My current work in progress is an article about the evolution of humans, memes, and technology.
It provides a definitive Theory of Technology and a Theory of Memes.
Here is a current Synopsis as of 11/17/2012:
Until now, humans have not understood themselves or their place in this universe. We have clues. Humans possess an inordinately large brain, but we have not understood the reasons for how and why it is so large. In addition, we have created a world of technology, yet we do not have a proper definition or theory of technology. Finally, humans and technology are intertwined and dependent upon one another like no other two entities on this planet, yet we do not understand or appreciate this dependency.
What is the connection between humans, with their large brains, and technology? How can we explain the mutual dependency? To fully understand these entities we must have an integrated understanding, for they all fit together. Here we will outline a model which binds these entities together. This synopsis is a hypothesis which attempts to explain how these entities evolved together. This single model will explain the evolution of modern humans and their large brain, and provide a definitive theory of technology. What results is a framework in which to finally understand ourselves and our place in this universe.
To regard humans as different is not merely conceit. Observing what is happening on this planet justifies such a view. The problem has been in defining exactly what makes humans unique. Many of the particulars are apparent: language, upright walking, opposable thumbs, cooking, etc. However, there should be some simple, fundamental, and general model from which all of these particulars emerge.
Any explanation for the large brain must be as unique as its possessors; otherwise the phenomenon would be widespread. Conjectures for the large brain size have pointed to the development of language, fire/cooking, social structure, grandparents, climate change, or intelligence. It is true that all of these are significant, unique aspects of human life; but none of these (and many others) explains why it and these other aspects arose only in hominids.
Additionally, none of these conjectures accounts for the rise of an increasingly complex and growing body of technology, let alone providing a technological theory. Clearly, technology depends upon humans, but what is it really? Like a theory of the large human brain, there is no definitive consensus about a theory of technology. Our goal here is not to explain any particular instance of technology; it is to understand the essence of ALL technology.
We take an evolutionary approach. Other important recurring themes are catalysts and positive feedback loops.
Evolution is about three processes: mutation, selection, and heredity. These processes apply not to individuals but to systems. Any complex adaptive system operating with these processes MUST evolve. We call this general theory of evolution Universal Darwinism.
Biology and technology are both complex adaptive evolving systems, and they are analogous to one another. They are not analogous because one imitates the other; it is because each are particular instances which follow the same general laws of Universal Darwinism, as do other complex adaptive systems. In order to get to our integrated theory, we will first review important aspects of the history of both to illustrate their strong similarities which are generally not recognized.
On the early Earth 4.5 billion years ago, and with energy input from the sun and from other earthly sources, simple molecules existed and interacted chemically. More importantly, some molecules served as natural catalysts to synthesize other molecules. Some of these new molecules further served to catalyze still newer molecules. In a growing web of many natural catalytic chains, there eventually arose molecular catalysts which created molecules which already existed earlier in its chain. Catalytic action allowed reactions which would rarely occur randomly.
These catalytic chains resulted in a positive feedback loop for the additional preferential creation of all of the molecules within the looped chains. This was natural replication not of an individual molecule, but of a collective of an interacting, autocatalytic SET of molecules. With these chemicals encased and protected within lipid membranes, evolutionary processes enabled autocatalytic groups of prebiotic molecules to form primitively evolving elementary protocells.
Through the evolving complexity of internal molecules, protocells became more complex and evolved into cells. As cells, they stored information for replicating their components not within multiple catalytic chains, but centralized within one evolved complex molecule: a DNA molecule composed of multiple genes. The genes within the cell superseded catalytic chains and now provided an internal information source for creating cellular components. Biology progressed from protocells and catalytic chains to cells and genes. This advanced operation of biology is succinctly summarized in the Central Dogma of Molecular Biology as: DNA makes RNA makes protein.
THE FUNDAMENTAL THEOREM OF BIOLOGY IS: BIOLOGY IS A SYSTEM OF EVOLVING MOLECULAR GENES WITHIN CELLS.
This boils down to: GENES MAKE CELLS.
At the physical level, genes were an improvement over catalytic chains. A positive feedback loop formed between genes and cellular products. Genes could readily mutate and recombine and thus quickly increase the complexity of cellular components. In turn, more complex components led to more complex cells which led to more resources being acquired to support increased genetic complexity.
Genes are only useful when multiply combined into genomes. A cell is not the product of a gene; it is the product of an intricate, coordinated collection of genes combined within a cellular genome. A cell is the survival mechanism for the collective genome. Viruses are bare genomes which replicate by usurping genetic mechanisms originally evolved for replicating cells. Cells can exist without viruses, but viruses cannot exist without cells.
