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TED2002

Dan Dennett: Dangerous memes

February 2, 2002

Starting with the simple tale of an ant, philosopher Dan Dennett unleashes a devastating salvo of ideas, making a powerful case for the existence of memes -- concepts that are literally alive.

Dan Dennett - Philosopher, cognitive scientist
Dan Dennett argues that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes. His latest book is "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking," Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
How many Creationists do we have in the room?
00:25
Probably none. I think we're all Darwinians.
00:28
And yet many Darwinians are anxious, a little uneasy --
00:31
would like to see some limits on just how far the Darwinism goes.
00:38
It's all right.
00:43
You know spiderwebs? Sure, they are products of evolution.
00:45
The World Wide Web? Not so sure.
00:49
Beaver dams, yes. Hoover Dam, no.
00:53
What do they think it is that prevents the products of human ingenuity
00:55
from being themselves, fruits of the tree of life,
01:01
and hence, in some sense, obeying evolutionary rules?
01:04
And yet people are interestingly resistant
01:10
to the idea of applying evolutionary thinking to thinking -- to our thinking.
01:14
And so I'm going to talk a little bit about that,
01:21
keeping in mind that we have a lot on the program here.
01:25
So you're out in the woods, or you're out in the pasture,
01:29
and you see this ant crawling up this blade of grass.
01:33
It climbs up to the top, and it falls,
01:36
and it climbs, and it falls, and it climbs --
01:39
trying to stay at the very top of the blade of grass.
01:42
What is this ant doing? What is this in aid of?
01:46
What goals is this ant trying to achieve by climbing this blade of grass?
01:51
What's in it for the ant?
01:58
And the answer is: nothing. There's nothing in it for the ant.
02:00
Well then, why is it doing this?
02:06
Is it just a fluke?
02:09
Yeah, it's just a fluke. It's a lancet fluke.
02:11
It's a little brain worm.
02:18
It's a parasitic brain worm that has to get into the stomach of a sheep or a cow
02:20
in order to continue its life cycle.
02:25
Salmon swim upstream to get to their spawning grounds,
02:28
and lancet flukes commandeer a passing ant,
02:33
crawl into its brain, and drive it up a blade of grass like an all-terrain vehicle.
02:37
So there's nothing in it for the ant.
02:42
The ant's brain has been hijacked by a parasite that infects the brain,
02:46
inducing suicidal behavior.
02:54
Pretty scary.
02:58
Well, does anything like that happen with human beings?
03:00
This is all on behalf of a cause other than one's own genetic fitness, of course.
03:05
Well, it may already have occurred to you
03:10
that Islam means "surrender," or "submission of self-interest to the will of Allah."
03:15
Well, it's ideas -- not worms -- that hijack our brains.
03:25
Now, am I saying that a sizable minority of the world's population
03:31
has had their brain hijacked by parasitic ideas?
03:36
No, it's worse than that.
03:43
Most people have.
03:45
(Laughter)
03:49
There are a lot of ideas to die for.
03:53
Freedom, if you're from New Hampshire.
03:55
(Laughter)
03:58
Justice. Truth. Communism.
04:02
Many people have laid down their lives for communism,
04:06
and many have laid down their lives for capitalism.
04:09
And many for Catholicism. And many for Islam.
04:12
These are just a few of the ideas that are to die for.
04:16
They're infectious.
04:21
Yesterday, Amory Lovins spoke about "infectious repititis."
04:24
It was a term of abuse, in effect.
04:28
This is unthinking engineering.
04:31
Well, most of the cultural spread that goes on
04:33
is not brilliant, new, out-of-the-box thinking.
04:37
It's "infectious repetitis,"
04:41
and we might as well try to have a theory of what's going on when that happens
04:43
so that we can understand the conditions of infection.
04:48
Hosts work hard to spread these ideas to others.
04:54
I myself am a philosopher, and one of our occupational hazards
05:01
is that people ask us what the meaning of life is.
05:07
And you have to have a bumper sticker,
05:11
you know. You have to have a statement.
05:14
So, this is mine.
05:17
The secret of happiness is: Find something more important than you are
05:19
and dedicate your life to it.
05:23
Most of us -- now that the "Me Decade" is well in the past --
05:25
now we actually do this.
05:29
One set of ideas or another
05:31
have simply replaced our biological imperatives in our own lives.
05:34
This is what our summum bonum is.
05:38
It's not maximizing the number of grandchildren we have.
05:41
Now, this is a profound biological effect.
05:44
It's the subordination of genetic interest to other interests.
05:48
And no other species does anything at all like it.
05:51
Well, how are we going to think about this?
05:55
It is, on the one hand, a biological effect, and a very large one.
05:57
Unmistakable.
06:01
Now, what theories do we want to use to look at this?
06:03
Well, many theories. But how could something tie them together?
06:06
The idea of replicating ideas;
06:09
ideas that replicate by passing from brain to brain.
06:12
Richard Dawkins, whom you'll be hearing later in the day, invented the term "memes,"
06:17
and put forward the first really clear and vivid version of this idea
06:22
in his book "The Selfish Gene."
06:27
Now here am I talking about his idea.
06:29
Well, you see, it's not his. Yes -- he started it.
06:32
But it's everybody's idea now.
06:38
And he's not responsible for what I say about memes.
06:41
I'm responsible for what I say about memes.
06:45
Actually, I think we're all responsible
06:50
for not just the intended effects of our ideas,
06:53
but for their likely misuses.
06:59
So it is important, I think, to Richard, and to me,
07:03
that these ideas not be abused and misused.
07:07
They're very easy to misuse. That's why they're dangerous.
07:11
And it's just about a full-time job
07:14
trying to prevent people who are scared of these ideas
07:17
from caricaturing them and then running off to one dire purpose or another.
07:20
So we have to keep plugging away,
07:28
trying to correct the misapprehensions
07:31
so that only the benign and useful variants of our ideas continue to spread.
