Information lies at the heart of everything we do. We are surrounded by information technology and it allows us to look at life with different eyes.
In fact, the development of information, could, it be argued, represent a form of evolution and driving that evolution is the remarkable ability of the idea to grow and replicate. Genetecists already talk of the biosphere: an entity composed of all the earth’s life-forms, teeming with information, replicating and evolving. Jacques Monod, the Parisian biologist who shared a Nobel Prize in 1965 for working out the role of messenger RNA in the transfer of genetic information, proposed that just as the biosphere stands above the world of nonliving matter, so an “abstract kingdom” rises above the biosphere.
And the occupiers of the kingdom, he said, were ideas, writing: “Ideas have retained some of the properties of organisms. Like them, they tend to perpetuate their structure and to breed; they too can fuse, recombine, segregate their content; indeed they too can evolve, and in this evolution selection must surely play an important role.” Ideas have “spreading power,” he said—“infectivity, as it were”. For instance, an example of an infectious idea might be a religious ideology that gains sway over a large group of people, showing a remarkable ability to replicate and spread and develop a life of its own.
The American neurophysiologist Roger Sperry, who espouses similar beliefs, argues that ideas are “just as real” as the neurons they inhabit. Ideas have power, he says, helping to create new ideas that interact with each other. Philosopher Richard Dawkins drew his own conclusions from the evolution of genes to the evolution of ideas. “I think that a new kind of replicator has recently emerged on this very planet,” he said near the end of his first book, The Selfish Gene, in 1976. “It is staring us in the face. It is still in its infancy, still drifting clumsily about in its primeval soup, but already it is achieving evolutionary change at a rate that leaves the old gene panting far behind.” That “soup” is human culture; the vector of transmission is language, and the spawning ground is the brain.”
Richard Dawkins called this bodiless replicator the meme, his most memorable invention. “Memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain via a process which, in the broad sense, can be called imitation,” he wrote. So what are we to make of this? Do we as humans have overall control over the world in which we live or are we prey to ideas which stand independently, able to evolve and replicate in ways we cannot control. Certainly, the advance of information technology makes it easier than ever for ideas to proliferate. Maybe those doom-mongers who complain that technology controls us, rather than the other way round, are right. Maybe we have created something that we cannot control and that the idea is finally waiting to ascend to the throne.