This evolution of biology is relatively well known. What has been missed is a simultaneous evolution internal to biological organisms. Equally as important as the physical evolution of cells, and an aspect whose importance has not been adequately recognized, biology additionally evolved on another level: the symbolic level. In order to survive and replicate, genes built cells which obtained raw materials and energy from the environment. To perform these tasks, cells developed a simple internal chemical feedback system which in effect symbolized the external environment.
An example of this feedback system is the mechanism controlling cellular movement to follow a nutrient gradient toward food. Surface cell receptors collect external information which is sent to the cell interior. There the data is processed and results in directing cellular behavior to move toward the food source. This simple internal feedback mechanism is symbolically reflective of the external environment, though at this level the symbology is extremely simplified. Nonetheless, it is an internal model of the external environment.
As biological organisms evolved to become more complex, their internal models also evolved to be more complex. Eventually, multicellular organisms developed whole groups of specialized cells which symbolically modeled their environment in a much more complex fashion. These groups of cells are called brains. Brains symbolically model the environment, but they still provide an internal behavioral feedback mechanism similar to that in cells for directing the organism’s survival.
Importantly, in both cells and brains, internal models of the external environment were selected upon and co-evolved in conjunction with the physical evolution of biological organisms. Thus, there evolved a fine-tuned correspondence between the symbolic internal models and their organism’s environment, just as the physical aspects of organisms were fine tuned to the physical environment.
Early hominids possessed advanced brains with correspondingly evolved complex internal models of the external environment. They began to use environmental objects such as stones and branches as objects to obtain more food. We can call these simple, unmodified environmental objects prototools. The use of prototools was probably replicated between individual hominids through imitation. Prototools in technology are analogous to protocells in biology. At this prototool stage there was no technological equivalent of genes, just as in biology at the protocells level there were not yet genes.
Interestingly, contemporary chimps and bonobos make use of such simple prototools. Importantly, their brain sizes and ratio of brain size to body mass are similar to that of those early hominids. It seems that the primate line has evolved this capability for prototools at a similar evolutionary stage more than once.
Eventually, hominids used their hands as a type of catalyst to MODIFY these environmental objects for use. For example, they modified branches into spears. Just as protocells evolved into cells, prototools evolved into tools, becoming more complex. Similar to cells which developed genes to store information, brains eventually developed a similar mechanism for storing information for replicating tools. Instead of within genes, however, information about tools was analogously stored in the brain as memes. Biology progressed from protocells and catalytic chains to cells and genes. Technology progressed from prototools and imitation to tools and memes.
Like genes in cells, memes in brains could readily mutate and recombine and thus more quickly increase the complexity of tools. In one of the most important developments in the history of the evolving Universe, hominids reversed all previous processes of merely internally reacting to external stimulus, as genes and their symbolic feedback models had done for billions of years. For the first time, memes within the internal model now provided an internal stimulus to shape the external environment into tools. All previous history had been from external stimulus to internal reaction. Here it became internal stimulus to external reaction. From the external environment acting upon internal symbolic models hominids changed to using their internal model to modify the external environment.
Environmental objects modified this way are what we call technology. These are no longer naturally occurring environmental objects. They are deliberately modified objects used for completely new purposes; purposes useful ONLY to a complex, internal symbolic evolved model of the Universe. This leads tentatively to a fundamental insight about technology, and it is quite analogous to that of biology:
A TENTATIVE THEORY OF TECHNOLOGY IS: TECHNOLOGY IS A SYSTEM OF EVOLVING SYMBOLIC MEMES WITHIN BRAINS.
This boils down to: MEMES MAKE TOOLS.
Memes in technology play a highly analogous role to genes in biology. Genes build organisms as their survival mechanisms; memes build technology as their survival mechanisms. As genes combine within genomes, memes combine into menomes. And as genes are only useful when multiply combined into genomes, memes are only useful when multiply combined within menomes.
Here is the essence of how this system works. The meme/large brain/technology system is a positive feedback loop. Technology created from technological memes in brains supplies more calories than genes alone can supply. In a positive feedback loop, increased calories gathered from using technology supports larger brains, and larger brains in turn allow more complex technological memes and thus create more complex technology. More complex technology gathers more calories to support a larger brain. This non-genetic feedback loop is the ONLY way to develop such an enlarged brain, otherwise other biological organisms that do not create technology would also develop large brains. However, without technology, organisms are limited to the calories which genes alone can provide. This simple idea explains so much so simply that it is important to understand it. It is the Fundamental Theory of Technology. It is also the Fundamental Theory of Human Beings. The two are intimately connected.
The large size of the brain and technology are connected through technological memes. All the particulars about humans – fire, language, brain size, advanced culture – RESULTS from the success of replicating, evolving technological memes located in hominid brains, which in turn reflects an evolved internal model of the environment. The modern large human brain is no longer supportable from genes alone.