07:33
But it is a problem.
07:41
We don't have much time, and I'm going to go over just a little bit of this and cut out,
07:45
because there's a lot of other things that are going to be said.
07:50
So let me just point out: memes are like viruses.
07:53
That's what Richard said, back in '93.
07:58
And you might think, "Well, how can that be?
08:00
I mean, a virus is -- you know, it's stuff! What's a meme made of?"
08:02
Yesterday, Negroponte was talking about viral telecommunications
08:09
but -- what's a virus?
08:14
A virus is a string of nucleic acid with attitude.
08:15
(Laughter)
08:19
That is, there is something about it
08:20
that tends to make it replicate better than the competition does.
08:22
And that's what a meme is. It's an information packet with attitude.
08:26
What's a meme made of? What are bits made of, Mom?
08:30
Not silicon.
08:36
They're made of information, and can be carried in any physical medium.
08:38
What's a word made of?
08:42
Sometimes when people say, "Do memes exist?"
08:44
I say, "Well, do words exist? Are they in your ontology?"
08:49
If they are, words are memes that can be pronounced.
08:53
Then there's all the other memes that can't be pronounced.
08:58
There are different species of memes.
09:01
Remember the Shakers? Gift to be simple?
09:09
Simple, beautiful furniture?
09:13
And, of course, they're basically extinct now.
09:16
And one of the reasons is that among the creed of Shaker-dom
09:19
is that one should be celibate.
09:25
Not just the priests. Everybody.
09:27
Well, it's not so surprising that they've gone extinct. (Laughter)
09:29
But in fact that's not why they went extinct.
09:37
They survived as long as they did
09:42
at a time when the social safety nets weren't there.
09:45
And there were lots of widows and orphans,
09:47
people like that, who needed a foster home.
09:50
And so they had a ready supply of converts.
09:53
And they could keep it going.
09:56
And, in principle, it could've gone on forever,
09:58
with perfect celibacy on the part of the hosts.
10:00
The idea being passed on through proselytizing,
10:03
instead of through the gene line.
10:08
So the ideas can live on in spite of the fact
10:13
that they're not being passed on genetically.
10:17
A meme can flourish in spite of having a negative impact on genetic fitness.
10:20
After all, the meme for Shaker-dom was essentially a sterilizing parasite.
10:24
There are other parasites that do this -- which render the host sterile.
10:33
It's part of their plan.
10:40
They don't have to have minds to have a plan.
10:42
I'm just going to draw your attention to just one
10:47
of the many implications of the memetic perspective, which I recommend.
10:52
I've not time to go into more of it.
11:01
In Jared Diamond's wonderful book, "Guns, Germs and Steel,"
11:03
he talks about how it was germs, more than guns and steel,
11:07
that conquered the new hemisphere -- the Western hemisphere --
11:13
that conquered the rest of the world.
11:18
When European explorers and travelers spread out,
11:20
they brought with them the germs
11:27
that they had become essentially immune to,
11:29
that they had learned how to tolerate over
11:32
hundreds and hundreds of years, thousands of years,
11:35
of living with domesticated animals who were the sources of those pathogens.
11:38
And they just wiped out -- these pathogens just wiped out the native people,
11:43
who had no immunity to them at all.
11:48
And we're doing it again.
11:51
We're doing it this time with toxic ideas.
11:55
Yesterday, a number of people -- Nicholas Negroponte and others --
12:00
spoke about all the wonderful things
12:04
that are happening when our ideas get spread out,
12:06
thanks to all the new technology all over the world.
12:09
And I agree. It is largely wonderful. Largely wonderful.
12:11
But among all those ideas that inevitably flow out into the whole world
12:17
thanks to our technology, are a lot of toxic ideas.
12:25
Now, this has been realized for some time.
12:30
Sayyid Qutb is one of the founding fathers of fanatical Islam,
12:33
one of the ideologues that inspired Osama bin Laden.
12:39
"One has only to glance at its press films, fashion shows, beauty contests,
12:44
ballrooms, wine bars and broadcasting stations." Memes.
12:49
These memes are spreading around the world
12:55
and they are wiping out whole cultures.
12:59
They are wiping out languages.
13:04
They are wiping out traditions and practices.
13:06
And it's not our fault, anymore than it's our fault when our germs lay waste
13:11
to people that haven't developed the immunity.
13:19
We have an immunity to all of the junk that lies around the edges of our culture.
13:22
We're a free society, so we let pornography and all these things -- we shrug them off.
13:28
They're like a mild cold.
13:34
They're not a big deal for us.
13:36
But we should recognize that for many people in the world,
13:38
they are a big deal.
13:42
And we should be very alert to this.
13:46
As we spread our education and our technology,
13:49
one of the things that we are doing is we're the vectors of memes
13:52
that are correctly viewed by the hosts of many other memes
14:00
as a dire threat to their favorite memes --
14:06
the memes that they are prepared to die for.
14:09
Well now, how are we going to tell the good memes from the bad memes?
14:12
That is not the job of the science of memetics.
14:16
Memetics is morally neutral. And so it should be.
14:21
This is not the place for hate and anger.
14:27
If you've had a friend who's died of AIDS, then you hate HIV.
14:31
But the way to deal with that is to do science,
14:36
and understand how it spreads and why in a morally neutral perspective.
14:40
Get the facts.
14:47
Work out the implications.
14:49
There's plenty of room for moral passion once we've got the facts
14:53
and can figure out the best thing to do.
14:57
And, as with germs, the trick is not to try to annihilate them.
14:59
You will never annihilate the germs.
15:04
What you can do, however, is foster public health measures and the like
15:07
that will encourage the evolution of avirulence.
15:13
That will encourage the spread of relatively benign mutations
15:19
of the most toxic varieties.
15:26
That's all the time I have,
15:29
so thank you very much for your attention.
15:32

