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Sunday, April 12, 2009

TED TUESDAY 10/16/08 Susan Blackmore (2008)

This week, Susan Blackmore.

Will our ability to grasp ideas ultimately kill us? Imagine if our existence was only biological. What if ideas did not catch on and transfer from person to person? What if we were never able to duplicate an action such as making fire? What would the world be like?

This talk made me totally re-access my idea of intelligence. By suggesting that ideas act like genes, Susan Blackmore brings a high level of chance into the equation of evolution and opens up immense variability in what intelligence is. Imagine other life forms suddenly showing up from outer space. We always think of aliens as having a similar intelligence as ourselves. Sure they would be more or less advanced than us, but intelligence would take the same form. However, according to Blackmore, our intelligence is based on imitation and replication with variation. And, she says, that is an incredibly dicey equation for two reasons. First, it isn't easy for brains to do. Ideas had to be had by the first replicators, they had to find special brains. Blackmore referenced Louise Leakey who pointed out earlier that there were several branches in our family tree that didn't make it. Second, big brains are dangerous. They are hard to give birth to and it isn't in our best interest, physically speaking, to have big brains. Big brains are not efficient. Big brains are two percent of our body weight and take 20 percent of our energy to run. Does that make memes more dominate than genes given the right replicator?

So, back to the original question. I think our ability to replicate ideas with variations has had a profound effect on every other species on the planet. We have recreated the Earth in our image. We have created a place specifically for creatures with big brains – a place where ideas shape the landscape, allocate resources, form cultures and create wealth. Ideas have forced the rest of the world to adapt.

Finally, Blackmore brings us to temes and says technology is the next replicator (the t in temes). I wonder if the recent stock market crash is an example of machines blurring the lines – computers set to sell stock at a certain price trigger a cataclysmic melt-down of the global economy. Sounds like sci-fi and there is a decidedly Matrixy feel to the whole thing.

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