As indicated, analogously to genes, memes are only useful when multiply combined into menomes. It is my further hypothesis that memes, instead of being based in DNA, are based upon language. DNA is the replicated information storage system of the genes of cells. Language is the replicated information storage system of the memes of technology. Language transmits copies of memes between the brains which house memes.
A lone meme, like a lone gene, does little or nothing on its own. An automobile, for example, is not the product of a meme; it is the product of a huge collection of coordinated memes combined within an automobile menome. Slightly different automobile menomes give rise to similar automobiles. The automobile is the survival mechanism of its collective automobile menome. If the automobile design is successful at being copied, its automobile menome is also replicated. And automobile menomes have survived and greatly replicated because the automobile is very useful to the humans which house the memes for its design.
The original, fundamental aspect of memes is that they are the genes of technology, not the genes of culture. This is an essential insight which has mostly been missed. Tools are the survival mechanism for the collective menome. Cultural memes, for the most part, are the counterpart of biological viruses; they replicate by usurping memetic mechanisms which originally evolved for replicating technology. Tools can exist without cultural memes, but cultural memes cannot exist without technology, which enables nearly all of human civilization. Civilization, in turn, is the combination of humans and technology. Because no other organisms possess technology, no other organisms have a civilization.
Even aspects of these viral-like cultural memes have been misunderstood. For example, a song is not a meme. Thinking that it is a meme leaves one wondering how it could mutate. Rather, a song is the product of an entire coordinated song menome whose individual memes are notes. This makes it readily apparent how songs can mutate: change a couple of note-memes within a song menome and you have a similar song.
Importantly, whereas genes and cells are primarily selected in the environment, technological memes and tools are only secondarily selected in the external environment. More importantly, memes evolve and are selected within the internal, symbolic model of the environment within brains, before tools are physically made. Memes and tools primarily evolve within imagination, which is the internal model. Because of this, memes and tools in brains evolve at least a thousand times faster than genes in cells.
This is easy to illustrate. We will once again use the automobile as an example. Think of a red car, a blue car, a car with five wheels, a stone car, or a mile-long car. These are the automobile menomes evolving in your brain within fractions of a second. How long would it take to create and select each of these physically? Think of a typical car with only one wheel. Do you need to build this to see if it will function? Of course not! Your internal model instantly imagines that, at best, the car might spin around on that one wheel and make no progress. Technology evolves in the brain and is only later physically built already adapted to the environment in which it will operate.
Such evolutionary speed is only the beginning because memes now evolve in an even faster medium. The memes of human internal models have recently been copied into computers, which we call software (using the medium of computer languages); these computer memes evolve at least a thousand times faster than memes within brains, and a million times faster than genes in cells. With memes now evolving in computers, technological evolution no longer relies exclusively upon memes in biological brains.
Tools now catalyze other tools in a growing networked web of interconnections. Some tools serve as catalysts to synthesize other tools. Some of these new tools further serve to catalyze still newer tools. In a growing web of many catalytic chains, technological catalysts will arise which will create tools which already exist earlier in their chains. A tool or robot does not need to replicate itself. Rather, technology will form loops of independently replicating autocatalytic groups, just as prebiotic molecules formed autocatalytic sets. Aiding this, the Internet now connects computer memes with ultra-high-speed and stores them by increasing orders of magnitude, to be accessed, processed, and evolved within computer brains. This leads to a definitive Theory of Technology:
THE FUNDAMENTAL THEOREM OF TECHNOLOGY IS: TECHNOLOGY IS A SYSTEM OF EVOLVING SOFTWARE MEMES WITHIN COMPUTERS.
Another succinct way to put it: MEMES ARE THE GENES OF TECHNOLOGY.
We have identified the key aspect of human evolution, i.e. their evolution of an advanced internal model of the external environment. That internal model no longer merely reacted to the external environment; it made the external environment react to IT. In putting forth this model we see how it leads naturally to a theory of technology, to a theory of memes, and a theory of humans.
To summarize: simple molecules evolved into highly complex biological organisms, while simple internal chemical feedback systems evolved into complex theoretical models such as quantum mechanics and general relativity. Models evolved from symbolizing the immediate environment to modeling the universe over tremendous scale. Both organisms and internal symbolic models have been simultaneously honed and fine-tuned by universal evolutionary processes.
These internal models are part of a fundamental fractal nature of the universe. The universe is self-similar at multiple scales. This is how these internal models can be reflectively symbolic and why we are able to understand the universe. Our consciousness is one fractal level self-similar to the rest of the universe. Accurate models enabled primitive cells, multicellular organisms, brains, and tools to survive and replicate. Symbolic models evolved hand in hand with physical entities.