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Dan Dennett - Philosopher, cognitive scientist
Dan Dennett argues that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes. His latest book is "Intuition Pumps and Other Tools for Thinking,"

Why you should listen

One of our most important living philosophers, Dan Dennett is best known for his provocative and controversial arguments that human consciousness and free will are the result of physical processes in the brain. He argues that the brain's computational circuitry fools us into thinking we know more than we do, and that what we call consciousness — isn't. His 2003 book "Freedom Evolves" explores how our brains evolved to give us -- and only us -- the kind of freedom that matters, while 2006's "Breaking the Spell" examines belief through the lens of biology.

This mind-shifting perspective on the mind itself has distinguished Dennett's career as a philosopher and cognitive scientist. And while the philosophy community has never quite known what to make of Dennett (he defies easy categorization, and refuses to affiliate himself with accepted schools of thought), his computational approach to understanding the brain has made him, as Edge's John Brockman writes, “the philosopher of choice of the AI community.”

“It's tempting to say that Dennett has never met a robot he didn't like, and that what he likes most about them is that they are philosophical experiments,” Harry Blume wrote in the Atlantic Monthly in 1998. “To the question of whether machines can attain high-order intelligence, Dennett makes this provocative answer: ‘The best reason for believing that robots might some day become conscious is that we human beings are conscious, and we are a sort of robot ourselves.'"

In recent years, Dennett has become outspoken in his atheism, and his 2006 book Breaking the Spell calls for religion to be studied through the scientific lens of evolutionary biology. Dennett regards religion as a natural -- rather than supernatural -- phenomenon, and urges schools to break the taboo against empirical examination of religion. He argues that religion's influence over human behavior is precisely what makes gaining a rational understanding of it so necessary: “If we don't understand religion, we're going to miss our chance to improve the world in the 21st century.”

Dennett's landmark books include The Mind's I, co-edited with Douglas Hofstaedter, Consciousness Explained, and Darwin's Dangerous Idea. Read an excerpt from his 2013 book, Intuition Pumps, in the Guardian >>

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