The Nature of Consciousness

Piero Scaruffi

(Copyright © 2013 Piero Scaruffi | Legal restrictions )
Inquire about purchasing the book | Table of Contents | Annotated Bibliography | Class on Nature of Mind

These are excerpts and elaborations from my book "The Nature of Consciousness"


The British biologist Richard Dawkins pointed out that there could be life beyond life when, in 1976, he introduced the cultural analogue of a gene (or, better, the analogue of genes for cultural transmission): the "meme". A meme is a unit of cultural evolution, just like a gene is a unit of biological evolution. A meme is an idea that replicates itself from mind to mind, such as a slogan or a refrain or a proverb.

Darwinian evolution is a process in three steps: replication (copying information), variation (making mistakes) and selection (pruning mistakes). Dawkins believes that what causes evolution is the genes: the "thing" that is copied, with mistakes, and then selected is genetic information.

From this premise, it was not difficult to conclude that "ideas" satisfy the same process of evolution: an idea is a pattern of information that is copied (from one mind to another), with some mistakes (each mind gets its own version) and then selected (some minds will be better than others at surviving, thanks to that idea, and at copying their version to other minds).

Both genes and memes are replicators.

The French biologist Jacques Monod had already noted the similarity between the spreading of genes and the spreading of ideas.

The human species is unique in that it relies on cultural transmission of information, and such a process is carried out by memes, the units of cultural evolution.

A meme is an idea that reproduces itself like a parasite. When a meme enters a mind, it parasitically alters the mind's process so that a new goal of the mind is to propagate the meme to other minds. The difference between a virus and a meme is that a meme is not an aggregate of DNA molecules but a structured piece of information, a piece of information that forces the mind to help reproduce it. Memes are behind the spreading of cults, fashions, ideologies and songs. The main difference between memes and viruses is really the stuff they are made of: viruses are made of DNA, whereas memes are made of information patterns.

Actually, at this point, you, the reader of this book, might just have been infected by a meme, the meme of memes. You will tell a friend what a meme is, and he will tell someone else, and so forth. The concept of what a meme is will spread from friend to friend, and, if it is interesting to the people who absorb it, possibly evolve.

Memes can be considered forms of life, or at least they behave like forms of life. Memes behave in a very similar way to genes. Genes are biological replicators, memes are nonbiological replicators.

Memes form an ecosphere of ideas.

The mind can be viewed as a machine for copying memes, just like the body is a machine for copying genes.

The US philosopher Daniel Dennett goes as far as to suggest that memes may have created the mind, not the other way around; that the mind was created by culture, not the other way around. Consciousness may simply be a collection of memes that is implemented in the brain as a sort of software in a machine that evolved in nature. Meaning itself would then be an emergent product of the meaningless algorithm that carries out evolution.

What makes us a superior species is not anatomy (which is roughly identical to the anatomy of a chimpanzee) but an odd plasticity of the brain that makes is more vulnerable to memes than any other species' brain.  Humans are so “smart” because the human brain can be easily invaded by memes.

Just like genes use bodies as vehicles to spread and survive, so memes use minds as vehicles to spread and survive. Just like it is genes that drive evolution, it is memes that drive thought.

Memes are nonbiological replicators and they obey laws similar to the ones obeyed by biological replicators. There is one difference, though: that memes exhibit Lamarckian inheritance. Acquired characteristics can be passed on to future generations (ideas can be taught to children). This explains why ideas can evolve so much faster: Lamarckian evolutionism is "directed" and therefore much faster than Darwinian evolutionism.

A variation on memes was proposed by the US anthropologist Gregory Bateson. The mind is an aggregate of ideas. Ideas populate the mind and continuously evolve. Ideas evolve in a Darwinian fashion, the most useful ones surviving while useless ones decay and die away.  Thus Bateson views the mind as the theater of a natural selection and evolution of ideas. Our conscious life “is” that evolutionary process.

Dawkins also grounded his theory of memes in Cairns-Smith’s theory that self-replication originated in clay-crystals. According to Cairns-Smith, RNA came before DNA, and it was originally simply a passive element, but then eventually took over the self-replicating chore because it was more efficient than crystals;  and then evolved into today's DNA. Dawkins simply abstracted this idea.  A replicator needs to build a survival machine for itself (the body).  Indirectly, that survival machine opens new possibilities for self-replications, just like, accidentally, crystals invented a more efficient kind of self-replicator, RNA.  Dawkins thinks that we are now on the verge of a new genetic takeover, whereby "memes" will replace "genes" as the main self-replicating device.  Memes are patterns of information.  Their survival machines are brains, or, better, minds (Dawkins does not rule out that, for example, computers could act as survival machines for memes).

One can view the interaction between genes and memes at work in every family. No matter how much parents and children disagree on daily issues, parents program children to inherit the customs, traditions and beliefs of the “tribe”, and children become enthusiastic carriers of those memes. Christians are proud of being (having been raised) Christian, and Muslims are proud of being (having been raised) Muslims, and Italians of being Italian and Mexicans of being Mexican. It looks like genes create organisms whose function (or at least one of their functions) is to defend and propagate the culture of their parents. In a sense, genes program the body to reproduce the mental states of the parents and to pass them on to their own children. It is the interaction between genes and memes that accounts for the history of human civilization.


Back to the beginning of the chapter "Altruism" | Back to the index of all chapters