However, the fractal nature of consciousness in the universe is not exactly similar to, say, the Mandelbrot Set. In that complex mathematical entity one can zoom in and out at any scale and visually see a similar pattern. This is not the case when we look at the universe and look at the insides of a person’s head. In someone’s head we do not see miniature galaxies, star clusters, and black holes. Instead we see blood vessels, neurons, glial cells, etc. But there is a sense in which galaxies, star clusters and black holes are indeed inside a person’s head. They are there symbolically. The symbolism itself is even of a fractal nature. For example, the universe as a whole is symbolically modeled within the brain. Then, contained within smaller portions of that model are the symbolic concepts of other people, who have symbolic brains with their own symbolic internal symbolic models of the universe. This can be carried out ad infinitum to symbolic models within symbolic models within symbolic models, etc., clearly a fractal pattern within the symbolic internal model.
So the symbolic aspects of models display a fractal nature of self-similarity at diverging scales. But there remains this disconnect when we reach outside the symbolic model in a brain to the actual physicality of the external universe, which is not symbolic but is physical. Yet, the physical universe itself is clearly a physical fractal. Masses follow a power law distribution at least from the scales of dust particles up through galaxies. This power law distribution probably extends both ways down to the smallest sub atomic particles and up to the largest super-super galactic clusters.
So it seems that there are two separate, complete fractal patterns: one physical and one symbolic. In order to keep only one complete fractal pattern, it seems we have to either do without the external universe itself and keep only the symbolic part, or keep only physical self-similarity without the internal symbolic model of consciousness. Yet it seems that there should be some all-encompassing fractal pattern. There should be one common concept that encompasses both. I do not know how to explain this.
Now that we see that evolution works in some type of fractal pattern, it is natural to project that the evolution which we witness here on earth must be part of a larger universal pattern. That is, biology, technology, and internal models must all be fractals existing throughout the universe. Just from knowing that technology is another evolving entity arising from internal models within biology, we are able to extrapolate these patterns to a universal process occurring throughout the Universe. Knowing that these patterns must somehow be scale-free should help guide us in what to look for in the field of astrobiology.
Someone once commented to me that all human actions, including art, language, and technology, must ultimately be traced to the need to reproduce our biological genes. He said it more crudely: that all human actions were reducible to sex. I felt that, given how evolution works, this must be correct at some fundamental level. However, I still had a feeling that this thesis was incorrect though I could not see how or why.
It is now clear that the reducible to sex thesis is unmistakably incorrect. But it is incorrect only because it is too narrow. Humans do indeed have an innate drive to biologically reproduce. However, the sex drive to reproduce their genes is not alone. The human reproductive drive is more general; it applies to two replicators. Humans, especially their brains, have also evolved to reproduce their memes. It is memes, not genes, which are the true reproductive drivers leading to art, language, and especially technology. This point cannot be understated: The inherent human drive behind art, language, and technology is not sexual or genetic; it is memetic.
It is also now clear that all other attempted explanations for the large human brain are incorrect. The reason for the large brain is because of this second non-genetic replicator; the brain would not be so large via ANY genetic based factor alone. Language is not the factor for the large brain; it is the means for transmitting the non-genetic memes. Fire/cooking is merely one of many successful technologies, these based upon fire and cooking memes. Many organisms have social structure with absolutely no technology and no large brain. The same goes for grandparents. Climate change would affect all organisms. Finally, intelligence is the consequence and manifestation of the highly evolved internal model, not the cause. Most significantly, none of these other theories produce any general theory of technology.
What does this theory allow us to do? Well, we have seen the close evolutionary analogies between biology and technology, and we now see that memes are the technological equivalent of biological genes. So this theory of technological memetics should allow us to understand technology in the same sense that genetics allows us to understand biology. The basis for nearly all of our current biological understanding arises from its theory of evolutionary genetics. It should be the same for technology. The basis for nearly all technological understanding will arise from this new theory of technology. To paraphrase Theodosius Dobzhansky: Nothing in technology makes sense except in the light of evolution.
A larger perspective now becomes clear: our role as biological humans has been as an intermediary along the path of technological evolution. Indeed, all of biology has been a precursor to technology. Cells form, replicate, and become more complex. Simultaneously, the environment becomes symbolized within cells in internal models. Biological “hardware” (cells) evolves coincident with biological “software” (models). Hardware genes give rise to software memes. Memes in brains are eventually copied as technological memes into computers. Technology is then nearly completely analogous to biology. It is certain that this is not a unique accident of this planet. This must be a universal, natural, fractal aspect of the Universe and of Universal Darwinism, most assuredly happening concurrently throughout our Universe.
Dennis W. Piwowar