interrupt you, Matt, sorry, what is the Event are you referring to?”
Matthew: “For that we'll be in touch with you soon. I'm not in liberty to disclose that information just yet…”
We ended our conversation by exchanging “have a nice day” habitual pleasantries.
At the time of this writing I'm in the middle of my own personal experiment. It's a simple setup: I dropped watching all “depressing” news on TV and elsewhere, the most relevant news will “find you” anyway; I quit watching all horror and bad sci-fi flicks; I refuse to react to glaring populism and any fear-mongering headlines, moreover, I block them from my newsfeed; I attempt to ignore all negativity. If you are to do something like that on your own, let me know your results, so that we can compare notes.
Techno-cultural evolution driven by epigenetic and memetic factors, the collective will of humanity to emulate the most successful achievements of Nature with technology, proceeds now millions of times faster than genetic evolution of our species at an ever-accelerating pace. Through the prism of memetics we can view the ‘Technosphere’ as our extended phenotype on a planetary scale. In turn, the Technosphere supports and amplifies the ‘Noosphere’, epitomized in the omnipresent Internet, as an extender of our perception, our extended mind, a magnificent epigenetic phenomenon.
-by Alex Vikoulov
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About the Author:
Alex Vikoulov is a futurist, neo-transcendentalist, singularitarian transhumanist, evolutionary extrapolist, cosmist, idealist philosopher, founder of Ecstadelic Media, painter, media artist, essayist, co-author of "Is Reality a Simulation?" (2018), author of the upcoming book "The Syntellect Hypothesis: Five Paradigms of the Mind's Evolution". Lives in Burlingame, California (San Francisco Bay Area).