Fanciful Flights for a Sunday Morning – Gene vs. Meme Wars and does the Universe have a sense of humor?

Braden’s first CS Mentors – on the pier at Santa Cruz

I’ve been dialoging with the AI community a bit on Twitter lately. It’s only marginally productive for me, though I’ve had a couple of killer thoughts. The biggest thing is that the brain, for the most part, stores everything IN THE END, as linked narratives (thanks, Carlos Perez!) Parts basically float around in the (mostly) left side of the brain until they pass through the hippocampus, which serves kind of like a spinning wheel. It takes those fragments of memory-wool, and essentially creates the thread of autobiographical experience, and stashes that, wrapped on a little spool, on the right side of the brain.

The key takeaway is that experience may be the real generator of knowledge — but if you don’t have any fragments, you can’t expect much on the right side. This maps well with the stuff I’ve unpacked in the trauma literature. And yeah — I’ve been told that I need to check out Iain McGilchrist’s work. It’s next on the list.

One of the things I digested in my attempt to empathize with the AI world was looking at this video of a presentation, from the Kidd Lab (pun intended, or I certainly hope so!) where the researchers had tagged a laser to an infant’s head in an attempt to learn how a baby acquires information. It seems reasonable — the child points that laser around, kind of in ever-increasing circles, and that’s the way they expand their awareness. In what I would call a meta-linear fashion.


The director of the lab, Celeste Kidd, seems to be popular on the AI circuit, with her theories attempting to being harnessed by AI researchers in figuring out how to program AIs and ML algorithms.

I just watched one presentation, so maybe I’m just full of it. But nowhere in that presentation was there any mention of the intense learning environment a baby gets when interacting with its primary caregiver. Maybe it’s in another part of their work. But it sure wasn’t in that presentation. It’s that academic “empathy as a blindspot” thing. And considering an infant might look around for a fraction of the time it spends interacting with its mother/father, wouldn’t one think that the dominant mode be at least a little related to time spent?

And we do know what happens to the brains of babies that don’t get that caregiver interaction. They simply go bonkers. The videos I’ve seen of places like Romanian orphanages, with the babies standing up and rocking themselves, attempting to gain synchronization of their inner clocks without a caregiver are simply too depressing for me to go searching for.

Watching videos like this get me going, more along the lines of “why is this so hard?” — namely, why wouldn’t the researchers even mention empathy? Why is it such a blind spot?

Since it’s Sunday morning, I’ll be a little indulgent. What we’ve actually got going on is a universal conflict in coding information for complexity. In our world, we have two primary modes — genes and memes. Genes are interesting things, in that they’ve produced all sorts of cool things over the 4.5B years we’ve been on the planet — everything from Therapsids to Dimetrodons to T-Rexes to humans, and all sorts of weird monkeys the world over. Not to mention octopuses and squids. I could go on.

But genes count on information being expressed in ways that the individual carrying them has very limited agency in understanding. Genes are all about automatic choices. If you’re a cis-guy and you see a beautiful woman, you’re going to find a way to talk to her. And this isn’t a gender thing — I’m sure Brad Pitt gets lots of attention every time he walks through an airport. That behavior is naturally emergent, and while we may create elaborate justifications for it, its origins come from deep within our code. Partner selection and fitness runs the show for reproduction. And the bottom line is a person’s physical appearance. Much has been written on this — everything from quality of someone’s hair to whether they look like daddy,

But the genes have a vested interest in you NOT being aware. They’re the hardware, and they don’t want you to jump cross-platform to a new computer. They just don’t want you to know that you could. They’re COUNTING on keeping you in the dark. It takes a lot of reverse habituation to stop this behavior. Look at Follower counts on Twitter. If you’re a pretty woman, it’s not that hard to get your numbers up. Content be damned. Duh.

There are whole fields genes have devoted to themselves, besides the obvious ones. Sociobiology, for one, says the genes completely run the show. And E.O. Wilson was no dummy. There’s a 1000 examples of genes making us do stuff, compared to that one example where they don’t. And whole disciplines (here’s looking at you, anthropology and sociology) have devoted themselves to the idea that bonobos are the reason we do everything we do.

Except bonobos don’t build skyscrapers, and they likely never will, no matter how friendly they are. (And for those that have forgotten, bonobos are the VERY FRIENDLY ape…)

But to build skyscrapers, you don’t need genetic evolutionary information, other than as a scaffolding. You do need a computer/brain. But after that, it’s software all the way.

And if you believe me, that’s where the structural memetics come in. You need increasingly complex forms of changeable information architectures — and by changeable, I mean in the next couple of hours after you run that stress calculation again. You can’t wait a million years to find out.

It makes sense that genes have our back when it comes to awareness, or rather, very limited awareness. It actually DOESN’T PAY genetically over the long haul to let us have our own minds. Better to jump quickly and not over-think that snake in the tree, or lion in the grass. Or ponder Deleuze with your meta-modern friends. Run like hell back to the band, or you’re about to join the food chain in a less-than-eloquent fashion. And become a part of someone else’s genetic fitness experiment.

And it would strike me that genes would like brains that DON’T have the ability to know that they’re up there, capable of thinking their own thoughts and making their own decision. And carrying this even further, the last thing a genetic brain would want is an awareness of connection. JUST DO IT if it makes sense.

But for memetics, we need to understand how we connect, or we simply can’t unpack how we should reassemble. And while memetics loves the idea of laying out a master plan, the genes are screaming the fundamental unknowing of this, kind of like a monkey clinging desperately to your hat. It’s why mindfulness is so hard, and so few of us practice this in any meaningful way. We’re happy to tell others we meditated, but how many of us are really willing to admit some of the darker drivers to our personae?

It’s a cosmic war — genes vs. memes. Of course, both have their place. But we’re about to see, with this global warming thing, which one is going to win out. We’ve already seen the weakness of the genetic game the last time an asteroid hit 70 million years ago. Memetics have been sneaking up across the world for a while. And this Internet thingy is really giving genes a run for the money.

Maybe. Pop popcorn. It’s only going to get more interesting from here on out. I’m not one to anthropomorphize the Universe too much, but it certainly seems that She has a sense of humor.

3 thoughts on “Fanciful Flights for a Sunday Morning – Gene vs. Meme Wars and does the Universe have a sense of humor?

  1. Maybe it’s epigenetics that connectes genes to memes.

    It turns out there is little genetic determinism, outside of basic traits we all share and a few extremely rare genetic diseases. Epigenetics has been shown to carry over multiple generations and this could be a carrier for memes and other cultural features. Maybe this is what some call cross-generational trauma, although it would also apply to cross-generational privilege, nurturing, etc. Also, epigenetics is not merely some broad contributing factor for it can determine behavior in specific ways.

    In one study, mice were shocked by the cage being electrified after having a cherry blossom scent sprayed. Unsurprisingly, they jumped when shocked and exhibited the learned behavior of jumping in response to the scent alone without any shock following. But what was interesting is that the offspring for several generations kept jumping in response to that exact scent, even though none of them had ever been shocked.


    1. By the way, recent research shows that diet also has epigenetic effects. So, the diet one generation eats gets passed on not only in nutrients from mother to child or in the food the mother cooks but also in how it alters the epigenetics expression of genes. This is particularly shown with the epigenetic influence of ketosis.


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